5 years since Ireland voted Yes to marriage equality, Tiernan Brady talks winning campaigns, facing down the Murdoch press, and the power of corporations to do good.
Fresh off the winning referendum to gain marriage equality in Ireland, Tiernan Brady was approached by the fledgling Australian marriage equality movement. Over a few bottles of wine in wintry London he agreed to visit the team down under, and when he came home two weeks later he handed in his notice, packed his bags, and flew straight back.
Brady’s career, by his own admission, doesn’t travel in a straight line, and at multiple junctures in his life Brady has found himself pursuing something that would’ve been unimaginable to him 6 months – or even 6 days – prior. Having gone from elected official to international campaigner, and now in his new role spearheading diversity for one of the world’s top 10 law firms, his advice to others is simply – don’t make a plan.
Brady was born and raised “straddling the border” between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland, and most mornings of his early life he travelled through multiple military checkpoints on the way to school, at the height of the civil unrest known as “The Troubles”. He was “steeped in politics” from an early age, growing up in a deeply pacifist and nationalist household.
Though his political education had begun at the kitchen table, his political engagement at university in Dublin formed the foundations of a political worldview that necessitates “reaching out to others and building coalitions”. He learned that while many campaigners make a mistake of “simply announcing a value, and presuming that itself is the victory”, his approach to campaigning should be centred around “meeting people where they are”, and allowing them to see change as part of their values, not in competition with them.
While studying for a law master’s he was diagnosed with leukaemia, and after months of treatment he returned home to his native Country Donegal to recuperate. By chance, his local elections came up while he was home, and Brady decided to run. He won. Brady eventually served for almost a decade in local government, further forging an inclusive leadership style that would serve him well on the campaigns that were to follow.
As Mayor he helped his constituents with everything from housing to education issues, yet he also served for eight years as the director of elections for the then deputy prime minister Mary Coughlan. He describes this first brush with national campaigning as “the absolute coalface of politics – [because] if you get it wrong, you lose”.
Eventually, after serving two terms as mayor, he returned to Dublin to study for a master’s. As a gay man in his twenties, moving back to the Irish capital was also an excuse “to be gay again”, which had been more of a “theoretical condition than a practical one” living in rural Ireland. It was while studying international relations that his next unexpected career move came about, from a chance conversation with a politician’s aide about upcoming legislative action on civil partnerships.
He soon became the policy director for Ireland’s Gay and Lesbian Equality Network just as it began to lobby for same-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships. By pursuing civil partnerships they “were attacked heavily by NGO-land”, who believed that only marriage was true equality – and that nothing else would be sufficient.
In deflecting this criticism Brady learned one of the most valuable lessons yet – staying true to your strategy, against the odds. In his view, if all the legal rights of marriage could be achieved through policy, the inevitable referendum – a requirement of Ireland’s constitution – could be fought simply on the word “marriage”. But to make a referendum win plausible, a cultural shift was needed and Brady desperately wanted to avoid a campaign that began by “telling people they’re a homophobe, that they’re racist, [because] if the first step of the campaign is people being told their values are disgusting, they’re not going to join that campaign”.
His strategy prevailed, and civil partnerships passed. Three years later, the referendum on marriage was announced.
When the Irish government announced they would hold the first-ever referendum on marriage equality in the world, Brady knew they had “the campaign of a lifetime on [their] hands”. Central to the Yes Equality campaign was a notion that equal marriage, rather than being framed as “gay or god”, could be framed as true to core Irish family values. By meeting people where they are, and allowing LGBT+ to be spokespeople in their own communities, the campaign became about personal human stories – making people true supporters by focusing not on the “philosophy of equality […] but on Mark, and Janice, and Margaret”.
Brady argues that the best way to win a campaign is “to design the board you’re playing on”, yet despite the Yes campaign’s successful push for a respectful campaign, there was still “no room for error”. Knowing that persuading the “land of Father Ted” would be no mean feat, he encouraged his campaign not to fall for the opposite side’s “campaign of misdirection”, and what he calls the “three animals of campaigning – don’t go down rabbit holes, don’t eat red herrings, and don’t mud-wrestle with pigs”.
His insistence on civility comes down to a simple point – that despite a thumping 62% win for the equal marriage campaign, “there were lots of young LGBT people who walked down their stairs in houses that voted no the following day”. Resisting the seductive opportunities “to go on the telly and do a slam dunk panel” was central to the campaign’s success – and something that would prove of vital importance soon afterwards.
The invitation to join the Australian Equal Marriage Campaign came “totally out of the blue”, but having crafted the previous campaign on core Irish values of family, the Australian campaign centred around the country’s focus on fairness, as the “Land of the fair go”.
Australia’s size, and the rough-and-tumble nature of its politics, made Brady’s philosophy of a civil, grassroots campaign tougher still. Australia’s size necessitated local spokespeople persuading their neighbours, as “no campaign bus was gonna roll into Wagga Wagga”. Despite efforts to attain the same civility as he espoused in Ireland, the added layer of a Murdoch press, and “watching the full force of a media empire swing against you” raised the stakes even further, and there were moments when they thought they’d lost control.
One such moment came when former prime minister Tony Abbott was headbutted in the face by a man wearing a Yes campaign badge. Despite knowing it was their campaign to lose, Brady speaks of moments like these as showing “just how easy it is to lose a referendum – most refendums on any issue in the world are defeated”. Despite all that, the Yes campaign won by 62% – the same margin Brady achieved in the Irish campaign.
For the next few months Brady worked on the Equal Future campaign to promote LGBT+ religious people’s stories in advance of the Catholic Church Synod of Bishops. Brady is proud to have played a part in a campaign that, by his own admission, “is going to take generations […] [churches] are important to billions of people and they’re not going anywhere”.
So how does a political campaigner end up working at one of the world’s largest law firms? Brady was first approached by Clifford Chance, the international law firm, in 2018, and over a series of discussions with its top brass he spoke about the role of big business not to support equality as an HR imperative, but actively campaigning for change. Clifford Chance agreed, and Brady joined as the global director of diversity and inclusion.
This may be his biggest campaign to date. “As a law firm, you’re uniquely placed to run campaigns […] the scope, capacity, and appetite to do it is immense”. Since starting at the firm, Brady has found its global “army of lawyers” more than equal to the challenge, enthusiastic to argue cases on decriminalisation in Singapore, refugee rights in the United States, and recognition of LGBT+ families in Italy. Instead of running one campaign, he’s running twenty – and he’s determined that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Is this the future of business? “Firms have to understand that the globalisation of money happened, but the globalisation of values is hot on its heels […] and firms who take a stand are going to be the successful ones” says Brady. Though he doesn’t rule out a return to frontline politics, he insists he never really left; “sometimes, you can do ten times as much as a campaigner than in elected office”.
One thing’s for sure – Tiernan Brady has plenty more campaigns to fight.