The Other Guy and Me

Ireland is conducting an experiment: an assembly of one hundred citizens gathers to discuss important topics and influence parliament. Politics has come alive – and with it, a friendship between two men, who at first felt nothing but prejudice toward the other.

Finbarr O’Brien’s unhappy life, which has lasted 62 years to date, has known moments of beauty as well. The birth of his two sons. Afternoons with his grandkids. Even the day he learned that the man, whose name he does not speak, killed himself. But the best time of his life, Finbarr O’Brien says, was different. It lasted for just over a year and began on an autumn day in 2012 that couldn’t have been more normal. As if the unlikely immensity that lay in store for him had a keen sense of irony.

That day, as on any other workday, Finbarr drives his van 110 kilometers over the rolling green hills and narrow stone bridges around the small, southern Irish city of Macroom, making stops at 540 mailboxes in total. After delivering the last of the day’s packages and letters, he breaks for a coffee on his way home. He’s sitting alone at a table, when a woman enters the café.

He knows her, but then, he knows almost everyone here. O’Brien is a good mailman. Not the kind to snoop in people’s postcards. Rather, he’s the kind of mailman people are eager to share their news with. The kind they tell where the spare key is hidden, in case they’re out. O’Brien knows whose car is whose here, who is sick with what, where the kids have gone to study, and what brand of food the dogs get.

As for the woman who enters the café that day, he knows that her name is Caroline, and that she works for a polling institute, or something. She comes over to his table. Finbarr, she says, would you be interested in going to Dublin one weekend a month for about a year, to consult on a new constitution for Ireland?

He laughs.

No, she says, she’s serious.

Finbarr knows what the constitution is. As for what’s supposedly wrong with it, he’s not so sure. He asks what any of this has to do with him.

She was tasked with finding participants for a citizens’ assembly—an experiment the Irish government wanted to conduct. This assembly was intended for normal Irish citizens, she said, people like you and me. He didn’t need any experience. He wouldn’t be paid. Travel costs would be reimbursed. Was he interested?

At this time, Ireland—like many western democracies—is suffering a financial crisis that is morphing into a crisis of confidence. Many Irish citizens feel a sense of injustice with regard to their political system and the country’s elite. Whereas other governments ignore, discredit, and prevent their critics from gaining power, however, Ireland opts for the opposite approach.

Why not let the people participate for once? What if the people were allowed to help make the decisions—and not just about incidentals, but about some of the most pressing topics in Ireland today? About reforming voting rights. About dismantling the senate. And why not take on one of the most contentious questions of all: whether to legalize gay marriage?

The constitution forbids same-sex marriage, and the Catholic church—a mighty force in Ireland—wants it to stay that way. But times have changed, something that even the conservative government recognizes. It was time to take a look at things. If the administration were to do it themselves, someone would be displeased, whether the church, LGBT organizations, or the opposition. But if the people were to decide, the legitimacy of the outcome would be unassailable.

Referendums are ruled out. There’s too much anger among the populace, and there’s nothing like a referendum to fan the flames, something the government in Dublin realizes a good four years before the Brexit insanity begins next door. No, these resolutions should be well thought out, balanced, and smart.

And with that, Ireland ventures to run this experiment. The plan is to gather one hundred citizens, randomly selected from the electorate, but in such a way that the overall group is truly representative, including both women and men, old and young, upper and working class, and people from urban areas and those from the country. They will consult on all of these important topics. They require no prior knowledge, as they will be given time and background information, allowing the uninformed to learn, the angry to calm down, and the misguided to be redirected. In this manner, the rage will be washed away from the debate like gravel and sand, till all that’s left is gold—a balanced, representative opinion, supported by facts, on what Ireland’s future should hold.

Sure, things could go wrong. But there’s a precaution in place. The assembly is not allowed free rein to make these decisions. It merely makes recommendations, which parliament is not required to accept. A polling company will be hired to find participants. One adjustment does, however, manage to find its way through. The group will no longer comprise one hundred citizens, but just 66. One third of the spots will now go to politicians.

