“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. … [These men and women] ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” The Supreme Court of the United States, Obergefell v. Hodges, June 26, 2015


From left to right: Denise Charlton, Social Intelligence Associates; Dr. Maureen Gaffney; Dr. Gráinne Healy, Social Intelligence Associates and Co-Director of Yes Equality; Brian Sheehan, Executive Director of GLEN and Co-Director of Yes Equality


The Campaigning for Change Summer School took place from the 18th to 20th July 2016, in the Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel, just outside Dublin. It was organised by Social Intelligence Associates; Social Change Initiative; and the LGBT Helpline. It focused on the extraordinary coalition that campaigned for marriage equality in Ireland that culminated in the people voting emphatically to allow same sex couples to marry in May 2015.

It was a pleasure to listen to such an array of experts, who had played vital roles in the marriage equality campaigns in Ireland and the United States, share their experiences and achievements with about 100 attendees over 3 days.

I was interested in attending at the summer school to find out what lessons might be learnt and applied to campaigns in Northern Ireland. There are campaigns for marriage equality and reform of the laws on abortion on both sides of the border. However, the learning might also be relevant and applicable to campaigns to secure the creation and implementation of an anti-poverty strategy, and to secure the fulfilment of the commitments arising from the peace agreements more generally. I also wanted to learn how legal challenges sat within a campaign more broadly, in bringing about social change.


“The dazzle of the impossible blazed across the threshold.”

Seamus Heaney, Station Island

A large part of the first day focused on how victory in the referendum was achieved and how those voters that were sympathetic but not yet convinced to vote Yes – the ‘million in the middle’ – were persuaded of the case for equality.  I was struck by the power and resonance of people’s personal stories – stories from those who were affected the most by the then laws – in arguing in favour of law reform. It required great personal courage to have those conversations, whether with a neighbour or friends, or with their local MP (TD).

The campaign itself was an interesting combination of ‘traditional’ methods (canvassing door to door; posters; radio/TV debates; talking to your TD) and the ‘new’ (social media; websites; podcasts; video uploads for the ‘phone your Granny’ campaign for example), with the aim of reaching out to and engaging with as many people as possible.  However, there was no substitute for the hard work of canvassing people on their doorsteps. Speakers noted there was a high correlation between those who voted and those who were canvassed.

An insight which came from the early discussions was the importance of not only what the message was, but who ‘delivered’ the message. Having a wide and diverse range of speakers was an extremely important way of reaching as many different parts of the community as possible. Although society might expect LGB and T activists to speak out in favour of marriage equality, many others from all walks of life also spoke in favour of the ‘Yes’ campaign. For example:

  • Athletes and TV and media personalities.
  • Sectoral and professional groups – doctors; lawyers; teachers – in favour of marriage equality.
  • The campaign asked people to address the question as family members. ‘As a father/mother; son/daughter; brother/sister, how do you feel about marriage equality?’

In the afternoon, the participants broke into one of four workshops, each dedicated to a smaller element of the overall strategy. I attended the session on leading and building a campaign. I particularly enjoyed hearing from Evan Wolfson, who played a key role in the Freedom to Marry Campaign in the USA. This campaign culminated in a momentous victory for marriage equality through the 2015 Supreme Court case of Obergefell v Hodges.

It was incredibly insightful to hear Evan talk about ‘the ladder of clarity’, and how the more you can embrace each rung, the more successful you can be. The rungs of the ladder are:

  1. Clarity of goal: What is ‘winning’?
  2.  Clarity of strategy.
  3.  Clarity of ‘vehicles’: programmes/resources needed to fulfil strategy
  4.  Clarity of action steps

Evan summed up the key elements of leadership as being clarity and hope.

Moninne Griffith, Director of the LGB and T youth organisation, BeLong To, discussed key aspects of the referendum campaign:

  1. It was vitally important to have paid staff working on the campaign.
  2. That leadership was in place before the issue assumed nationwide importance.
  3. To look after your base of core supporters, and never take them for granted.

In the question and answer session, Evan observed that what we need to be thinking about in our own campaigns is: ‘How do we reach out to hearts and minds – to engage, change and alter opinions?’

The panel also placed great emphasis on the importance of fundraising at different stages of the campaign. Various speakers talked of how difficult and time consuming it can be, but that fundraising is of paramount importance.

