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Mishcon Academy - Northern Ireland at 100: Road to Rights - Defeating Criminalisation

Posted on 1 July 2021

In June, Jeff Dudgeon MBE, Northern Irish politician, historian and gay rights campaigner, spoke with Associate Michael Clarke about how gay rights have evolved over the years since Northern Ireland turned 100 years old.

Jeff, who famously successfully challenged Northern Ireland's law criminalising consensual sex acts between men in private in 1981, continues to work on gay law reform issues 40 years on.

Michael Clarke

Hi everyone.  Welcome to this talk, part of the Mishcon Academy season surrounding the Northern Ireland Centenary.  My name is Michael Clarke and I’ll be today’s host.  So, without further ado, I’m going to cross to Jeff.  By way of brief introduction Jeff Dudgeon MBE is known as a veteran gay rights trail-blazer by some and has described the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland as his life mission.  I think it’s safe to say that that mission has been accomplished because Jeff managed to bring about the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland in 1982, I think.  So, I’m going to cross now to Jeff.  If you’d like to introduce yourself and have a chat and we’ll come back to you shortly. 

Jeff Dudgeon

Thanks Michael and good afternoon and thanks indeed for the invitation to talk here today.  The 100th anniversary of the formation of Northern Ireland in my talk title is not the only anniversary that should be commemorated.  2021 is also the 40th anniversary of my winning case at Strasbourg in the European Court of Human Rights when the law criminalising homosexuality in Northern Ireland, was found to breach the convention.  A year later, 1982, Westminster effected the Court Judgement into legislation and we were no longer subject to the threat of life imprisonment as we had been.  Prosecution had actually turned out to be a real possibility which occurred in 1976.  After the case started – about a year after it – was extensive police raids and my arrest.  Set in the historic scene, partition in 1921 was not just of Ireland but also of the UK, making it not something for celebration.  1921 was also memorable for the first introduction of devolution – legislative devolution – in the UK, something which turned out to be the source of my troubles as a gay man.  Obviously until 1967, all same-sex acts between males were criminalised in England and Wales.  This reform was the Parliamentary achievement of Leo Abse MP, a Welsh Labour MP and Lord Arran.  Their precursor in the House of Commons in the 1950s was Montgomery Hyde.  He was the Unionist MP for North Belfast.  His biography I have written in a small volume which is available on Amazon, by the way.  The Leo Abse Bill in 1967 succeeded because Roy Jenkins, as Home Secretary, arranged the critical Parliamentary time.  Another issue I’m involved in is actually the failure to reform the defamation laws.  Northern Ireland is best explained as a standard ethnic conflict.  It was originally a one third Catholic minority, largely Nationalist but not at that time, Republican.  Two thirds Unionist and Protestant majority composed half of intransigent Scots Presbyterian and the other half, Anglicans, tending to be more moderate.  I come from that latter group. 

When we came together in the ‘70s as a Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association, we were part of the Gay Liberation Movement, ‘Angry and Proud’.  The troubles were at their worst in that decade; 500 people were murdered in 1972 alone, yet we organised and prospered on the Strasbourg case.  In the early ‘70s and after Direct Rule started, the Labour Governments began a meandering process of law reform which shelved in ’78 and ultimately ditched by Margaret Thatcher’s new Government a year later.  The Strasbourg Court’s judgement opened up the concept of gay rights as human rights.  Until then, we were a community at the edge of the law.  My case was just the 15th in Europe where a violation was found and the fifth of any sort won against the UK. 

The issue of homosexuality in Northern Ireland has had a long and contended history over 50 years.  The ethnic conflict aside, it’s been the greatest one in the province.  We had the Save Us From Sodomy campaign of Reverend Ian Paisley in the ‘70s, the decriminalisation, later reforms and disputes around equalisation of the age of consent and the criminal offences in the 2003 Sexual Offences Act.  Then came Civil Partnership and eventually Gay or Equal Marriage. 

Judgements in Northern Ireland have had a major and seeding effect on UK and International Law for decades.  The question of the role of Strasbourg and the future of the Human Rights Act has loomed large in London for many years and Ken Clarke when Lord Chancellor did manage what I would suggest is a narrowing protocol in regard to the Strasbourg Court.  It took a decade or more to effect having to be ratified by all 47 countries.  However, in six weeks’ time on the 1st August it will take effect as Italy, who alone had held out, have finally ratified. 

