Decriminalisation of homosexual acts Northern Ireland
When were homosexual acts decriminalised in Northern Ireland?
The Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982, No. 1536 (N.I. 19), decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men with consent, aged 21 or over. It came into force on 8 December 1982. It brought the law in Northern Ireland in line with England and Wales (Sexual Offences Act 1967) and Scotland (Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980).
Why had there been change in England, Wales and Scotland?
In 1954 the Home Office asked Sir John Wolfenden to form a committee to advise on the reform of laws around homosexuality. (There were representatives of institutions from England, Wales and Scotland but none from Northern Ireland). Wolfenden’s report in 1957 recommended that homosexual sex was a private matter and should be decriminalised. Ten years later the Labour Government turned the Wolfenden report recommendations into law in England and Wales. Thirteen years after that an amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 brought the law in Scotland in line with England and Wales.
Who campaigned for decriminalisation in Northern Ireland after 1967?
Campaigning groups started much later in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the UK. This was partly due to the hostile attitudes of the Catholic and Protestant Churches and also because of The Troubles. A small but very active group of men set up a number of organisations. They met at the Gay Liberation Society at Queen’s University Belfast. People returning from London shared stories of gay liberation activities. In 1974 they became part of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform. David Norris at the University of Dublin had started this. They set up Cara-Friend – the gay befriending and counselling service. They published newspapers including Gay Star.å
In 1975 the men started the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association (NIGRA) as an umbrella group for all the organisations. Richard Kennedy became NIGRA’s first President. The group tried to get the government in London to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. They were ignored.
How did NIGRA attempt to change the law?
NIGRA members decided to submit a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). At that time you could not take a complaint directly to the ECHR. The first step was to submit your case to the European Commission of Human Rights. The Commission then decided if the case was good enough to go to the ECHR. If the Commission supported the case they would take it to the ECHR for you. The group started to fundraise throughout the UK and Ireland to support the case.
The European Commission of Human Rights only accepted submissions from individuals. Jeff Dudgeon, a leader of NIGRA, made the submission. He argued the British Government was invading his privacy and discriminating against him when compared to a heterosexual man. He argued this was a breach of Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights. NIGRA knew the court case would take a long time. They continued to put pressure on the government in Westminster.
In 1978, the British Government published a draft Order in Council to decriminalise homosexual acts in Northern Ireland in line with the 1967 reforms in England and Wales. However, it failed without the support of any of the twelve Northern Ireland politicians in the Westminster Parliament.
NIGRA worked with the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) in England and the Scottish Minorities Project from 1975. In June 1980 they attended a joint meeting with MPs in London to talk about employment protection. All the groups argued there could be no employment protection for men whose behaviour was criminalised. Just weeks later the law to decriminalise homosexual acts in Scotland was passed. Any hope for change in NI was crushed a week after that. The Northern Ireland Secretary confirmed there would be no early vote in Parliament.
What opposition did NIGRA face?
NIGRA leaders were opposed from the start. In January 1976 twenty six men were arrested. Diaries and letters were seized. The men were questioned about their sexual activities for many hours. The investigation into their activities went on for over a year. Charges of conspiracy to corrupt public morals were considered against four of the men, including Kennedy and Dudgeon. The case was eventually stopped by the Attorney General in London.
The ‘Save Ulster From Sodomy’ campaign was launched to oppose the work of NIGRA. The campaign was led by Ian Paisley, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster and the Democratic Unionist Party. The Church and the party were both started by him. The opposition against decriminalisation attracted 70,000 members and the support of the Catholic Church. The hostility toward homosexuality was so strong that Unionists criticised the British government.
As a leader of NIGRA, Dudgeon had a high profile. He experienced much anger from those opposed to law reform. Dudgeon has described the opposition he and others faced as ‘incredible, colossal, total’.
How was decriminalisation finally achieved?
In 1978 the European Commission of Human Rights accepted Dudgeon’s case. In 1980 the Commission sent the case to the Court – Dudgeon v the United Kingdom. The complaint was finally heard at the European Court of Human Rights in 1981. The Court ruled that no member nation had the right to impose a total ban on homosexual activity.
The court also said the criminalisation of homosexual acts violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It interfered with Dudgeon’s right to private life. The court said this was true even if he was never charged or prosecuted under the law. This forced the British Government to decriminalise homosexual acts in Northern Ireland.
Dudgeon’s case was a landmark legal precedent. It has been used many times to defend gay rights across Europe. Dudgeon v. United Kingdom was cited in a US Supreme Court ruling in 2003. The Supreme Court found 14 US states’ criminalisation of homosexual acts to be unconstitutional.
Read more about Jeff Dudgeon in the Personality Dateline.