A number of founding members of the State were homosexual, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil as the Government on Tuesday issued a formal apology to gay men who were criminalised for their sexual orientation.
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan issued the apology in the Seanad to men who were criminalised prior to 1993 for consensual same-sex activities.
Speaking in advance during a Dáil debate on the matter, Mr Varadkar said: “We have come a long way. We remember those who suffered and we acknowledge that we still have more to do.
“There is always more to do, whether it’s promoting LGBT equality around the world, combating bullying or working to improve sexual health.”
Mr Varadkar said “it’s no secret that a number of patriots who were involved in the founding of the state - men and women - were homosexual. While the state’s laws affected gay men in a legal sense, they had a chilling effect on lesbians as well.
“However, today the people I want to pay a special tribute to are the unknown heroes, the thousands of people whose names we do not know, who were criminalised by our forbears.
“Men and women of all ages who tried to live and love and be themselves in a society where their identity was feared and despised, and who were aliens in their own country for their entire lives.”
The Taoiseach said: “We cannot erase the wrong that was done to them. What we can say is that we have learned as a society from their suffering.
“Their stories have helped change us for the better; they have made us more tolerant, more understanding and more human.”
Mr Varadkar paid tribute to Fianna Fáil and its then minister for justice Maire Geoghegan Quinn who championed the legislation to decriminalise homosexuality, and to campaigners including Senator David Norris and former president Mary Robinson.
The Taoiseach said he was born in 1979 “and in the three years before that there were 44 prosecutions in this country. It’s not that long ago.
“Homosexuality was seen as a perversion, and trials were sometimes a cruel form of entertainment. Others saw it as a mental illness including the medical profession at the time,” he said.
“For every one conviction there were a hundred other people who lived under the stigma of prosecution, who feared having their sexuality made public, and their lives destroyed.”
He said “it can be hard to change laws. It can be even harder to change hearts and minds. To change what is considered normal; to change a culture.”
Declan Flynn murder
Mr Varadkar said he was "just a child when Declan Flynn was murdered in Fairview Park; his only crime that he was gay.
“He was brutally attacked by five young men, one a teenager, who shouted: ‘Hide behind a tree. We are going to bash a queer’. He died from asphyxia after been given an horrific beating.”
The Taoiseach added: "When the Oireachtas makes something a crime, some people believe they have a licence to punish those they believe are committing it".
He said “these were young men who had grown up in a society which hated and feared homosexuality. They took the law into their own hands. And all too often, people allowed the law to do its bashing for them”.
In the Seanad, Mr Flanagan offered a “sincere apology’’ to all those who suffered when homosexuality was a crime in Ireland.
“I apologise to any person who felt the hurt and isolation created by those laws, and particularly to those who were criminally convicted by the existence of such laws,’’ he said.
“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.”
The Minister was speaking in the Seanad on an all-party motion marking the 25th anniversary of the decriminalising of homosexuality.
It was unanimously passed in the Upper House to applause from members and those in the public gallery.
Speakers paid tribute to campaigners such as Senators David Norris and Jerry Buttimer, Maire Geoghegan Quinn and Senator Ged Nash who initiated the motion in the Seanad.
Mr Flanagan said today Ireland was celebrated around the world for the value which its citizens placed on equality, following the same-sex marriage referendum and in recognition of the diversity of the 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 feel the effects of such discrimination in their daily lives and, yet, that is the case,’’ he said.
“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.’’
Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin told the Dáil decriminalisation was a turning point in Irish history. “It did not end discrimination, and we have not ended discrimination, but it did set off a chain of actions which have changed our country unquestionably for the better”.
He said the murder of Mr Flynn in Fairview Park “began a movement which suffered many setbacks but ultimately triumphed 11 years later”.
Mr Martin said the decision of a majority of the Supreme Court in the case taken by Senator Norris “may well be the worst in that court’s history and it is certainly and rightly, its most infamous”, when it failed to decriminalise.
The Cork South-Central TD paid tribute to dissenting Supreme Court judge Niall Mc Carthy who “tore apart the idea that an imported Victorian morality and legislation should negate the personal rights guaranteed to citizens of this republic”.
Mr Martin also said “we have a duty not to turn our eyes away” in the repression of LGBTI people in Russia, and many countries in Africa.
Sinn Féin justice spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said an apology “vindicates those who were told on every moral level of society that their identities were something that was wrong and that they should be ashamed of”.
Labour leader Brendan Howlin said those who had campaigned for decades had been "drowned out by voices new to the topic".
Social Democrats TD Roisin Shortall said “self congratulatory speeches” in the Dáil did nothing to make progress on dealing with hate crime or to reassure those affected by the stalled commencement of parts of the Family and Relationships Act which was “causing untold distress and anxiety to LGBT people who are raising children”.
The all-party motion, initiated by Sen Nash, on the matter, said the repealed laws had “caused multiple harms to those directly and indirectly affected, namely men who engaged in consensual same-sex activities, and their families and friends” and “had a significant chilling effect on progress towards equality for the LGBTI community, acknowledging in particular the legacy of HIV/Aids within the context of criminalisation”, the motion states.
The Oireachtas and the State acknowledge the hurt and the harm caused to those who were deterred from being open and honest about their identity with their family and in society, it continues.
Each individual convicted of same-sex sexual activity will be offered an apology. The move to make homosexual acts no longer illegal in 1993 followed a 16-year legal battle by Senator David Norris.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is also set to host a Government reception in Dublin Castle on Sunday evening to mark the 25th anniversary of decriminalisation.
More than 700 people are expected to attend including LGBT advocacy groups, members of the judiciary, faith groups and a number of politicians.