In conclusion, relating to current affairs and this obviously was pre-Covid, Belfast Pride had gathered pace until it became a city carnival attended by literally tens of thousands of people, gay and straight.  So, we’ve achieved equality in law and perhaps more than that.  At the time, my expectations were limited to decriminalisation and equality.  We were quite optimistic because we were in that new generation.  The later issues for people like me, may appear lesser but to young people they are just as important tests of modernity and progressivism.  So, who knows what that test issue will be 100 years from now. 

Michael Clarke

Well, we’ll see, I’m sure.  Thank you very much for that Jeff.  I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say that’s a remarkable story.  Also, I’d like to say on behalf of myself as a gay man and other gay people in the UK that it’s… thank you, really for all the work that you’ve done over the last few decades fighting our corner.  Obviously, this case in Strasbourg was huge.  I think it would be helpful if you could just perhaps paint a picture a little bit of what gay life in Belfast was like in the ‘70s and how… what the triggering kind of events were that led you to bring that case in Strasbourg in the first place. 

Jeff Dudgeon

The gay community at that time was tiny.  There was one gay bar which was run by ex-military men who kept everyone very much in order.  So, we know we were down to 30 or 40 people on a Saturday night if you were lucky and the bars closed at 10.00pm.  Things just were changing around 19… early 1970s.  People were getting flats and apartments.  They were learning obviously from America and beyond of the Stonewall Affair and there was a mood open for change. 

Michael Clarke

Kind of moving beyond, so obviously you brought the case in Strasbourg off the back of the fact that you had been effectively the victim of kind of homophobic or at least, homophobic legislation or the police’s actions at that time.  How was the feeling when you brought the case?  Was there a feeling of perhaps risk that you were opening yourself and your peers up to potential further prejudices or harassment or violence even for having been the figureheads of such a huge case in Strasbourg about rights that people were trying to repress so much in Northern Ireland?

Jeff Dudgeon

Well, yeah we were frightened but we were also bold.  There was no political support locally and we exhausted our domestic remedies in 10 seconds in a sense because we asked for reform and no reform came and then we were subject to the police.  

Michael Clarke

So, I think in the judgement there’s talk that there was a dissenting Judge who said that on the one hand the other Judge… the other Justices said that there is a sense of freedom to support to live your own religion, for example on your own moral basis.  And in fact, the European Court of Human Rights doesn’t really have the position to be able to impose certain moral sense on people.  Do you feel that that came out much at the time or...?

Jeff Dudgeon

Yeah, I don’t think Northern Ireland’s that unique in many respects.  I mean, it was a first case on matters gay.  So, it was bound to bring up all the concerns that some people would have had about interfering with moral aspects of life and I think the four Judges that were guilty in Ireland, Cyprus I think – I can’t quite remember the other two – there’s still no European consensus on abortion as a Human Right. 

Michael Clarke

Fast forward, 1982, homosexuality in Northern Ireland is now decriminalised.  Amazing result.  Do you think though that – from what I’ve read – it was a bit of a slow transition period and in fact, the prejudices against gay people continued relatively violently? How did that actually play out in public in the ‘80s?

Jeff Dudgeon

I’ve always said that changing the law was obviously a critical trigger, you could say the major changes have come about through people coming out.  People getting to know other gay people, discovering they knew them all along, every family having a gay person within their ranks somewhere.  There was a bigger and bigger gay scene in Belfast.  We had a befriending organisation called Cara Friend, which basically enabled hundreds of gays and lesbians to emerge.  They hadn’t had any contact point and they needed a huge amount of courage even to come and speak to other gay people.  So, that was a big change and the numbers increased and the knowledge increased. 

Michael Clarke

January last year, Gay Marriage became legalised didn’t it?  What has the reaction been to Gay Marriage legalisation in Belfast and the wider parts of Northern Ireland since then?

Jeff Dudgeon

People like marriages, people enjoy weddings and I think they don’t really care who’s getting married they just find it rather laudable and enjoyable and there’s been next to no kick-back against Gay Marriage.  Actual marriages and the ceremonies and the publicity around in the media has been entirely kind and interested. 

Michael Clarke

In terms of the current climate, I mean this week or the last few weeks in Northern Ireland it’s been quite a big time.  The new Head of the DUP, Edwin Poots, who is creationist and who doesn’t agree with gay men giving blood, has fought the adoption of LGBT rights to adopt in Northern Ireland.  Who controversially described Arlene Foster’s most important job as being a wife, a mother and a daughter.  So, I wonder what’s the feeling in Northern Ireland at the moment?

