It is important that we take time to remember and reflect on key moments in our history particularly when they mark a decisive move towards recognising the basic rights of citizens.
By any measure the vote 25 years ago to decriminalise homosexuality is a turning point in modern Irish history. It did not end discrimination – and we have not ended discrimination – but it did set off a chain of actions which have changed our country unquestionably for the better.
The decriminalisation legislation was first and foremost a victory for a generation of exceptional campaigners. They worked with extraordinary passion and no small amount of bravery to say loudly and proudly that Irish society must end the appalling stigma of criminality which gave force to an almost endemic homophobia. The forerunner of what is today the National LGBTI Federation was central to this.
As with too many social changes in our country, the spark for change came from a terrible tragedy. The murder of Declan Flynn in Fairview Park in September 1982 began a movement which suffered many setbacks but ultimately triumphed 11 years later.
The decision of the Supreme Court’s majority in the case taken by Senator David Norris may well be the worst in that Court’s history and it is certainly, and rightly, it’s most infamous.
However even then a mark of a brighter future could be found in the powerful dissent of Niall McCarthy. A deeply committed believer in the rights and republican motivation of the constitution, McCarthy tore apart the idea that an imported Victorian morality and legislation should negate the personal rights guaranteed to citizens of this republic.
The subsequent judgement of the European Court of Human Rights put the focus squarely on the Oireachtas to act. After unjustified delays the programme for government agreed between Labour and Fianna Fáil in 1992 stated clearly that change would be enacted.
If you look back at the Dáil debates as well as general commentary there are important lessons for us and signals for the progress which happened step by step in the following two decades.
It is wrong to see Máire Geoghegan-Quinn as simply the line minister who happened to be in charge of the bill. In fact she made two major contributions.
Firstly she insisted that the House should see this as a human rights issue and not as some minor cleaning up of an out of date statute. It was, she said, essential that we accepted the inherent human rights of homosexual couples.
And secondly she, with the backing of the cabinet, rejected attempts to keep some inequality in the law.
In Britain and other countries decriminalisation was often done on a piecemeal basis and governments made gestures to homophobia such as having an unequal age of consent.
Importantly the European Court left the issue of the age of consent up to national law. A proposal was made at Committee Stage by the largest opposition party in the Dáil to have an unequal age of consent.
The minister and many others rejected both the proposal and the logic behind it. Then Deputy Alan Shatter, with others such as Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, were so uncomfortable with their own party’s amendment that they actually filibustered it so that it was never voted on.
By deciding in 1993 to both decriminalise and have equality in this part of the law a decisive tone was set which has been central to everything which has come since then.
My party is proud to have enacted, with cross-party support, the Employment Equality Act of 1998 and the Equal Status Act of 2000 which extended equal protections to citizens irrespective of sexual orientation. This legislation was recognised by the UN in 2001 as being amongst the most progressive in the world at the time.
The all-party approach which has been central to progress continued with the civil partnership legislation and ultimately the marriage equality referendum which was carried so overwhelmingly during the last Dáil.
We should all realise how important it has been that we have worked together in the past 25 years to allow voices in the LGBTI community to be heard in our national parliament and to ensure a wide-consensus. In doing this we have avoided the sort of damaging political debate seen in other countries.
The long-term impact of criminalisation of homosexual relations is something which we must continue to address. Even for the youngest generation, acknowledging your sexuality far, far too often involves taking real risks. We still have a journey to finish in providing the love and support which they so badly needed.
We have to deliver health services, including mental health services which meet the needs of the LGBTI community. We must redouble education efforts to both tackle discrimination and promote active support and understanding.
We fully support the all-party motion to pardon all those who were convicted under previous draconian legislation and we also believe that progress should be made on addressing the legislative gaps that still remain for gay couples who have children.
Internationally, the last few years have demonstrated to anyone who wants to pay attention that the steady march of progress which was so casually assumed at the start of the 1990s has not come about. In fact this is a very dark moment for believers in human rights.
Basic freedoms are under threat and there are many countries where homophobia is now being actively promoted by governments. Russia’s active discrimination is now being copied by others. There are many countries in Africa that have an appalling and worsening record.
We have a duty not to turn our eyes away. The repression against LGBTI people in these countries cannot be allowed to become a new normal which carries no consequences.
Commemorating progress in our own country is an empty gesture if we do not speak up for those in other countries who are suffering.
In two weeks’ time the streets of Dublin will be filled with a joyous celebration of LGBTI identity. Pride has become one of our capitals most inclusive and important annual events.
It is something which would have been barely imaginable in the Dublin of 1982 where a young man lost his life because he gave a small kiss on the cheek to another young man as he left a public house.
Declan Flynn and so many others who suffered because of the homophobia enabled by criminalisation must always be remembered. They must serve as a warning to us of what happens when a society takes away basic rights from a minority.