It’s been 40 years since Northern Ireland’s dehumanising gay sex ban was finally struck down

Jeffrey Dudgeon Northern Ireland

It is 40 years since the European Court of Human Rights delivered its landmark ruling that ultimately struck down Northern Ireland’s dehumanising ban on homosexuality.

On 22 October, 1981, the court ruled by a 15-4 majority in the Dudgeon v United Kingdom case that no member state had the right to impose a ban on same-sex sexual activity between men.

It was a hugely significant moment for Northern Ireland’s embattled LGBT+ community – and it came at the tail end of a long, arduous legal fight.

In 1967, homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England and Wales with the Sexual Offence Act. It was a landmark moment for queer people, representing a dramatic shift in the way they were treated under the law. However, that law did not extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland, meaning queer people continued to face disproportionate scrutiny under the law.

When it became clear that the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality would not be extended to Northern Ireland, queer people in the region rose up. In the 1970s, the region was still under direct rule from Westminster, so activists tried to bypass their own political parties – many of whom were deeply hostile to their existence. They urged the secretary of state for Northern Ireland to implement change – but their pleas for change were largely fruitless.

The secretary of state initially appeared sympathetic to the cause of gay rights activists in Northern Ireland. The matter was referred to the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights for Northern Ireland, and in 1976, it recommended that the legal changes adopted in England and Wales should be extended to Northern Ireland.

That ruling came with a crucial caveat, however: the committee said there appeared to be limited support for change to laws around homosexuality in Northern Ireland.

Sadly, the committee was right. The UK government tried to move forward with the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland following that recommendation – however, efforts stalled when it became clear that none of the 12 MPs for the territory were willing to support change.

Ian Paisley and the ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign tried to stop the law changing

Without the necessary legal changes, queer people in Northern Ireland continued to suffer. They encountered almost relentless problems with the Royal Ulster Constabulary police force throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Those involved in the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association (NIGRA) fought tirelessly for the law to be changed as police arrested them, forced them to undergo dehumanising medical exams and raided their house. This police action was often carried out under the guise of drug operations.

Meanwhile, the presence of Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the infamous Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign loomed in the background.

Paisley, a reverend with the Free Presbyterian Church, was determined that the law should not be changed to grant gay people the rights and freedoms they so desperately craved. In 1971, he set up the DUP, and in 1977, he launched the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign in a bid to stop social change from coming to Northern Ireland.

Through the campaign, Paisley and his supporters placed adverts in newspapers claiming that any change in the law would “bring God’s curse down upon our people”. In a shocking indictment of the times, some 70,000 people were recruited to join the campaign through outreach activities in churches.

Leo Varadkar (CR) joins members of the LGBT+ community at Belfast Pride in 2019.

Leo Varadkar (CR) joins members of the LGBT+ community at Belfast Pride in 2019. (Paul Faith / AFP/Getty)

At first, it looked like Paisley’s campaign would prove to be a success. The British government quickly threw Northern Ireland’s LGBT+ community to the wolves, announcing in 1979 that it would not be pressing ahead with planned legal changes in the region. The government promised that laws would not be enforced, but gay people continued to face persecution and harassment from the police.

But the laws could not last forever, and Jeffrey Dudgeon wanted to make sure of that given his own experience with police persecution.

At that time, Dudgeon was working as a shipping clerk in Belfast. He was also a gay rights activist and a member of NIGRA when he was arrested on drug charges in 1976. Police discovered personal correspondences sent by him in which he detailed gay sex acts he had taken part in, and just like that, his case was transformed into an anti-gay witch hunt.

Dudgeon was interrogated by police about his sexuality. Police sent their evidence to the director of prosecutions to have him charged with gross indecency, but it was ultimately decided that a case should not be taken against him because it would not be in the public interest.

Jeffrey Dudgeon brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights

Dudgeon brought a case to the European Commission of Human Rights arguing that Northern Ireland’s ban on homosexuality was unlawful. He said the laws criminalising homosexuality interfered with his right to a private life and was in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. He also argued that he had faced discrimination based on his sexuality.

On 3 March, 1978, the commission ruled that Dudgeon’s complaint was admissible. Two years later, on 13 March 1980, the commission found that the law was in breach of Dudgeon’s right to a personal life, and the case was referred on to the European Court of Human Rights.

