Calls to pardon those convicted of homosexual offences

David Norris supports following ‘excellent’ British law to pardon consenting adults

Brian Sheehan of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network: “The law was a cudgel to ensure lesbian and gay people never raised their head and became visible.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Brian Sheehan of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network: “The law was a cudgel to ensure lesbian and gay people never raised their head and became visible.” Photograph: Eric Luke

 

There have been calls for a general pardon for those convicted of homosexual offences in Ireland, following the announcement of such a move in the UK.

Sexual acts between men were illegal under Irish law until 1993, when they were decriminalised following a 16-year legal battle by Senator David Norris.

Yesterday the British government announced the Turing law, which will automatically pardon deceased people who were convicted of sexual acts between consenting males. Those still living can apply to have the offence wiped from their records. It is estimated that about 80,000 could be pardoned.

The law is named after Alan Turing, the computer pioneer who was convicted of gross indecency with a male in 1952 and later chemically castrated.

Mr Norris said the British law was an “excellent” initiative and was considering launching a campaign for something similar here.

“I fully support it,” he said. “There should be a general pardon by the Government where they say everyone who was convicted of it is fine.”

Send message

Brian Sheehan, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, said a pardon would send a message to older LGBT people who grew up prior to decriminalisation.

“The law was a cudgel to ensure lesbian and gay people never raised their head and became visible,” Mr Sheehan said. “The consequences of that are still felt by some people today who never got the chance to be who they were.”

“A pardon would be recognition of how damaging it was to the LGBT community,” he added. “An acknowledgment of that may very well be powerful for older people who grew up thinking of themselves only as criminals.

“It would be an acknowledgement by the State that its laws limited people’s freedoms to be themselves in their lives and, worse, created conditions where very significant disadvantage and marginalisation was experienced.”

David Langwallner, a barrister who directs the Irish Innocence Project, said his organisation would happily lobby for an Irish pardon.

Mr Langwallner led the successful campaign for a posthumous executive pardon for Harry Gleeson, who was hung in 1941 for a murder he didn’t commit. He said the Gleeson pardon would bolster a case for a pardon for homosexuals.

“There’s a precedent now,” he said. “In other words, if they’ve done it once they’ll do it again.”

Mr Langwallner, who is also codirector of the European Innocence Network, said the Irish and European Organisations “would be very happy to campaign and lobby for a pardon.”

Sexual acts between men were illegal in Ireland under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. Both law were carried over into Irish law after independence.

It is difficult to establish how many people were convicted of consenting homosexual acts: the same laws were also used to prosecute sexual acts with children, which remain illegal.

In 1979, the Dáil was told there had been 44 prosecutions for homosexual acts in the past three years.

Sex offenders

Because laws were used for consenting and nonconsenting acts, a pardon of all those convicted under them could inadvertently result in the pardoning of child sex offences.

“It’s an awkward one,” said Mr Sheehan. “It’s very hard to know who you would be pardoning, but an acknowledgement that the conditions created by the State were brutal is needed.”

This was a concern in the UK, but the government appears to have sidestepped it by making the pardon only applicable to acts that are not currently illegal.

Mr Norris said there is also a worry that a pardon could resurrect unwanted memories for people.

“For many people convicted, it would have been a very sad and traumatic event and they wouldn’t want to be reminded of it. It would have to be a general pardon without naming individuals.”