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Jeffrey Dudgeon - The quiet crusader: From changing the law to tackling litter, UUP councillor has been pivotal

 

From changing the law on homosexuality in Northern Ireland to tackling litter hands-on, UUP councillor Jeffrey Dudgeon has played a pivotal role in public life. Ahead of a BBC NI True North documentary on Monday night about the history of the NI gay rights movement, the Belfast man tells Lindy McDowell about family, politics and the revived pan-nationalist front.

Some years back I was at a dinner in a restaurant in south Belfast with, among others, Jeff Dudgeon. We'd all been invited back to a friend's house close to the Holylands and since it wasn't very far, some of us, including Jeff and I, opted to walk.

En route, as you do, we got into a heavy debate about the political crisis of the day.

Every so often, however, Jeff would suddenly segue off to pick up some piece of litter or to rip from a lamppost some haphazardly pasted flyer.

Where the rest of us might roll our eyes or piously tut-tut about the city's dire dirt problem, generally we leave it to the council's cleansing department to sort that out.

Here was Jeff, though, quite literally taking matters into his own hands.

But then Jeffrey Edward Anthony Dudgeon MBE, gay rights champion, noted historian and UUP councillor for the Balmoral ward in Belfast City Council, has always been very much a doer, not just a talker.

Principled, outstandingly courageous and determined, he has done more to move forward the cause of gay rights in Northern Ireland (and indeed in other parts of the world) than any other living person.

Back in 1981 he took a case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 (the law which criminalised male homosexuality and the same Act under which Oscar Wilde and later Alan Turing were prosecuted) contravened the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court ruled in his favour.

As a result, within a year, legislation was enacted which brought the law on male homosexuality in Northern Ireland into line with that in England and Wales, where it had been changed in 1967, and Scotland, where it had been changed in 1980.

The Dudgeon case was subsequently cited as a precedent for other successful court actions throughout the world from the Republic of Ireland to Cyprus and the American state of Texas.

To millennials, that year when Jeff took his seminal case, must seem like ancient history. To the rest of us it was yesterday.

The charts that year were dominated by the likes of the Human League and Adam Ant. Soft Cell had a big hit with Tainted Love. It's hard to imagine today that homosexuality wasn't merely frowned upon back then, it was actually regarded as a criminal act for which the penalty was imprisonment.

Jeff Dudgeon, just one of a number of angry young men and their supporters who led the campaign from the 1970s, had been born into a comfortable home in a middle-class area of east Belfast.

The Dudgeons ("It's an unusual name for here," I say. "There are more of us than you think," he replies) came over originally from Scotland, although latterly Co Tyrone, which is where Jeff's father came from.

The family home was just on the edge of Strandtown Primary School which he later attended before moving to Campbell College as a day boy, and finally Trinity College in Dublin.

Along with a number of other activists he was spearheading the campaign to have the law on gay criminalisation changed when, in 1976, police 'lifted' him and 21 other local gay men. Diaries and letters were seized, he was questioned for several hours in a police station.

Looking back that surely must have been frightening.

"Frightening to some degree, yes," he says, "but mostly in the wider context. Northern Ireland was a violent place back then and there was the worry that these events might divert some attention towards the gay community.

"In fact, there was a backlash but this came after the change to the law in 1982, when my house came under sustained attack. A breeze block was thrown through the window."

As leader of the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association, Jeff had a high profile and inevitably faced much hostility from those opposed to law reform.

Ian Paisley's graphically entitled Save Ulster From Sodomy campaign had been launched in the Seventies as a direct response to NIGRA. Jeff has previously described the opposition he and others within NIGRA faced back then as "incredible, colossal, total".

How difficult were those times for his family?

"Probably more difficult than I realised at the time. We were young men out to change the law. That's what we were focussed on. My immediate family were extremely supportive and one of my biggest regrets is that, at the time, I maybe didn't realise just how difficult it was for them too," he says.

