UUP's Jeffrey Dudgeon: 'Police once raided my home and quizzed me for being gay'
Trailblazer Jeffrey Dudgeon of the UUP recounts his battle to legalise homosexuality, his work for UKUP MP Bob McCartney and what he thought about US talks convenor Dr Richard Haass.
Q. You have been selected as one of two potential UUP candidates to run in South Belfast in May, with unionist pact negotiations with the DUP ongoing. Can you explain why you are so determined that South Belfast should return to unionist hands after 10 years with an SDLP MP?
A. There is no God-given right for the constituency to be one thing or the other, it's up to the people to decide. For 10 years they have decided on a split unionist vote to put a nationalist into Westminster. This time round we have a chance to get a single unionist candidate so I offered myself to the Ulster Unionist Party that I would be the best candidate for a number of reasons and that it is vital to get unionist co-operation and get a single candidate.
That is a matter for the leaders of the two parties. It's a decision that could be weeks away. The sooner it is known the better for getting a campaign mounted.
There will be accusations of sectarianism but last time round Sinn Fein withdrew and I don't recall any significant criticism of them for doing that in the interests of nationalists. The truth is that elections here are unionist/nationalist, there is no way of getting away from that.
Unionism is poised to have a historic general election if everyone plays their part and common sense prevails.
Q. Will the DUP give the UUP South Belfast?
A. There is something in it for them politically, if they got a single unionist in East Belfast and North Belfast, and similarly in Fermanagh and South Belfast, it would be to all our advantage.
Q. Is the South Belfast seat winnable for a single unionist candidate?
A. I think it is just possible. The current rough percentages are 40% unionist, 40% nationalist, 20% centre ground. A vigorous campaign could bring it over the edge, and the other thing is bringing out people who have stopped voting because of disillusionment or a sense of hopelessness. Last May, because of the flag protests, the working-class vote came out considerably more and ensured that I ended up as a councillor where other people didn't believe that was a possibility at all.
Q. Do you think last May you brought out people who hadn't voted before when you were elected to Belfast City Council?
A. I am sure I did, particularly in working-class estates and also from the middle-class end of things because of my reputation is as a liberal of sorts, and progressive in many areas - although not all.
Q. You don't shy away from a fight, you even ran for the Irish Senate in 2011. What did you learn from that?
A. I learnt that you don't get elected until you have tried a few times. I actually ran for Westminster in South Belfast before, in 1979. At that time I described myself as a Labour Integrationalist. I didn't win but pulled in a respectable vote for a non-party person. Running for the Seanad was about trying to engage with the Republic and explain a unionist position.
Q. When did you first get involved with politics?
A. When I was a schoolboy, about 16, I got involved with the Northern Ireland Labour Party. Labour was a new dawn after decades of Conservative government. But I stood in 1979 as a Labour Integrationalist, because by then the Labour Party had basically disappeared locally.
After the Anglo-Irish Agreement, integrationalism gained strength and led to me becoming involved with Bob McCartney and the UKUP in 1995. I worked for Bob for three years as his constituency office manager which was taking forward the integrationalist project. It wasn't being as British as Finchley, it was about bringing Northern Ireland back into the UK.
Q. How did you get along with Bob Mc Cartney?
A. I had never had any political disagreements with him. At that point he was a Labourite and was working up towards the Blair government. Then came the Belfast Agreement in 1998 which, after the referendum, I felt the new arrangements had to be worked. The people had spoken, and importantly on both sides of the border. The Republic had dropped articles two and three which was basically what the IRA regarded as their legitimacy, that they had a right to wage war to effect the constitutional imperative. Once two and three went, I felt the IRA lost their motor.
Q. Did you vote yes for the Good Friday Agreement?
A. I opposed it. I felt it could have been a much better agreement, just like the Stormont House Agreement, I don't like it. But the Belfast Agreement had the legitimacy of the referendum.
That's where I parted company with Bob McCartney because he continued to wage war on the new institutions, and I felt they had to be worked. That was one's political duty. That's when I joined the Ulster Unionist Party.
Q. Is it true you were once arrested by the RUC for being gay?
A. When we were campaigning for decriminalisation (of homosexuality) in 1976, the police recognised there was a conspiracy of people who were trying to change the law, which is what we were doing. But almost by definition we were breaking the law. The police did what police had to do and investigated the conspiracy. There were up to 30 arrests in a few months. A number of people were going to be charged until the Attorney General in London put a stop to it.
Q. What charge?
A. The gross indecency law which was the one Oscar Wilde was done under, because they had everyone's letters and diaries.
Q. Love letter and diaries were going to be used as evidence?
A. They were gathered up by the police, yes. We don't know how many were going to be charged, we think it was about half a dozen or more. But the Attorney General, after a lot of thought, told police to abandon the matter - probably because the law was about to be changed - which, of course, it wasn't. The impending law change was scrapped when the Tories took charge in 1979.
Q. How long were you held in custody?
A. I wasn't technically arrested, I was questioned for five hours.
Q. What were they asking you?
A. They were fishing. They took every piece of paper out of my house and were literally reading them as they were talking to me, asking what does this mean, who is that person. It was tough. For some of them, their heart wasn't in it, I could see that, but some of them did feel it was justifiable. Eventually I got all the papers back, even the ones that were underlined and marked in red.