That brought him and other activists right up to 22 October, 1981, when the European Court of Human Rights delivered its ruling. Judges ruled by 15-4 that no European Union member had the right to ban same-sex sexual activity. It also found that the law violated the European Convention on Human Rights as it prevented gay people from exercising their right to a private life.

The ruling didn’t mean that homosexuality was decriminalised overnight. The following year, the UK government extended decriminalisation to Northern Ireland through an Order in Council. It came into force on 8 December, 1982.

Since then, Northern Ireland’s LGBT+ community has fought long and hard for equality under the law. Same-sex marriage was finally legalised in 2020 after the DUP repeatedly blocked any progress on queer people’s rights.

Northern Ireland’s LGBT+ community had another significant moment in July. Paula Bradley, deputy leader of the DUP, apologised to the region’s LGBT+ community for the “atrocious” remarks her party colleagues had made about them over the years.

Speaking at the PinkNews Virtual Summer Reception in Belfast, Bradley said: “I am not going to defend some of the things that have been said over the years, because they have been absolutely atrocious, they’ve been shocking.

“I certainly couldn’t stand by many of those comments, in fact all of those comments, because I know the hurt that they caused people and I know that that fed into the hatred that some people have had to endure in their life, and I think that’s absolutely wrong.”

It was a moment that divided opinion among queer people in Northern Ireland. Some were pleased that a member of the DUP had finally apologised for the party’s campaign against LGBT+ rights – but others argued that her words were hollow when members of the DUP today continue to oppose advances for queer people.

Full equality has not yet been achieved for queer people in Northern Ireland

Needless to say, there are many more issues that continue to face Northern Ireland’s LGBT+ community to this day. The Rainbow Project, a Belfast-based LGBT+ charity, marked the 40th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality by drawing attention to the areas where change is still needed.

In a statement, Aisling Twomey, advocacy manager with the Rainbow Project, said the LGBT+ community owes a great deal to “LGBTQIA+ pioneers” like Jefrrey Dudgeon.

“While Northern Ireland has changed significantly within the last 40 years, there are still many inequalities experienced by LGBTQIA+ people and a lack of visibility of LGBTQIA+ people in public life,” Twomey said.

“LGBTQIA+ People are still afraid to hold their loved one’s hand in public and feel they need to change their behaviour in public to avoid possibly being targeted for their sexual orientation and gender identity. Fears of violence, intimidation and harassment remain a reality for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex and asexual people across Northern Ireland and beyond.”

Twomey continued: “Despite significant barriers to equality in NI, we must recognise the substantial change that has been achieved. Through effective campaigning and non-stop advocacy by the LGBTQIA+ community we have seen changes to adoption regulations in 2013, the introduction of the disregard process for historical convictions in 2016, reforms to the blood ban in 2017 and 2020 and the introduction of Equal Marriage in 2020.”

A member of the LGBT+ community at Belfast Pride

A member of the LGBT+ community at Belfast Pride. (PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty)

John O’Doherty, director of the Rainbow Project, added: “LGBTQIA+ people are still facing discrimination in their workplaces. They still face discrimination when accessing education, health and social care and many public services. Many people still facing rejection or hostility from their family, when they come out as LGBTQIA+ and our community remains invisible to too many policy makers and service providers.

“Most alarming has been the ongoing attacks across social and wider media on our trans and non-binary community. We see how the same twisted messages which were used to condemn gay people and incite fear of our community are being used to target trans/non-binary people, questioning their existence and ignoring their lived experiences.

“We have seen an 16 per cent increase in transphobic hate crime across the UK and a media that is obsessed with a negative portrayal of trans and non-binary people.

“Trans and non-binary people in Northern Ireland are being denied the right to access healthcare, to have a simple process to the right to legally change their name and gender from those that were assigned to them at birth.

“The UK government have not taken the final decisions following their consultation on how to reform the Gender Recognition Act and have rolled back on support on proposed reforms such as Self-ID.

“While today, we reflect on the 40th Anniversary of a decision that changed the lives of LGBTQIA+ people in Northern Ireland for the better, we know there is much still to do before we can say there is full equality.”