‘Nothing can change unless you fight’ says gay activist

Pacemaker Press Belfast  28-06-2017: The Newsletter's Julie Ann Spence pictured interviewing Cllr Jeff Dudgeon.'Picture By: Arthur Allison.
Pacemaker Press Belfast 28-06-2017: The Newsletter's Julie Ann Spence pictured interviewing Cllr Jeff Dudgeon.'Picture By: Arthur Allison.

Ulster Unionist Jeffrey Dudgeon is not just a Belfast Councillor, he is an accomplished author, gay rights activist, and became the face of the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in Northern Ireland after winning a case in the European Court of Human Rights.

Jeffrey grew up in Belfast and was a student at Campbell College when his interest in current affairs began.

“I remember at secondary school having debates and discussions with other pupils,” he explained.

“I was a bit of a radical and a rebel, which probably came from my mother who was quite progressive.

‘‘My father was quite conservative but it was a very liberal household.

“I didn’t really want to go to university but my parents didn’t go because there wasn’t the money for them so it was important for their children to have the opportunity.

“So I did a general arts degree and studied economics, history and English. It was enjoyable but I don’t know if I advanced myself. The university of experience is more important,”

In 1968, after leaving university, Jeffrey took up a job in London with the Post Office but after a year of missing home, he returned to Northern Ireland and began teaching before moving on again to eventually work in the Civil Service, in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS), and during that time he worked for a decade on Health Service Superannuation.

“I worked for the Civil Service on and off for 20 years,” continued Jeffrey. “It was the job I most appreciated and one of the things I am most proud of.”

While he settled into his working life, Jeffrey’s private life proved to be contentious in a country which still listed homosexuality as a crime.

In his twenties he campaigned for decriminalisation and after he was arrested in 1975 when police raided his home and confiscated documents detailing his sexual activities, he stepped up the campaign and took the country to court.

The case made its way through the courts until, in 1981, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Northern Ireland’s criminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults violated his right to respect for his private and family life.

And so in 1982 the law was finally changed but that was certainly not the end of his days of campaigning for equal rights,

“It was a very long seven year court case,” he recalls. “We were expecting to win so it wasn’t a surprise. It was more of a relief and quite a sense of satisfaction.

“There’s always loose ends and further aspects.

‘‘Having got decriminalisation there was a whole squad of other things that came along like the age of consent and civil partnership. Nothing can change unless you fight for it.”

And for Jeffrey that fight goes on while the DUP continue to oppose gay marriage in Northern Ireland.

“It is bigger than any of the others in some ways,” he continued. “It has become a test of modernity.

‘‘Equal marriage will quite rightly come back on the table.

‘‘The DUP have lost their veto so they have to get two Ulster Unionists to continue to block equal marriage and I don’t think any Ulster Unionist will do that.”

Although Jeffrey had always had an interest in politics, and has been a voice for equality and change in Northern Ireland, he became more involved in the political arena as Parliamentary assistant and constituency office manager for Robert McCartney MP (UK Unionist Party) during the 1990s. When the party folded in 2008, Jeffrey took the decision to join the Ulster Unionist Party.

“I thought the Ulster Unionist Party was the broad church for everyone,” he explained. “There’s no strong test of what you believe in. You can be liberal, conservative.”

Over the years Jeffrey has been heavily involved in negotiations with the party, and was one of the two negotiators at the Haass talks on the issues of Flags, Parades and the Past in 2013 along with Tom Elliott. He was elected to represent the Balmoral area on Belfast City Council in 2015 and remains a strong opponent of the Good Friday Agreement. “I am not favourable towards devolution and wouldn’t want to go to Stormont,” he added.