Ireland celebrates 34th anniversary of historic European Court ruling against anti-gay criminal laws

34 years ago today, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Ireland's colonial gay criminal laws. Rob Buchanan explains how the case came about.

A video still of David Norris standing outside the European Court of Human Rights after it ruled in favour of his case against Ireland.
Image: @ThisDayIrish via Twitter

On this date, October 26, in 1988, the European Court of Human Rights found Ireland’s laws criminalising homosexuality, a legacy of British colonialism, were in contravention of human rights. The laws, heavily supported by the Catholic theocracy of the day, not only made same-sex activities illegal, but they also emboldened the wholesale persecution of gay men. 

This life-changing case against state persecution was the result of a long campaign started in 1977 by Senator David Norris. Then a lecturer at Trinity, he fought against the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 and the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885.

It’s hard to imagine now but Norris’s initial High Court case was dismissed, as was his Supreme Court appeal. Horrifically Chief Justice Tom O’Higgins ruled that “the deliberate practice of homosexuality is morally wrong … it is damaging to the health and harmful to the institution of marriage.”

Norris persisted, bringing the case to the European Commission of Human Rights, with the then senator Mary Robinson as his council, where it passed and was referred to the European Court of Human Rights.

The basis of Norris’s case was twofold. Most obviously, the discriminatory laws for this victimless crime encroached on the private lives of consenting adults. The European Convention on Human Rights, particularly Article 8, protects and respects for private life of citizens to determine their intimate relationships. 

But in a wider context too, the anachronistic inhumane law was part of the historic British colonial architecture of oppression which had long ceased to even be observed in the old imperial state itself.

In an interview in 2011, before the Marriage Equality referendum passed, Senator Norris explained how the decriminalisation of same-sex relations had much broader implications for civil liberties, stating: “I found very quickly that the mechanism of discrimination was exactly the same against women, against ethnic minorities, against the handicapped…”.

It would be another 5 years before Ireland decriminalised homosexual acts in Ireland in 1993.


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