And so, a short time later, in the little city of Macroom, some 250 kilometers southwest of Dublin, where it’s green and rains a lot, a woman named Caroline walks up to a coffee-drinking postal worker named Finbarr O’Brien, a stocky man with a round face and shy laugh, who thinks this is all a joke at first—and declines the offer.

I’m not educated and don’t know the first thing about politics. The most interesting thing that happens out here in the countryside is when a horse gallops through town or something. All I’ve done in life is drive a lorry. Hanging half sides of beef, timber, that kind of thing. I’ve been delivering mail for several years now. I never went to university, just a few years of schooling. What use would I be in Dublin? It would be too highbrow for me, I’d make a fool of myself. That’s what I thought back then.

If you visit Finbarr O’Brien five years later and arrive half an hour early, he will still be there before you, sitting in an armchair in the hotel lobby he suggested as a meeting place. He shakes your hand, oddly firm and hesitant at once, and looks uncertain, but not leery, and says that up to this very moment, he thought the whole interview thing was a joke, a phone prank played by someone with a German number. He wonders why anyone from abroad would be interested in him.

There are many correct responses to his curiosity, but perhaps the most important is that his story contains an answer to a question plaguing minds from Washington to Berlin: how can we revive people’s trust in politics?

Finbarr O’Brien was the Irish version of the angry, old white man. It’s quite possible he would have voted for Trump, were he American. Or for the AfD, were he German. He hated politicians, found them downright disgusting. The way they promised voters the sun, moon, and stars from the sky during their campaign, then seemed to forget all about it after election day! The way they kissed babies on the trail, then stopped greeting their constituents! How important they thought they were, with their degrees and diplomas and letters after their names!

Today he owns a special edition of the Irish constitution, bound in leather. Sometimes he looks inside and tries to decipher the signatures. On the inside cover, the title page, around the table of contents—wherever there was once blank space is now filled with scribbles. Many are from politicians. Several have added notes: “It was nice to meet you.” – “Lovely working with you.” – “Thank you!”

In the café that autumn day in 2012, Caroline gives Finbarr her number. Should he change his mind. He receives a dressing-down from his eldest son that evening. Dad, he says, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and besides, you can’t complain about politicians, then pass up something like this! His son is right.

When Caroline answers the phone, Finbarr hopes she’s found someone else. She hasn’t.

Just a few weeks later, on a day in December, Finbarr climbs out of a taxi and looks up at the façade of Dublin Castle, which emanates a sense of monarchic splendor. Kings once resided here. In modern-day Ireland, it serves as the site for presidential inaugurations. Today, it’s where the prime minister will call the citizens’ assembly to order. Finbarr is scared.

Everything is enormous inside, rooms, curtains, lights. The paintings tell stories he doesn’t know. He enters a magnificent hall containing row upon row of chairs. He would prefer sitting in the back, but his hearing isn’t great, so if he sat back there, he may as well have stayed at home. He moves toward the front.

Video recordings show him seated in the second row, close to the front but on the outer left-hand side, as though he were still trying to maximize the distance between himself and the action. He’s wearing a checkered short-sleeve shirt, and once, when the camera pans over the audience, he can be seen scratching his head.

He doesn’t hang on to anything the head of state says. But then a white-bearded man addresses the crowd and introduces himself as Tom Arnold; he’s a prominent economist, who has been appointed chairman of the citizens’ assembly. There are 66 citizens, 33 politicians, and Tom Arnold—one hundred participants. Arnold says that the Irish no longer trusted the country’s elite. Very true, Finbarr thinks. Arnold says that they were here to preserve democracy, then quotes the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and says, “The fathers of our constitution did a good job in 1937. Now it’s our turn.”

Finbarr has goosebumps.

Everyone in the hall applauds—the prime minister, the speaker of parliament, representatives and ministers, the many people Finbarr doesn’t know, and Finbarr himself. What in God’s name is he doing here?

A month later, on a Saturday morning in late January of 2013, Finbarr studies a bulletin board in a hotel to the north of Dublin. He finds his name. Table four. This is the first workshop, where they will be discussing electoral reform. Next time, it will be whether to reduce the presidential term. In three months, whether to legalize same-sex marriage.

