Irish Examiner View: Public can help shape law on disregarding gay convictions

The public are being asked to participate in a consultation on proposals to disregard historic criminal convictions for consensual sexual activity between gay and bisexual men. 
Irish Examiner View: Public can help shape law on disregarding gay convictions

The pride flag pictured in St Patrick's Street at the Cork Pride 2016 parade. Picture: John Allen

Keen-eyed readers looking at page four of the Irish Examiner yesterday will have noticed an advertisement from Ireland’s Department of Justice. 

Within its restrained typography and sober wording is an invitation to help redress a wrong which is correctly, and some would say belatedly, recognised as “an affront to human dignity and a significant historic injustice”.

That phrase, from the ministry’s headquarters on St Stephen’s Green, is a reminder to citizens to participate in a consultation on proposals to disregard historic criminal convictions for consensual sexual activity between gay and bisexual men. 

Officials acknowledge that more than 900 people may be eligible for the scheme which would expunge the records of “offences” which took place before June 1993, when homosexuality was decriminalised in the Republic.

Those who wish to participate in the survey can do so in confidence online or through email, but the deadline is 5pm on December 9 — a fortnight from today. The consultation will feed into a final report and recommendations from a working group which is behind schedule.

When Justice Minister Helen McEntee launched her appeal for contributions at the start of this month, she said: “The damage that was caused by these laws continues to impact negatively on too many people’s lives. While we cannot undo the hurt inflicted on people who were discriminated against for simply being themselves, we can contribute to the healing process.”

Quite so, and while our law catches up fully with public opinion, it is worth reflecting on the current anger over the treatment and rights, or lack of them, of the LGBTQ+ communities in Qatar. 

When England won their World Cup (you may have heard something about that over the years) in 1966, homosexuality was still illegal in England. That didn’t change until a year later, when the sexual offences amendment bill was championed through the Commons by the Welsh MP Leo Abse, known affectionately as the 'Pontypool Peacock' because of his flamboyant dress sense. His liberalising measure did not reach Scotland until 1980, and the North until 1982.

So changes have been slow, even by the standards of those who regard themselves as progressive.

Now, both we and the British, if not in lockstep, march to the sound of the same drum. The UK has also engaged in setting aside various categories of criminal conviction for actions which would not be offences now. 

These reforms came in under what is broadly known as Turing’s Law, which provided a statutory pardon for men convicted historically because of their sexuality. It gained its name following the 2013 royal pardon of Second World War codebreaker and computing genius Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency and died at the age of 42 from cyanide poisoning.

Benedict Cumberbatch played Alan Turing in 'The Imitation Game'. Picture: PA
Benedict Cumberbatch played Alan Turing in 'The Imitation Game'. Picture: PA

It is widely held that a deficiency of the British approach is that an application must be made by an individual for a conviction to be formally disregarded. None is automatically expunged. This means they may still appear on a record check by potential employers, placing a further administrative burden on people who should never have been criminalised in the first place.

Ireland would do well to pursue a more enlightened policy.

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