Q. It must have felt like an incredibly intrusive experience to have all these police officers going through such personal stuff? Even underlining parts in red.
A. It was of its time. It created an anger. Twenty years earlier people would have just collapsed and committed suicide. We were of the time and we were angry, out and proud, so we stuck together and survived. Then I took the case to Strasbourg in 1976 which went on until 1981 at the European Court of Human Rights.
Q. That was a long haul?
A. It was. We were successful. It was under my name but a whole lot of people were involved, fundraising and so on. I was justified. That case was a precedent throughout Europe and has even been quoted in the American Supreme Court. It was the first case, it modernised the law and its view on same sex relationships.
Q. Do you support gay marriage?
A. I argued for the civil partnership law to come to Northern Ireland and it was successful and I believe it was a good and just law. Those of us who were arguing at that time said we were not arguing for gay marriage. It is a different concept. Little did we know a whole surge would come forward 10 years later, backed even by David Cameron, for what was called equality. I feel it is a little inappropriate for me to suddenly jump to the next mountain and say although we said 10 years we didn't want gay men, we were deceiving you. A lot of older gay men aren't very interested. They appreciated civil partnership. A lot of people I know won't upgrade their partnership even if they could in Northern Ireland. They are perfectly happy with their partnership. I haven't joined the campaign. If it ever happens in Northern Ireland, it'll probably go through the Strasbourg courts because I just don't see any local agreement on it.
Q. You have a long-term partner. Have you never thought about tying the knot, either with a civil partnership or marriage?
A. It has been considered, but not taken forward, that's for personal reasons.
Q. What do you think about Ashers and the now infamous cake?
A. I am nervous of gay zealotry, or any type 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 direction.
When it comes to Ashers and the cake, I don't think there was ever any intention to start that dispute. I am concerned that the Equality Commission have now added political discrimination to the discrimination on sexual orientation as a ground on running their case against Ashers.
Political discrimination is unique to Northern Ireland, no other country has a political discrimination law, it was never intended to be used except in the Catholic/Protestant dispute. I think they have twisted the thing about and it is unwise. It is a test case again, and this is a test that would be best put aside.
Q. Do you have any thoughts on the criticism Stephen Fry has received for his much younger fiance?
A. Well, I think it has always been the case in gay circles that older men can be very much admired and respected by younger people, showbiz is not unique in that respect.
Q. You were involved with the Haass talks last year, how was that experience?
A. Mike Nesbitt asked me to join the team because of my work and knowledge of Irish history [Jeff wrote a book on Irish republican Roger Casement]. From that came a sense of responsibility that I should do more, and I then ran for Belfast City Council (May 2014) and got elected against the odds and conventional wisdom. Those elections were the return to life of the Ulster Unionist Party and we are on a roll.
Q. What is it really like behind closed doors during those type of pressure cooker political talks?
A. It was pyschological, it was basically an exercise in trying to get ideas into other people's heads. With Haass it was difficult, he had particularly strong views. He was anti-historical and didn't agree with us that the best way to address the past is through historical analysis, not through legal battles. The IRA is now trying to rewrite history, to make them morally equal if not better than the British Army and RUC, to justify their actions.
But Haass was an equivalence man, and on the flag he saw it as an identity question whereas the flag is a sovereignty issue. Either you are in the UK or you are heading out, and if you are heading out you are taking flags now - or not putting them on driving licences.
In the Belfast Agreement, Sinn Fein made a huge concession to the existence of the UK and now every day and every hour they are trying to undo the acceptance of the UK.
Haass tried to give everyone a bit of what they want, not bottom line and no hard things to stomach.
Q. Do you think Haass was left fed up and frustrated?
A. Yes, but he is partly vindicated because the Stormont House Agreement is Haass-lite plus all the financial stuff which was key to getting Sinn Fein moving. Those inquests will go on for decades, and HIU which was meant to be time-limited to five years, may be extended to no limits. The staffing of those groups is key. Haass did not want ex-police officers involved which was a disgraceful position but the current version does not go into that sort of detail.
My party was not in the driving seat for either Haass or Stormont House but we did get a few things we wanted, such as the mental health centre and historical time-line. What we had to stomach along with it was hard. We go nowhere on flags or parades, whereas during Haass we had been getting somewhere on parades. There were a couple of sticking points but there was a general agreement to construct the Parades Commission and utilise the European convention on Human Rights freedoms more. Under the convention there had to be extremely good reasons not to allow parading.
Q. Are you from south Belfast?
A. I am from east Belfast where I attended Strandtown Primary and Campbell College before going on to Trinity College, Dublin. I have lived in south Belfast for 35 years and like it. It's got a great constituency, it has got everything.
Q. Michael McGimpsey said he would not stand for selection for Westminster this time to make way for a young candidate, how do you feel about that as a 65-year-old?
A. I think if I do get elected I will be one of the oldest to first get elected to the House of Commons. The Father of the House Peter Tapsell is well into his 80s, and 60 is the new 40. When it comes to ideas, I am more traditionalist than I was as a younger man but I am still a radical.