Finbarr enters a huge conference room decorated in kelly green, cameras set up in the back, a stage up front, and big round tables in between. A few people sit here and there, but table four, near the front, is empty. Finbarr doesn’t like arriving late, which means he often arrives early. He takes a seat.

Moments later, a young man approaches the table. Two piercings glint in his lip, and his head is shaved on the left and right, the hair on top sticking straight up. Finbarr can see that the man has put on eye makeup and painted his fingernails, each one a different color of the rainbow. This man is gay, Finbarr thinks—and the feeling in his chest, which was largely one of excitement, is supplanted by a familiar, overpowering sensation. Panic.

My first thought was, I’m going to throw him out the window. My thoughts were out of control. In my mind, I was back in my childhood room, nine, ten years old. As clearly as this man’s pierced face appeared before me in person, I could see a different man in my mind’s eye, his necktie perfectly tied, and I smelled his smoker’s breath. That was many years ago, still it felt like yesterday. He was a friend of my parents’, and when he came to visit, they always asked: Staying the night? Every time, I hoped he would say no. He rarely said no. Then he came into my room, for almost two years, over and over. I wished the house would collapse and bury us all.

Young Finbarr endures the abuse. He never talks about it, but the thoughts race through his head. During this period, the child’s brain weaves two things together.

Men who feel sexually attracted to those of the same sex.

Violence against children.

The conclusion he reaches is inevitable: gay men are pedophiles. Although he doesn’t learn these words until much later, the notion is burned into his mind during childhood, silent and undisturbed, because Finbarr never tells anyone what the man does to him. Not even his parents. He would have gotten smacked, he says, and they wouldn’t have believed him, because the man was like a god in their household.

Of course it’s all too much for him, much too much, and as a teenager he starts to drink, often to oblivion. He avoids people and loses his cool whenever a man touches him, even if it’s by accident. In the same way a loud noise in everyday life can transport some veterans back to the battlefield long after the war has ended, all it takes for Finbarr is the feeling of male skin on male skin, and before he knows it, he’s already thrown the first punch. To this day, he’s unable to hug another man.

Once he’s old enough, he sometimes makes the hour-long drive to Cork, where the man supposedly lives. Then he walks the streets for hours, looking for him.

If I’d seen him, I’d have beaten him to death.

Finbarr becomes a truck driver, because there isn’t much interaction with others on the job. At one point, he puts a rope around his neck and jumps. He must have been about twenty. If things had worked out, he says, he wouldn’t be here. But the rope snaps and merely damages his larynx, giving him a voice as hoarse as a drinker’s after a nightlong bender.

When Finbarr hears that the man has killed himself, he decides to destroy the grave. But standing before it, not even a kilometer away from his house, he just shakes his head. Many years have passed, but the man lives on in Finbarr’s mind, always there somehow, always a threat.

Imagine you cut your arm, and you get stitches. The wound itches and itches, and all you want to do is scratch it. I’ve had that feeling for fifty years in a spot I can’t get at. There isn’t some little door in the back of my head that I can open and reach in.

Finbarr gets married, never tells his wife. He watches his sons grow up, never tells them. For decades, no one is given the opportunity to correct the belief he has clung to since childhood. Gays have got no business being out there in the world—there’s just one place they belong, and that’s six feet underground.

He is nearly fifty the first time this poisonous thought is challenged. A therapist, to whom his doctor has sent him, explains the difference between homosexuality and pedophilia. Simple as this may be, it’s a revelation to him. He wants to believe her, but it’s difficult.

There’s something else the therapist teaches him. Whenever he starts panicking, she says, he should lean back and look around, taking everything in. Then, he should describe what he sees, the color of the walls, what’s in the pictures hanging there, the people in the room, their appearance, their clothing, and that, she says, will bring him back to the present from the past, to a place of security from a place of pain.

It works. He uses the trick all the time. It feels like he has finally found a way to scratch his itch and provide relief, however fleeting.

