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Gay pardons a welcome sign that Northern Ireland doesn't always have to say no to social change

Clear the names of innocent men, says Fionola Meredith, and celebrate the veteran campaigners like Jeff Dudgeon

Published 11/11/2016

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
Jeff Dudgeon

As the last outpost of archaic, regressive and small-minded thinking, right on the fringes of Western Europe, Northern Ireland shows few signs of being ready to join the 21st century. The usual answer to any form of progressive social change? No.

Even after all these years, Ulster still says no. No to basic reproductive rights and gay marriage, but a big fat yes to flags, emblems and sectarian culture wars. The ancient habits are the hardest to break. So it's heartening to see one sign that those entrenched old attitudes are at last beginning to shift.

This week, Stormont Justice Minister Claire Sugden announced that a motion will go before the Assembly calling for gay men convicted of abolished sex offences in Northern Ireland to be pardoned. "This is an opportunity for the criminal justice system to try and right the wrongs of the past," she said. The move will bring us into line with a similar initiative in England and Wales.

Ms Sugden confirmed that she had secured Executive agreement for the motion. Crucially, this means that the DUP, whose members have in the recent past notoriously referred to gay relationships as abominable and repulsive, are backing it too.

I was unimpressed by Arlene Foster's petty claim that online abuse from LGBT activists made her party less likely to vote for marriage equality law. To me, her yah-boo-sucks response smacked of the schoolyard. But removing this unconscionable slur against the characters of men whose only 'crime' was consensual relations between adults - that's more like it, Arlene. The DUP have an awful lot of ground to make up, but this is a small step in the right direction.

Normally, I'm unenthusiastic about retrospective pardons and apologies. Too often it's the wrong people saying sorry for the actions of others, usually many years too late. Tony Blair's apology for the Irish famine was particularly self-serving and devoid of meaning. "Moral vacuousness," Jeremy Paxman called it, and he was right.

But these pardons are not only posthumous, they will also benefit men who are still alive today. In other words, they matter - not just as a general admission that the State got it wrong, but in making reparation to innocent individuals who were badly harmed by the practice, before it's too late.

The veteran gay rights campaigner Jeff Dudgeon, who has long been seeking political support for the pardons, said it was a great moment - "it completes the circle now we have got decriminalisation and effectively an apology for the previous behaviour of the state".

Mr Dudgeon said the move was particularly important for people whose reputations were destroyed. "In some cases they died having gone to jail … Their characters were damaged and job opportunities seriously curtailed and quite often many men committed suicide rather than go to court."

After the mock gay wedding on Culture Night in Belfast, in which local playwright Martin Lynch 'married' a lesbian couple, I wondered how many people present were aware of just how horrendous it was for gay people in Northern Ireland during the days of 'Save Ulster from Sodomy'.

Matthew Parris, writing recently in the Spectator magazine, described his ambivalence about a champagne-fuelled London party, attended by bishops and peers and government ministers, to celebrate Oscar Wilde's birthday. He was glad that times had changed, of course. But it was wretched in the past: "the closed doors, ministerial brick walls, heart-rending letters from gay men, frightened teenagers, lonely bank clerks entrapped by the police." And now everyone acts "as though they always thought what they think now".

One man who knows exactly what it was like in those fear-haunted times was Jeff Dudgeon.

A radical and a reformer, it was Dudgeon who won the 1981 victory in the European Court of Human Rights, which decriminalised homosexuality in Northern Ireland. Opposition to the campaign for law reform was colossal and Dudgeon was one of many activists who had their homes raided and papers confiscated by the RUC.

As well as pardoning those who were hurt by anti-gay laws, we should be honouring people like Jeff Dudgeon, who stood up against that hostile, threatening culture and fought for justice.

Dudgeon's politics - he's an Ulster Unionist councillor at Belfast City Hall - mean he's not a natural fit with the liberal-left attitudes which dominate LGBT activism today.

So what? This is a man of courage and principle, and his bravery changed history. We should all salute him.

Belfast Telegraph

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