Some speakers also urged caution against complacency following the successful campaign for marriage equality. Two major points raised were:

  1. Marriage equality did not happen after 100 days’ campaigning. In some quarters, the work had been carried on for decades before the goal was achieved.
  2.  Although success in the referendum was a great achievement, there is still much to do before full equality for everyone in society is achieved.

Such reminders were extremely useful in focusing minds to learn and to adapt the lessons learnt from the marriage equality campaign.



From left to right: Declan Meehan, Cara-Friend; David Hawkins, The PILS Project; Fidelma Carolan, UNISON; Claire Moore, ICTU; Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International; Claire McLoughlin, Rainbow Project.


“Sometimes there are days like this, when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”

President Barack Obama, following the US Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v Hodges.

The second day began with a broader discussion on where the victory in Ireland sits within the position of marriage equality globally. Although the goal was the same in campaigns throughout the world, it was necessary to shape the strategy according to the circumstances within a specific country. Pursuing a number of different tracks at the same time meant that the campaign was never ‘stymied’ – if a difficulty was encountered on one of the tracks, you just moved on to the next one.

Evan Wolfson spoke again, this time to all the attendees in the course of this panel session. The US Freedom to Marry organisation brought together 3 key ingredients:

  1. Movement.
  2. Strategy.
  3. Campaign.

The key points of the strategy were:

  1. Grow the majority.
  2. Win more States – not all, but a ‘critical mass’ of states.
  3. Advance the issue of marriage equality at a federal level.

The audience also heard from Thalia Zapatos, who was Director of Research and Messaging in the Freedom to Marry campaign. She pinpointed some important lessons that could be applied to most campaigns:

  1. Start a public education campaign early – perhaps 12 – 18 months before a ballot (referendum) or a court case.
  2. Use values that resonate in communities.
  3. Challenge people to be their better selves.
  4. Set a welcoming tone. When you are attacked, it is easy to attack back. However, you must recognise that people have legitimate questions that need to be answered.
  5. Break down stereotypes through images as well as words.
  6. Speak to your values.
  7. Tell the personal stories.
  8. Model the journey to resolve conflict. It is important to show people that they are allowed to change their minds.
  9. Introduce unlikely messengers.

Evan stated that the next campaigns for equality in the U.S. are against transphobia and for the rights of both young and elderly LGB and T communities.



From left to right: Cathy Madden, PSG Communications and strategic communications advisor to Yes Equality; Dr. Donal Mulligan, School of Communications, Dublin City University; Craig Dwyer, Social Media Manager, Newstalk and Social Media Officer with Yes Equality; Ursula Halligan, Political Editor, TV3; Finian Murphy, Brand Strategist, Agility; Thalia Zapatos, Director of Research and Messaging, Freedom to Marry

An important element of the campaign was the willingness of those involved to engage with the concerns that people had regarding marriage equality. The ‘Yes’ campaign listened to those concerns and tried to address them however they could.

I found a discussion regarding legal action, and the risks involved in a court making a negative ruling, particularly interesting. Before litigation is contemplated, it is very important to be prepared and to do initial public education work. If you don’t carry out these preparatory steps, you ‘roll the dice’ on litigation. While a loss in a courtroom might not be fatal, it is extremely advisable not to take reckless risks.

One of the highly significant elements of the campaign was that it was led by NGOs and society at large – and not by political parties. The parties almost assumed a support role. They got information out to their members at a very local level. They also facilitated debate and discussion, so that people who had reservations could voice them, and for those in favour of marriage equality to address and allay those fears.

The importance of personal testimony was perhaps most powerfully demonstrated on the second day. Ursula Halligan is the political editor for the Irish independent television channel, TV3. About a week before the referendum, she wrote in a moving and personal way about growing up in a deeply conservative Ireland in the 1970s. Publically for the first time, she came out as being lesbian, and in support of a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. Following publication of the piece, Ursula had to step down from the TV3 coverage of the referendum. It was very striking to hear her talk about how facts and emotions go hand in hand. She also underlined that simply by being who we are, we are facts ourselves.

The attendees then broke into another series of workshops. I went to the workshop on perhaps the next campaign for constitutional reform in Ireland – repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which prohibits the termination of pregnancy in all circumstances. It was fascinating to hear how the lessons of the marriage equality referendum are being used for a very different campaign.