Finbarr thinks he’s ready, then, when he discovers that one of the topics up for debate in this convention is same-sex marriage. He’s curious, even. He has never knowingly met a gay person, not since the abuse, and maybe the man back then wasn’t even gay, but just a pedophile—since learning the difference, he’s no longer sure.

But then it’s late January of 2013, and Finbarr is feeling somewhat lost, sitting here in this huge hotel, his head full of half-understood voting regulations—the stated focus of this weekend-long workshop, the first following the opening ceremony—when all of a sudden, he couldn’t care less. All of a sudden, he sees this man, piercings and fingernails and what have you, and the panic immediately begins to swell in his chest.

Lean back, look around.

Big space, wood-paneled walls, brown-and-beige-patterned carpeting, people pouring into the room.

The man with the piercings sits down across from him, and Finbarr has to concentrate hard to ignore him.

Really? This is the first chap I meet here? I saw him looking at my fingernails, which clearly made him uncomfortable. I’d probably overdone it with the gay look. Mohawk, eyeliner, fingernails—I suppose I could’ve gone with less. I looked at him, and he stared off into space. So I thought, okay, gentlemen’s agreement, you don’t look at me, I don’t look at you, and besides, we don’t need to introduce ourselves, your nametag reads Finbarr O’Brien, and mine says Chris Lyons. I could see it all clearly, anyway: older Irishman, I’d spent my whole life fighting against these people and their values, repeatedly having to say, you know, I’m not a pervert, I’m a person whose life has value. Even my mother thought I was a pedophile when I came out to her at age 17. It’s not uncommon in that generation. Probably because everyone pretended homosexuality didn’t exist, and it was only ever discussed within a single context: whenever a bloke puts his hands on a boy. The two things have nothing to do with each other, of course, but loads of people don’t understand that. My coming out destroyed our family life. My father drove me back to university in Cork and told me never to come home. Nobody was to find out about the disgrace I had brought to the family. There were other gay people in Cork, which was good. What wasn’t good, was that outside the one pub you could go to as a gay man, the lads were always waiting. They filled bin bags with glass and threw them at us, and one of them got me so bad once, it cut the back of my head, and we laughed it off, ha ha. I was attacked again. It was just sad, Cork has the highest suicide rate among young men in the whole country.

Chris Lyons is 26 in autumn of 2012 when a friend’s mother, who works at a polling company, emails him and asks: Would you like to be part of this?

His sadness has since morphed into activism. He’s enraged. Ireland gets one last chance, he says at the time. Either he is granted full rights—he wants to be allowed to marry and adopt children, and should anything ever happen to him, God forbid, these children should inherit his belongings. Or, if this does not become reality within the next two years, he has decided he’ll leave. He has already looked at houses in Canada.

I didn’t travel to Dublin to ask: May I please be allowed to marry? I went there to scream: Get out of my way already! The convention would determine whether I’d be staying in Ireland. And I wanted everyone there to know it. In order for that to happen, they had to realize that I’m gay, which is why I looked so cliché that first day—I would never walk around like that normally. The moment I arrived, my confidence evaporated. There were hardly any young people, lots of old Ireland, and I walked through the room and started feeling scared, then I found my table, and there was Finbarr.

In a way, Finbarr O’Brien and Chris Lyons can’t have had a worse first encounter at the convention. To either man, the other person awakens their individual trauma within seconds, when they’re already in a situation that makes them feel uneasy and vulnerable. They sit facing one another in silence, then the table begins to fill.

A woman sat down next to me, and I asked her who she was, and she says: What do you mean, you don’t know who I am? Apparently she was a politician. Then we began with introductions. I don’t remember what Finbarr said, but my general impression was that everyone was far more mature than me, adults with careers and houses and cars. I was the pup that had got lost. When my turn came, I was so anxious, I didn’t know what to say. So I said what I was thinking: that I felt out of place. That I probably wouldn’t have the confidence to stay. That I was scared. Across from me, Finbarr started nodding vigorously.

Chris said exactly what I was feeling! You would have thought the other people did this every day. Chris and I were different. It was strange, he looked like what I’d always thought a gay man would look like, but what he was saying was so honest and real.

