1982: DUP furious at gay law reforms

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THE DUP’s unanimous view that homosexuality should remain a serious criminal offence in Northern Ireland in 1982 is forcefully expressed in a newly-released Cabinet paper document.

In a submission to the Government dated April 30 of that year, the party articulates fierce and detailed opposition to plans to legalise homosexuality, which the DUP paper links to paedophilia.

The party was responding to the draft Homosexual Offences Order that sought to decriminalise same-sex activity between consenting male adults over 21, which was then illegal (there was never a prohibition on female homosexuality).

The proposals to change the law followed a defeat for the United Kingdom in an action brought to the European Court of Human Rights against the Province’s laws relating to homosexual offences. Similar laws had been scrapped in England and Wales in 1967, and in Scotland in 1980.

The case had been commenced by the Belfast gay rights activist Jeff Dudgeon in 1975, and the following year he and other gay rights activists were arrested and questioned by the RUC about homosexual acts.

In October 1981, the Strasbourg court ruled 15 to 4 that the Northern Ireland law was a violation of the right to a private life.

The ruling prompted the Government of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to begin the process of decriminalising homosexuality.

Three years before the judgment, Ian Paisley, the then leader of the DUP, had launched a Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign, which attracted 70,000 signatories.

The party’s submission to the Northern Ireland Office, ahead of the October 1982 change to the law, says that legalisation will “undermine the social order and high moral fibre which exists in Northern Ireland”.

The document, which is issued in the name of the party rather than any politicians, begins: “The DUP declares its unalterable opposition to the proposals ... to legalise homosexuality in Northern Ireland contrary to the declared wishes of the majority of people of the Province.

“The opposition of our party has been endorsed, not only unanimously at our party conference, but also electorally by over 176,000 people who supported our manifesto policy in the May 1981 local government elections.”

It then cites the scale of support for Dr Paisley’s campaign.

The DUP paper also refers to “widespread” opposition to legalisation outside the party, including from other parties, the Protestant churches, the Catholic church and “almost all” councils.

The DUP submission then explains the basis of the party’s opposition: “The DUP adamantly believes that homosexuality and its proposed legalisation, is in direct defiance of the law and word of God and cannot be justified from any Christian, moral, religious or ethical perspective.”

The draft Homosexual Offences Order, it adds, is “a scandalous surrender to a tiny minority campaign for homosexuality to be treated as a normal way of life, instead of a harmful deviance”.

The proposal to legalise homosexuality is described as “but a dangerous revolutionary first step” towards “efforts to present homosexuality as normal”.

In further blistering comments, the DUP document continues: “The effect of the law as a restraint on bestiality, incest and rape will be further reduced.”

The Order’s proposed homosexual age of consent of 21 will, the DUP says, lead to “inevitable demands for a further lowering”, giving “impetus to the paedophile movement which is rampant within the homosexual movement today”.

The DUP identifies options open to the British Government, ranging from open defiance of the European ruling to noting it, and deferring any action until a devolved assembly is established, which would “by a clear cross party majority” reject law reform.

Weeks after the DUP paper, on May 18, a four-man delegation met the junior minister Lord Gowrie about the order – Dr Paisley, Alan Kane, Jim Allister and the mayor of Ballymena Sandy Spence.

A minute of the meeting gives the impression that the rhetoric from the DUP representatives is milder than it was in the party’s written submission.

Dr Paisley and Mr Spence emphasised the cross-community opposition to decriminalisation, a point which Lord Gowrie accepted. He said that the Government had not ignored such views and reminded them that it had contested the European case.

The minute recorded: “[Lord Gowrie] had to take into account that many heterosexuals as well as homosexuals did not consider homosexuality to be a sin. He stressed that the Government was proposing no more than that those who wished to live in this way in private could do so and that this would not affect those who did not so wish.”

When Mr Spence referred to “incidents in a public lavatory in Ballymena” and the Kincora abuse scandal, Lord Gowrie “noted that such incidents would remain illegal”.

Mr Allister suggested that the UK could derogate from the relevant article of the European Convention on Human Rights, but one of Lord Gowrie’s officials replied that this was not possible after a ruling had been made.

Dr Paisley noted that homosexuality is illegal in the Republic of Ireland, but it “was not being pushed in the same direction by the court”. Lord Gowrie said that it too would likely find itself in the court, while Dr Paisley replied that the “south would reject any such finding”.

At a later date, Lord Gowrie met Peter Robinson, who had been unable to attend the meeting, to hear his complaints.

n These reports relate to the 1982 file about the Draft Homosexual Law Offences NI Order. Another 1982 file (Homosexual Law – Correspondence) was not opened to scrutiny.