Seanad Éireann

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Speech by Minister for Justice and Equality, Mr. Charlie Flanagan T.D.


A Cathaoirleach,

I want to thank Senator Nash for bringing forward this motion today and, indeed to thank him for his ongoing work on these issues and for the constructive way he has worked with my office to bring us to this point.  I would also like to thank the members of the Seanad for giving time and consideration to this important issue.

This is a special day in these Houses and I feel privileged to be the Minister for Justice and Equality at this time and to be in a position to support this motion, to recommend that Government support it, and to have worked with Senator Nash to advance matters.

25 years ago this week, an important step was taken which changed the lives of many people in Ireland. The enactment of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1993 sought to repeal Victorian-era laws which criminalised members of our society, forcing them to conduct their personal and private lives in secret. Homosexual men in Ireland were ostracized, and criminalised, simply because of their sexual orientation.

These laws caused immeasurable harm. Nothing that can be said here today can undo the unjust suffering and discrimination that the homosexual community experienced in the years prior to decriminalisation. As a Government, we must acknowledge those wrongs, and seek to improve lives for all members of our society so that they can live freely and without fear of discrimination.

I am delighted to support the motion in this House today, which at its heart, offers an apology to all those affected by the criminalisation of consensual same-sex acts in Ireland prior to 1993. This motion is reflective of the Government’s commitment to ensuring that Ireland is a society for all people, an equal society, and a fair society.

In 1977, a Senator in this House, Senator David Norris, took a significant High Court challenge against the laws which criminalised homosexuality in Ireland. This was a brave, first step towards the decriminalisation of homosexual relationships, and is one which is widely recognised as the critical step that led to the 1993 Act. That case lead to the judgment of the European Court on Human Rights which found that the laws against homosexuality in Ireland were in direct contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The impact and significance of that challenge cannot be underestimated.

All these years later, it is entirely appropriate that this debate should be taking place in the Upper House with Senator Norris set to give what I know will be a memorable speech.  I wish to thank Senator Norris for his leadership on this issue.  I am sure that his determination to fight against such injustice was instrumental in ensuring freedom for the LGBTI community in Ireland today. The Senator’s courage in standing up for human rights, and the support provided to that challenge by former President Mary Robinson, has certainly been marked in this nation’s history.

I would also like to thank Senator Nash for his collaboration since the introduction of the Private Members Convictions for Certain Sexual Offences (Apology and Exoneration) Bill,   out of which arose this motion today.  In consultation with the Taoiseach and the Attorney General, I have been working with Senator Nash to identify legislative solutions.  There are significant practical and legal difficulties but we are working to find resolutions, including through consultations with the UK Home Office.  I hope to be back in this House reporting progress before long.

But back to the motion that is before us now.  This motion recognises the great harm caused to many people by the criminalisation of these relationships in Ireland. These laws were clearly discriminatory in nature, and were also a direct infringement on the personal and private lives of those who they affected. Immeasurable hurt and immeasurable harm was caused to many people in our society, to their families, and to their friends.

Decriminalisation was a huge step in Ireland’s ability to progress towards equality for the LGBTI community within Ireland.

Today Ireland is celebrated around the world for the value which its citizens place on equality, following the same sex marriage referendum, and in recognition of the diversity in our current Cabinet.  It is doubtless incomprehensible to many, especially to many young people in Ireland today, that there are members of our society who still feels the effects of such discrimination in their daily lives and yet, that is the case. There are people who still feel the isolation, the hurt and the stigma created by those laws, which denied the LGBTI community the ability to live openly or without fear, which denied them the ability to engage actively in civil and public life, and which suggested that society did not value or even tolerate them, simply because of their sexual orientation.

As Minister for Justice and Equality, I extend a sincere apology to all of those people, to their family, and to their friends. To any person who felt the hurt and isolation created by those laws, and particularly to those who those who were criminally convicted by the existence of such laws.

Successive Governments have slowly but steadily worked to make Ireland a more equal and inclusive society since decriminalisation in 1993. Some of that progress is captured in this motion. Many legislative measures have been introduced which have sought to improve the lives of all members of society, so that they may marry regardless of sexual orientation, so that they may be recognised by their chosen gender, so that they may enjoy equal rights to family relationships, and to address discrimination in all forms.

Such progress can only be welcomed. However, that does not mean that there is not more work that must be done. The motion before you today also reflects our desire to continue to ensure that the laws in this country fully recognises sexual and gender minorities, and that people in our society are free to fully express their identities without fear, and without discrimination.  My hardworking colleague, Minister of State Stanton, is absolutely committed to advancing equality measures and, indeed, he has begun work on an LGBTI Strategy.

The past cannot be undone. It is the responsibility of this Government and those that follow in our footsteps that we continue to progress, that we continue to promote equality for all, and that our policies and our actions strive to ensure that human rights are protected. It is of the highest importance, that our citizens can live in freedom and participate fully in our society, and that those who continue to face discrimination and violence are protected.

Again, I would like to thank the Members of the House for their attention here today. I believe that this cross-party motion is a historic and important step for Ireland, which I am proud to support on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the decriminalisation of same sex intimate relationships in Ireland. I again commend Senator Nash, and his colleagues Senator Bacik, Senator Ó Riordan, and Senator Humphries for their work.  And, finally, I congratulate Senator Norris for his steadfast dedication to equality and human rights.

Thank you, Cathaoirleach.