‘It changed the image of Fianna Fáil’: Ex-minister on legacy of lifting gay ban

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn recalls her role in removing repressive laws in 1993

Taoiseach issues formal apology to men criminalised prior to legal change in 1993 for their sexual orientation. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

On the night in 1992 that Albert Reynolds announced his new cabinet, a group of gay activists were gathered in a room. When the identities of the new ministers were disclosed on television they gathered around to see who was the new minister for justice.

There was a silence when the name of Máire Geoghegan-Quinn was announced. It was only broken when one of them stood up and declared: “Lads, we are f***d.”

They were despondent that their long fight to end the criminalisation of homosexuality now seemed stalled. It had been five years since the European Court of Justice had ruled that the repressive laws had discriminated against David Norris because of his sexual orientation.

“I can understand why they might have said that,” said Geoghegan-Quinn on Wednesday. “They would have seen me as Fianna Fáil first and foremost. They assumed that if you had a Fianna Fáil label after your name you were right wing, illiberal, conservative and fundamental.”

A friend met the campaign group shortly afterwards and told them not to make assumptions about the Galway politician, saying: “I bet you she will surprise you.”

Very sensitive issue

And that prediction turned out to be correct. On the day she was briefed by senior officials in justice about her portfolio she remembers how low priority this issue was. When she asked why, she was told it was a very sensitive issue, one not easily handled.

She then said to the department’s secretary general Tim Dalton: “I have a policy in life that I’ve had since my time as a teacher, and that is to tackle the difficult issues first and then do the easy ones.

“It’s a long time since David Norris was in the European Court of Justice with Mary Robinson and it’s about time something is done about it.”

She realised, however, she would get nowhere without the support of then taoiseach Albert Reynolds. “I knew he would have a conservative view,” she says but also knew he could be convinced.

“He said to me: ‘This is something I am not particularly comfortable with but I do think it is the right thing to do for the country. If you bring a proposal to cabinet I will support it.”

Seminal moment

And that’s how it was all set in train. Sitting in the Merrion Hotel, 25 years after that seminal moment, Geoghegan-Quinn reflects on its implication.

“Domestically this was my biggest legacy. The Downing Street Declaration was delivered too at the time and a lot of work went into it. It is the thing that I am proudest of, challenging the forces at work.

“After the peace process it is one of the things I am proudest that Albert did.”

But if she did not live up to the Fianna Fáil label of conservatism, many colleagues did. Before she met the parliamentary party on the issue, she had met a group of people from the LGBT community who had shared with her their personal stories. Among them was an older woman, who remained silent, throughout the meeting.

Right at the end, the woman looked at the minister and told her that her name was Phil Moore. She said her son had come out to her as gay, and despite her shock, she could not stop loving the son she had loved all her live.

“She said to me: ‘How can you as the minister tell me that he’s a criminal?’ That was very powerful for me.

“When I went to the party meeting, there was a lot of resistance. I addressed it and said: ‘Most people in this room are parents. What would you do if your son came in and said he was gay? Would you tell them to pack the bags and go? You will continue loving them, of course you will’.

“I think with the exception of two members, who are now dead, they all supported it.”

There was some ferocious opposition elsewhere, not least from conservative members of Fine Gael, and it helped to alter the perception of the party in some quarters.

“It ended the image that Fianna Fáil would never take any issue that might be considered liberal in the broadest sense and would not be prepared to grasp any nettle,” she said.

A few days after the referendum, Geoghegan-Quinn was holding her weekly clinic in Richardson’s Bar on Eyre Square in Galway.

“I heard a a lot of music outside. Tim [Richardson] came up the stairs to say: ‘All your fellows are downstairs and they are looking for you. All that gay crowd.’

“I went down. They had a band and had marched down Bohermore with a flag and banner chanting my name.”

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 act won her plaudits from the gay community and within a few years that sense of marginalisation had almost disappeared.

Paraphrasing Churchill she says the vote was the “end of the beginning” for a societal shift that would usher in a very different Ireland.

And are we near the end? Yes, close, she replied.

She was delighted with the outcome of both referendums over the past three years.

“Ireland has been transformed since 1993. All of the organisation that held sway in 1993 have gone,” she says. “People are much more open and accepting of things.”

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