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Persistence in Pursuing Equality Agenda Does Eventually Pay Off

19 June 2018

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland

Speech by Labour Party Leader on Dáil motion on 25th Anniversary of the Decriminalisation of Homosexuality

Dáil Éireann, 19th June 2018

We have moved within a generation from a time when gay men and women were an alien and shunned phenomenon to one where sexuality in all it’s expressions can be celebrated.

The change has been dramatic. But politicians and political parties can claim only part of the credit. Civil society organisations have been deeply involved in all of this.

Governments have recognised societal change, and governments have responded.

And Labour can claim to have been at the forefront in all the major campaigns on the gay rights agenda.

As important, perhaps, is that the eventual delivery at political level was on a unified, cross-party basis.

For example, the words “sexual orientation” first appeared on the statute book in the 1989 incitement to hatred legislation.

Minister Ray Burke, of all people, agreed to Labour and Workers’ Party proposals and amended a Government Bill that had previously been confined to racial hatred – an amendment his predecessor Gerry Collins had stoutly refused to make.

And – the reason we are celebrating today – the Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition delivered in 1993 on a Labour Party manifesto promise to abolish all criminal offences relating to consensual same-sex sexual acts.

It is hard to imagine now how delicately the subject was treated. It is amazing to consider now that the Justice Minister Maire Geogheghan Quinn in fact put forward two options to Government and left it to her colleagues to choose between them, with no statement of a Ministerial or Departmental point of view.

The second option, forgotten perhaps now, was that our legislation could legalise same-sex acts, but only at the age of 18 or even 21, rather than at the same age as for heterosexual sex.

But it required only a low key assertion of a Labour point of view for the Cabinet to agree to the principle of a common age of consent.

And ultimately that legislation went through the Dáil with just one dissenting voice, although the Fine Gael front bench under John Bruton was deeply divided on the age of consent.

To our credit, that story was very different to the far more protracted and divisive debate on the very same issue in Britain, which was not finally resolved until 2001.

Of course we know that male homosexual acts were decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967. What is not so well known is that, the year after the law was liberalised, the police brought more prosecutions under the new Act than they had under the old.

Because, in the UK, the age of consent was set at 21, in contrast to an age of 16 for heterosexuals.

A year after we legislated here, Edwina Currie proposed an amendment in 1994 to bring in a common age of consent. But her proposal was soundly defeated.

The furthest they could go in Westminster at that time was to lower the age from 21 down to 18.

A 1997 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights held that this higher age of consent was a breach of the Convention.

Nonetheless, two efforts to introduce a common age of consent were vetoed by the House of Lords. A final effort was passed using override powers under the Parliament Act 1911. And that reform finally became law in the UK in January 2001.

Meanwhile back home, my Party’s equal status legislation had been voted down by Fianna Fáil and the PDs in 1992 when it was an Opposition Bill.

But it was a Labour election manifesto commitment and so it became official policy of the Labour/Fianna Fáil Government.

And that major package of law reform passed into law under the subsequent Rainbow coalition.

In 2006 I had the honour of introducing my Party’s Civil Union Bill. I described the Bill as a basic human rights measure. Its purpose was to provide for the legal recognition of a conjugal status relationship under which a same sex couple could receive the same benefits and protections, and be subject to the same responsibilities, as a married couple.

It was of course very much a first step along the road to what we later achieved – full marriage equality. We later achieved that through constitutional amendment rather than legislative spearheading.

I believe that popular endorsement of the concept of full civic equality was always the right approach.

I nonetheless appreciate the arguments for and against an incremental approach to law reform. I have myself more than once quoted the words of Martin Luther King It was Martin Luther King, on the famous day when he proclaimed the dream of equality and reminded us of “the fierce urgency of now”.

A sense of urgency demands insistent pressure, despite every parliamentary setback.

And persistence does, eventually, pay off.

I had introduced the Civil Union Bill as a matter of justice and equality affecting the daily lives of thousands of our people. They were living in committed relationships but were denied the simple rights that married couples took for granted.

Well, after the Marriage Equality Referendum, we are indeed looking back now, and we are wondering what the fuss was about. Marriage is not only resilient, it is flourishing.

But, shamefully, the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats Government of that day had not the gumption to either support or oppose our Bill.

Instead they moved a procedural amendment which deemed the Bill to pass its second stage in 6 months’ time, knowing that the Dáil in February 2006 did not have six months left in its lifetime and that the Bill would lapse when the Dáil was dissolved.

I moved to restore that Bill to the Dáil order paper in October 2007, with the support of Sinn Féin.

This time, a Fianna Fáil/Green Party Government stood in our way and voted down our Bill.

But persistence does pay off and we eventually legislated for civil partnerships in 2010, which paved the way for marriage equality in 2015.

A lot remains to be done. When we are confronted with the shocking figures for young male suicides, I cannot help wondering how many of those lives have been destroyed by overwhelming insecurity and the terror of non-acceptance by the family and the community of a secret identity and orientation.

A greater proportion, I believe, than the number of gay men and women among the population as a whole.

The ultimate goal is acceptance, inclusion and normality, nothing more or less. The right to be treated as nothing out of the ordinary.

I want to finish my contribution by quoting from a message my colleagues Senators Ged Nash and Ivana Bacik received today from Seamus Dooley of the National Union of Journalists:

“Just a short note of personal thanks to you both for your consistent and unswerving support on the issue of LGBT rights over many years

“There is every danger you may be drowned out by voices new to the topic but those of us who have been campaigning for decades are especially grateful to Labour Oireachtas members, past and present.

“It would be good to mention Declan Flynn today. His killing was a significant turning point and brought the LGBT community out on to the streets.

“In this regard there are powerful lines from Pearse Hutchinson’s poem Let’s Hope:

‘One morning last year

From the top deck of a bus

I saw the living sunlight flooding

trees and grass in Fairview Park

with light, life, splendour –

as if no death,

as if no hate,

as if no ignorance ever.’

“Today is too late for Declan but it’s never too late to remember.”