I could see that my words were resonating with Finbarr, so I kept talking and said I didn’t know why I was here, among all these important people. He practically climbed over the table, he was in such total agreement. Then he said: I feel the same as Chris. It was one of those aha moments in my life. I decided, okay, I’ll be spending my weekends here with Finbarr. I don’t care if he’s homophobic. I’ll take care of that later.

In a way, Finbarr O’Brien and Chris Lyons can’t have had a better first encounter at the convention. Finbarr and Chris don’t know it yet, but hidden behind their differences are many similarities.

During the first tea break, they engage in a bit of small talk. At lunch they sit next to each other. At dinner, they laugh about what happened that afternoon, when the topic was voting rights, and experts were giving presentations with complicated formulas and numbers and graphs, and at some point, the moderator up on stage asked if everyone had understood, and a hand raised in the crowd—Finbarr O’Brien’s hand—and he said, no, he understood less now than before, and the moderator replied, no problem, they could only move as fast as the slowest horse in the barn, which Finbarr laughed off, and then they explained everything again, which Chris was grateful for, because to be honest, he hadn’t understood everything, either.

They spend the evening at the bar, drinking beer. Finbarr’s fear doesn’t go away, not entirely, but he senses the way reality is permeating his therapist’s words. Time and again, he is surprised by the difference between Chris’s exterior, which aligns with his expectations exactly, and the way Chris acts, which is much different than he had always imagined gay people behaving, so normal.

From then on, assembly weekends are something Finbarr looks forward to every month. He reaches the hotel by Friday afternoon, while Chris arrives later in the evening. Finbarr is always waiting for him at the bar. They talk well into the night, about Finbarr’s grandchildren, Chris’s job in IT, and about the topics that are up for discussion, like should the presidential term be reduced to five years? And should the legal voting age be lowered from 18 to 17?

At first, they also talk a lot about the politicians at the convention and the fact that, at mealtimes, they stick together at their own tables.

Essentially, they’re all politicians in this situation. Tom Arnold plays a particular role as chair, but the remaining 99 of them are equal.

Those 33 behave differently than the 66, though. Finbarr would never dream of grabbing the mike and talking for minutes at length, without actually saying anything, like that one senator always does. It’s bizarre, everyone listens to her speak, then she sits back down and things continue, as though nothing ever happened. She doesn’t seem concerned with pushing the debate forward. What she seems desperate for is visibility.

Visibility is something Finbarr couldn’t care less about. He asks when there’s something he doesn’t understand, and responds when he’s questioned. He wants to do justice to the topic at hand, and if he can do it in silence, all the better.

The longer the convention goes on, however, the more Finbarr and Chris start seeing the boundaries blur between the 33 and 66. The groups start to mingle at mealtimes. Sometimes Chris catches the same train as one of the politicians, and they have nice conversation.

As time passes, Finbarr and Chris’s conversations also start changing—they become more personal. Chris tells the story of his coming out and how his mother thought he was a pedophile, and how his father’s sole concern was keeping it secret, whereas Chris wanted to announce it proudly for all the world to hear.

Finbarr listens and realizes there is still one misconception he’s held on to, that even the sessions with his therapist have not altered. When he thought of homosexuality, the immediate image that came to mind was of two men doing things together that disgusted him. He viewed homosexuality as sexuality. But the conversations at the hotel bar show him that it’s not primarily about sex, but about love, family, and everyday life.

Chris shares things with Finbarr that not even his close friends know, and he senses that the more he opens up, the more Finbarr seems to be trying to get something off his chest too.

Barely a single conversation went by without Finbarr bringing up our first meeting. I was puzzled by the way he would always say, Chris, do you remember that first day? I didn’t even know where to look . . . At a certain point, I realized that his thoughts kept returning to that situation, because he still had something to say about it. And that’s what happened, the conversation began as it always did, but then he kept talking. He didn’t tell me everything, but enough for me to understand.

Among the other assembly participants, the unlikely friendship between the young gay man, whose hair takes on a different color and style every weekend, and the old mailman from Macroom becomes the talk of the convention.