Jeff Dudgeon

There is no gay issue on the table in the sense at Assembly.  But if there was one you’re quite right, Paul Givan and Edwin Poots would not be favouring and will not be encouraging it. 

Michael Clarke

Obviously, the way that you’ve done over the years has been transformative for gay people in Northern Ireland.  In the UK perhaps there’s a feeling that we’re out of the woods in terms of the worst things but obviously there is repression, there is anti-gay violence, there are… and there is anti-gay discrimination and those are the sorts of things that are now being fought.  But I wonder what you feel are the most important things facing the LGBT community in Northern Ireland at the moment?

Jeff Dudgeon

I spoke at the first Trans Rights Rally which was about two years ago now and that issue is powerful here in Northern Ireland.  But it’s being advanced in many respects.  A good friend of mine had twins, six or eight months ago now and there were certain issues about… complicated issues around birth certification and all the rest of it about who’s the father?  And these sorts of issues are going to continue too. 

Michael Clarke

You also sat on the Council didn’t you? Belfast City Council for the Balmoral District.  As one of the only three openly-gay people acting in local Government.  How was that experience?

Jeff Dudgeon

Well, we were 5% of the Council which was quite a sturdy number in many ways. 

Michael Clarke

Quite a lot, yeah. 

Jeff Dudgeon

Two women and one male.  All three of us were defeated in the forthcoming election which should have indicated a huge anti-gay surge but we were replaced by three other all-men. 

Michael Clarke

I think you – do you currently – despite no longer being in Council and all the stuff at the Strasbourg case obviously being way in the past, you still are an activist aren’t you?  I mean, what sort of stuff are you doing at the moment, in terms of Gay Rights?

Jeff Dudgeon

I am separately involved in all the legacy disputes which bring in Article 2 in Strasbourg and the question of whether the Government is in two minds about legacy.  Whether to put a stop to it and have an amnesty or a statute of limitations and I understand they are thinking in those terms but they are just too petrified to make a move and certainly they keep waiting until the coast is calm. 

Michael Clarke

Could you just give us a bit more background on what the legacy stuff is, please?

Jeff Dudgeon

It’s twofold.  One is for some reason Northern Ireland came in with 3,000 plus murders.  People want them all to be reinvestigated because the inquests at the time were pretty limited and maybe biased.  The Nationalist parties particularly want that and they’ve been promised various things like enquiries and re-opening inquests and huge amount of money, perhaps £1 billion spent on reassessing it.  Others, like myself, tend to think it’s you know, you’ve got to put these things aside.  Agree to differ.  The past is always going to be divisive. 

Michael Clarke

And are you working with the police at all?

Jeff Dudgeon

The police, we’ve had meetings from our legacy group with police and their investigation branch.  They want shot of legacy.  They want it farmed off to somebody – another body altogether which is irresponsible I think in respect of the fact that their job is to investigate crime, be it – all crime is historic.  They want shot of it but they’re obliged to investigate it and they have a team of 50 or 80 people working on old cases.  If the Government policy is going to be no more criminal investigations then they can shut up shop. 

Michael Clarke

I think it’s fascinating that 30 years ago you were being arrested by the police and now you’re working with them.  It must be a total turnaround.  It must be quite odd for you?

Jeff Dudgeon

No, we’ve been working with the police in the gay community for 15, 20 years and it’s been at times a bit odd.  I wonder do they know that what they did was me, probably wouldn’t.  But it took them a while to learn new things and particularly what happened in terms of public sex.  They were still investigating public sex actions in the countryside and the small towns.  In Belfast they’d learnt you know, a measured and proportionate response.  In the small towns they hadn’t and they were rounding up people, half a dozen, 10 people, bringing havoc to those people and their marriages collapsed and their houses being attacked.  There was a campaign in GB obviously on the gay pardons aspect of all the people who… the vast majority of the people who were criminalised in the 50s were done for some sort of public sex activity and they were pardoned. 

Michael Clarke

It was so controversial wasn’t it?

Jeff Dudgeon

It was good.  It was symbolic and it was part of an educational process I think, in many ways. 

Michael Clarke

Thank you very much indeed for taking the time to speak to us.  Thank you again for all the work you’ve done for the community and the wider public over the past 30, 40 years.  Thank you very much for your time. 

Jeff Dudgeon

Okay.  Thanks for having me. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.   To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com.   

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