In the years since that law change of 1982 Jeff, who lives with his long-term partner, has continued the fight for gay rights.

Now 68, he was awarded the MBE in the 2012 New Year's Honours list for his continued contribution to the LGBT community here, work that has included helping secure the introduction of civil partnerships and the pardons for men in Northern Ireland with historical gay convictions. It is not a small thing in his eyes that the DUP which, under Ian Paisley, had sought to maintain the criminalisation law, under Arlene Foster tabled the motion that enabled the pardons legislation to be extended to Northern Ireland.

"Arlene got it through the Assembly," he says. "Later she told me 'It was the right thing to do but we're not going to shout about it'."

He's been involved in local politics since his teens, first as a member of the old Northern Ireland Labour Party.

In 1979 he ran in a general election as a Labour Integrationist. Later, he was to work with then MP Robert McCartney, before joining the UUP.

He is, as a mutual friend neatly sums him up, "not a man who runs with the crowd".

A respected historical writer, he is also the author of Roger Casement, The Black Diaries, the acclaimed book about the prominent Irish republican.

During the Ashers 'gay cake' saga, he told one interviewer: "I am nervous of gay zealotry or any types of zealotry against Christians. It is a sort of triumphalism of people who were previously marginalised. There has been a lot of court activity, street preachers being charged with incitement.

"I think things have gone too far in that respect."

Similarly the man who was instrumental in having civil partnerships made legal here confesses that he was once "a bit chary" about gay marriage.

He has been struck, though, he says, by "how the public has rallied round us".

Currently he's involved in a campaign which includes Professor Paul Johnston, from York University, a legal expert from the university's Department of Sociology who played a key role with the gay pardons legislation.

The aim is to bring a Bill before Westminster to legislate for gay marriage in Northern Ireland by "undevolving" the power.

As Jeff points out, when/if Stormont ever gets back up and running there is already a majority in favour of gay marriage anyway.

And the DUP, even if they wished to stymie that, can no longer do so through a Petition of Concern.

How does he feel about the Sinn Fein espousal of gay marriage - something which he has described as "a test issue of modernism" - as a major demand in their current strategy re Stormont?

"I think, by and large they're probably genuine. But I do think they're also using it as a way to rather obviously pick up more support. And it's worked a treat.

"People who wouldn't be republicans now find Sinn Fein's honeyed words attractive."

I ask him what he makes of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's recent input into the ongoing debate about direct rule, and he replies succinctly: "The pan nationalist front has been reconstituted.

"For those who have a hatred of direct rule, the mantra is there can be no direct rule. But just because Sinn Fein say it can't happen doesn't mean it won't actually happen."

His priorities in his city council work include trying to do something about the dereliction in the Shaftesbury Square area, once part of what was deemed Belfast's Golden Mile.

He concedes that areas come and go but still believes it's possible to "retrieve the position", as he puts it.

When I remind him about that night he spent "retrieving" litter as we walked through the streets of south Belfast he says he still keeps up the DIY refuse collection.

He adds that he keeps a range of sturdy plastic bags and gloves for the job in a "doesn't everyone?" kind of voice.

When I express amusement at this he fires through to me on email, two pics of bags and gloves he keeps for this work, all neatly stacked and ready for action.

The tools of a man who sees a job to be done and just gets on with it.

People who change the world don't always stand out from the crowd. There's nothing loud or showy or "look at me" about Jeff Dudgeon.

But if anything reflects the inner grit that has surely sustained this honourable and understated hero through the arduous battles he's fought and the prejudice he's faced down, it's the firm set of the chin always held high.

Jeff Dudgeon has the look of a man used to walking into the wind.

BBC's award winning True North documentary series on Monday, BBC1, 10.40pm, will recall the story of the NIGRA fight to change the law on the criminalisation of male homosexuality led by Jeff Dudgeon and a small group of gay men in Northern Ireland. As well as archive footage and photographs, the programme hears what life was like for a gay man here in the 1970s and 1980s

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