In a way, this helps Chris accomplish his original goal of advocating as loudly as possible for gay rights. Because whenever people talk about him and Finbarr, they’re also talking about his sexual orientation.

At this point, he’s not even as pessimistic as he once was about the vote on same-sex marriage. He’s quite sure he’s won over Finbarr. Surely it’s worked on the others as well. At the same time, he also felt certain back then, at age 17, that his parents would accept him.

In mid-April of 2013, the assembly meets for the session dedicated to the vote on legalizing same-sex marriage. In the months prior to this point, they have made recommendations to lower the voting age to 17 and to maintain the seven-year presidential term. For many participants, however, this weekend feels like the actual reason they’re here.

Discussions will be held on Saturday, the vote on Sunday. Finbarr sits close to the front, with Chris a few tables over. Experts and lobbyists present their arguments, reporting on child welfare and adoption laws, biology and theology. The cameras at the back of the hall are rolling, while journalists type away on their laptops. No one is playing on their phone, there’s little talk between neighbors, and several people take notes.

In essence, this assembly is no different than a parliament, a representation of the people, only the members here weren’t voted in, but selected at random. At the same time, they couldn’t be more different.

There’s no yelling here. No rhetorical histrionics. None of the ritualistic exchange of positions already long decided. The citizens don’t have a party telling them the stance they need to take. Each one of them has only themselves and their thoughts to battle, and there are some who change their mind three times a day, because they hear three different arguments that make sense. Contributions to discussion are more likely to end in a question mark, than an exclamation point. But unlike in parliament, where the questions are often rhetorical, the ones here are sincere. They’re not a trick used to attack a political opponent, but rather an instrument on the path to understanding.

When the debate begins that Saturday morning, Finbarr O’Brien is pretty well-informed. After his many conversations with Chris, he’s familiar with most of the arguments. He will probably vote in favor of same-sex marriage tomorrow, in part because he knows what’s at stake for Chris. There’s just one thing he’s still uncertain about. The question of children. How could two men have kids? And wouldn’t they be mercilessly bullied at school? Should the kids be subjected to that? That afternoon, a young woman takes the stage, and Finbarr takes note.

Good afternoon, my name is Claire O’Connell, I’m 22 and studying medicine. We’re a typical family, except for the fact I’ve got two mothers. People ask me: What’s it like having two mums? My response disappoints them, because my childhood was pretty normal. My parents patched up my knee when I fell, and comforted me when I cried. Then they ask: Weren’t you bullied? Again, my answer disappoints them. Most of my friends even thought it was cool that I had two mothers. The running joke was that my family was the most normal of all.

Finbarr decides to vote yes. Then the opposition has its turn on stage, representatives of the church. Nature gave us men and women, they argue. It’s the only way children can be produced. A Catholic bishop speaks about how much the church loves marriage, an invaluable institution that is now being put on the line. Finbarr thinks of the many boys who are abused by the men of the church in the same way he was; he thinks about how the church shirks its accountability, how it transfers perpetrators to new posts, where they simply continue their abuse. Yet this bishop has the nerve to come here and play the moral authority. Finbarr’s fists clench. He is trembling with rage. He has to say something to counter the bishop, he can feel it. If he doesn’t, he’ll beat himself up about it later.

And then there he stands, Finbarr O’Brien, wearing a burgundy sweater over a white shirt, his right hand grasping the microphone as a camera zooms in on his face and broadcasts the images live on the web. He did not prepare his remarks, they pour out on their own.

The biggest problem facing people is ignorance. They don’t know enough. I was the exact same way. I was abused many years ago, after which I automatically came to equate gay men with abuse. I just didn’t know any better. But then I learned that homosexual people, whether men or women, are normal people.

He does not say that he will vote in favor of same-sex marriage the next day, but everyone in the room can hear it. Finbarr sits back down. After the session, he heads straight for the bar and throws back a double whiskey. Then the congratulations begin—one person after the other wants to shake his hand. Two people he never would have suspected of being gay tell him how much his words meant to them.

The following day, 79 members of the citizens’ assembly vote to change the constitution—79 percent are in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in one of Europe’s most Catholic and conservative countries.