The similarities and differences between marriage equality and repealing the Eighth Amendment campaigns were discussed at an earlier panel discussion. Thalia Zapatos thought that the key elements for this campaign will be to:

  1. Tell the personal stories, to make the issue less abstract.
  2. Create empathy with women.
  3. Carry out research to identify those people who are not as entrenched in their views, and to find out how to engage with them.

Some of the lessons being applied to the Repeal the Eight campaign include:

  1. Using the positive language of protecting and respecting rights.
  1. NGOs collaborating in advance of the Citizens’ Convention, and therefore a referendum itself.
  2. Broadening this initial coalition – bringing in trade unions; sectoral organisations; political parties, etc.
  3. Occupying the lobbying space vacated following the marriage equality referendum.
  4. Informing and educating people on what the Eighth Amendment is and what that amendment means in reality, at an early stage of the campaign.

At the end of another intense but rewarding day, Senator David Norris, who has been a gay and civil rights activist for decades, addressed the audience. He shared a number of anecdotes from his campaigning and political careers. We also heard from barrister and political analyst, Noel Whelan BL. Noel was a strategic advisor to the Yes Equality campaign.


“It is not the Constitution that has changed, but the knowledge of what it means to be gay or lesbian.”

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby in Kitchen v. Herbert, which struck down Utah’s marriage ban in December 2013

The final day began with the audience hearing from two very important campaigners. Dr. Katherine Zappone and Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan had married in Canada and came to live in Ireland. They wanted their Canadian marriage recognised under Irish law and applied for recognition in 2006. After the government refused the application, they had to take a legal challenge to the High Court.  Although their court case was unsuccessful, it raised considerable awareness of the issue of marriage equality, and was one of the steps that led ultimately to legalising same sex marriage. As with other speakers, they placed great emphasis on the human element – telling their story.



From left to right: Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan; Dr. Katherine Zappone TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs; Denise Charlton, Social Intelligence Associates

Discussions turned to the issue of alliance and coalition building. There were organisations who wanted to get involved at the very beginning of the campaign, and it was vital to inform and empower these people. Equally, there were organisations who for entirely valid reasons, only wanted to engage with the campaign at a later stage. It was just as important to allow these organisations the space and time needed before they could become fully involved. Seamus Dooley, board member of the organisation GLEN, gave some of the most illuminating – and difficult – advice to follow:

  • It’s OK to have an unpublished thought.
  • Sometimes, it’s better to ignore people.
  • Use your energy wisely.
  • Respect those with different opinions.
  • Don’t be bitter.

The final session of the conference related to keeping children and families at the heart of the marriage equality debate. The campaign dealt both with LGB and T parents bringing up children and LGB and T children themselves. In a large number of cases these children were ‘bringing their families with them’ in the context of the debate on marriage equality.

A feature of the ‘No’ campaign was the almost constant reference to children, and issues of surrogacy. The ‘Yes’ campaign countered such arguments by obtaining evidence from representative and sectoral bodies that deal with children. Just as importantly, they allowed children to speak for themselves.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

The closing remarks at the end of a remarkable 3 days were delivered by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald TD.

On a personal level, the most striking elements of the marriage equality campaign were:

  1. That the campaign began well over a year before the referendum itself.
  2. The sheer scale and sophistication of the campaign’s organisation and structure.
  3. That leadership on the campaign was provided by civil society – not by politicians.
  4. The ability of the campaign to engage with and mobilise all the different sections of society was crucial to its success.
  5. The preparatory work and research carried out at the earliest stages of the campaign informed the work of the campaign.
  6. In particular, this research identified key values and allowed the campaign to speak to them and engage with them.
  7. The power and importance of people telling their personal stories.
  8. The work and dedication needed to co-ordinate communication of campaign messages.
  9. The importance of having different ‘messengers’ to reach all the groupings in a community.
  10. The combination of ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ campaign tactics and techniques to make a successful campaign.
  11. The importance of fundraising, and putting in place paid employees to carry out the main tasks at the heart of a campaign.

It was a privilege to have heard from so many inspirational speakers over the course of the summer school. I am very grateful to the organisers for bringing together such a rich and varied line up of speakers. It is to be hoped that the learning gathered during the summer school can be harnessed to make marriage equality a reality for people in Northern Ireland, as it was made a reality by and for the people of Ireland in May 2015.


David Hawkins is the Development Officer at the Public Interest Litigation Support (PILS) Project. To find out more about the Project, please go to www.pilsni.org. You can also contact their offices on 028 9099 4258 or follow them on Twitter, @PILSni.