Article written by Annie Hoey, USI VP for Equality and Citizenship
When we think of students, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t exactly an image of a political stalwart. Society tends to think of students as being apathetic, preferring to stay at home and play computer games and eating last nights pizza. In reality the current student cohort is more active than ever. Students study for long and hard hours to secure a good degree. Many students also work to pay their way through college. Every year thousands upon thousands of euros are raised for charities the length and breadth of the country. Students throw themselves into college life, joining clubs and societies, not only for the social aspect or to look good on a CV, but to broaden their horizons and to get everything out of their precious few years at college before the harsh reality of the ‘real world’ sets in. However, there is still the sense that students don’t care about political matters and that students are apathetic about getting engaged.
But what we saw over the past couple of weeks has shattered the notion that students are politically apathetic. Students and young people took the marriage equality referendum by storm, tearing up footpaths on the canvassing trail and leading the way for a new generation of politically engaged students, eager to make a contribution to how this country is run. But how did it all start?
In 2012, at the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) Annual Congress, a motion calling for the implementation of marriage equality for LGBT peoples was unanimously passed. And thus the ‘Students for Marriage Equality’ campaign was born which saw the first two years the campaign focused on awareness raising and mobilising students around the issue of marriage equality. USI made a submission on behalf of students to the Constitutional Convention, outlining the student perspective on marriage equality and why it is important to us. At Pink Training, our annual LGBT training weekend (and the biggest event of its kind in Europe), there were workshops on lobbying TDs and political parties about marriage equality, along with workshops on running marriage equality campaigns. Rainbow weddings took college campuses by storm.
Students were getting ready for the referendum campaign.
In 2014 it became obvious that a referendum in 2015 was on the cards. Students for Marriage Equality had a presence at Prides around the country, March for Marriage and Rainbow Weeks. At #PinkTraining14 there was a massive focus on marriage equality - what students wanted from the campaign and how we were going to mobilise. Here we unleashed our campaign hashtag on the world: #MakeGráTheLaw. So simple! So catchy! So effective! Kudos must of course go to the creator of the slogan, Siona Cahill from Maynooth Students’ Union.
Students’ Unions, LGBT societies and USI ran massive voter registration drives around the country. Online campaigning, hashtags, Twibbons and Facebook likes aren’t much use if they don’t translate into votes! Between November 2014 and May 2015, nearly 28,000 students were added to the register, with thousands more handing in the forms themselves. Students were taking this campaign very seriously and weren’t willing to let the opportunity to make history sail by.
In January 2015, USI and students officially launched their Students for Marriage Equality campaign. We had a dedicated website, voteforlove.ie, built and began campaigning and mobilising in earnest. Students in Trinity College Dublin launched the #RingYourGranny campaign, encouraging students to ring and talk to family members about the upcoming referendum. Students in NUIG braved Croagh Patrick in wedding attire to raise awareness of the importance of marriage equality. USI coordinated a world record attempt in Smithfield, where 540 people braved the torrential weather and came together to make the largest human formation of a love heart. Pride flags took pride of place (bah-dum-dum-tisch) on campuses across the country, with SUs proudly declaring that they stand with their LGBT students and want a more inclusive and egalitarian society for all people.
Students knew what was at stake and were ready to take on the fight.
As the referendum drew closer, students moved out from their campuses and joined the nationwide campaign with zeal. Students took to the streets and canvassed every evening after college. Weekends were spent convincing family, neighbours and complete strangers that marriage equality was important and that we need to live in a society where love is cherished and valued. Tweets and Facebook statuses came aplenty, followed by the now obligatory #MakeGráTheLaw sign-off.
In the last week of the campaign, we knew that moblisation was key. Where are you going to be on May 22nd? Do you know where your polling station is? How are you getting there? Thus came our other hashtag: #VoterMotor. The idea was simple: travelling to your polling station and have room in your car to bring a few others? Or are you in desperate need of a lift from Tralee to Cavan so as to be able to vote? Then lob it up online and let social media do the rest! Thousands of lifts were offered and requested, with the kindness of people shining through in their willingness to help a fellow citizen get to ballot box. Students were determined to get to the polling station, no matter how they were going to get there!
On May 23rd we were all done. There could be no more flyers handed out, pleading statuses put up, or any more doors knocked on. All we could do was wait. When the news began to filter from the tallies that we were indeed going to have marriage equality, we were overjoyed. And when the news came that not only was this the highest turnout of any referendum in Irish history, it was also the highest turnout of the youth vote, we were ecstatic. The youth and students of Ireland had come together and made a difference. We had mobilised canvassed and campaigned for a better future for ourselves. We took on the notion that students were apathetic and didn’t care and we tore it apart. Students were the agents of change in the marriage equality referendum.
There has been a political awakening amongst students since the marriage equality referendum. We have the bug for canvassing and campaigning. We have proven to ourselves that we can make a positive difference. We #MadeGráTheLaw.
This article and it's USI campaign images were kindly contributed by Annie Hoey, USI VP of Equality and Citizenship for which we are grateful. You can follow Annie on twitter @hoeyannie.
You can find further information about the Union of Student in Ireland and the work that they do through their website here.