Hard to say how big a part Finbarr O’Brien played in that. Chris Lyons says that his friend did more than just toss his single vote into the ballot box. Chris is certain that, with his speech, Finbarr convinced others to follow. Everyone in the room could see that the speech was a cathartic moment for Finbarr. They had hung on his every word, knowing there was not a dishonest bone in his body; when it came to Finbarr, there would be no misrepresentation, no omissions, and no lies, and the people loved him for that. In that regard, Chris says, Finbarr was the opposite of a politician.

But wasn’t he an outstanding politician for that very reason? Isn’t what Finbarr did that weekend the definition of politics? To hit a nerve with the combination of his character and the right words? To be so genuine, that others follow?

When interviewing the people who were in the room that day—a teacher from Dublin, a dancer from Kildare, a social worker from Wexford, a political scientist from University College Dublin, or Tom Arnold, the chairman—there are two things they’ll all say eventually. First, that they felt privileged to be part of this. Then, that they really hoped to have a word with that mailman from Macroom, the name was Finbarr . . .

Finbarr O’Brien, who preferred flying under the radar, became perhaps the most visible person at the convention. None of those interviewed mentioned the grandstanding senator.

Parliament accepts the recommendations made by the citizens’ assembly: it announces a referendum on same-sex marriage, because the Irish constitution cannot be amended without the popular vote. On May 22, 2015, Ireland heads to the polls. The government has yet to act on the other recommendations, such as those related to voting rights. The referendum on gay marriage is probably the best prepared in all of Irish history. The assembly made their recommendation available to the public. Without knowing it, the Irish people are voting that day on whether their fellow citizen, Chris Lyons, will stay in the country.

Chris cries often during this time, he’s so moved. He scrolls endlessly through his Twitter feed on his smartphone. Thousands of Irish citizens are posting photos with the hashtag #hometovote. They are returning home to vote from all over the world, from Australia, the US, and England, and in the photos, Chris sees them sitting in airplanes and getting out of buses, young and old, men and women, many of them waving rainbow flags.

To Chris, it feels personal, like they’re coming on his behalf. As if, after all the suffering, they finally wanted to make him a full-fledged member of society.

Finbarr follows the referendum results on TV. He went to the polling place with his wife that morning. For the second time, he voted in favor of same-sex marriage. He doesn’t know which box his wife ticked. He suspects she voted no. Like probably most people in town. If what he’s heard at work or the pub is any indication, he doesn’t think Chris will be staying in Ireland.

Then the news anchor announces the result: 62 percent in favor. Images of people dressed in colorful clothing, shedding tears of joy, are shown on screen. Finbarr is proud.

These days, when Finbarr talks politics, he does so as an insider. Sometimes, whether at the pub or sorting mail at the post office, he is even known to defend politicians.

This is the political conundrum of our time. In the US, Germany, and almost every country in between, the same question is being posed: how can the people ever regain their trust in politics? It worked for Finbarr O’Brien, and it started with politics having trust in him.

By the end, a man once governed by rage is defending politicians. Two people, who by all accounts should hate each other, are friends. A gathering of 33 politicians and 66 citizens, initially united only in their mutual biases, have found a way to come together. And at a time when the government in France, another Catholic country, legalizes same-sex marriage, sparking huge protests in the streets, the Catholic country of Ireland does the very same, quietly and peacefully.

Sometimes, when the pain returns, Finbarr O’Brien opens a box he keeps in the bedroom and pulls out the leather-bound book. Each one of them received a copy as a gift in late 2013—the Irish constitution. He got everyone’s signature, whether citizen or politician, and he turns the pages and reminisces. There’s only one thing that bothers Finbarr O’Brien about the best time of his life: the fact that he wasn’t allowed to participate in the second convention. This time there are no politicians, just 99 citizens and one chairwoman. Their central issue is even more controversial than its predecessor, and for five months, it’s all they have debated—abortion.

Then they vote in favor of overturning the constitutional ban. The government has scheduled a referendum. It will be held this Friday.

Translation: Elisabeth Lauffer