Should a gay man support the Seanad?
On the Future Matters blog, Rachel Mathews-McKay wrote in defence of the Seanad under the headline, ‘The Seanad has stood with our LGBT Community’. It is true that two of the most well known senators, Mary Robinson and David Norris, played crucial roles in advancing equality for gay people in Ireland. But should this lead us then to credit the institution of the Seanad for this progress and for it to be retained because of this legacy? Does my activism on gay rights conflict with my enthusiasm for abolition of the Seanad? Let’s examine the history in greater detail.
The Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform began in 1975 with David Norris, a member of the English Department at Trinity College Dublin, as it most prominent member. Its legal advisor was Mary McAleese, who was succeeded in that role by Mary Robinson in 1979. The 1885 law which had convicted Oscar Wilde, and which had been largely repealed in England and Wales in 1967, was still in effect in Ireland.
Mary Robinson had been elected as one of the three University of Dublin senators in 1969 (continuing there till 1989), but it was through her actions as a legal counsel that she was most successful in bringing about social change, whether on this question or on many others. When David Norris sued the state on the claim that criminalisation of homosexuality was unconstitutional, Robinson acted as his barrister. In Norris v. AG, the High Court ruled against him in 1980; on appeal to the Supreme Court, they too ruled against him in 1983.
They filed in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Ireland was a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1947, and Northern Ireland resident Jeffrey Dudgeon had successfully sued there in 1981 in Dudgeon v. United Kingdom to secure the repeal of the law, which still then applied in Northern Ireland. The law was changed for Northern Ireland in 1982 (a separate law had been passed to apply to Scotland in 1980).
In 1987, David Norris was elected as one of the three University of Dublin senators, in large part in recognition of his work in this campaign.
In 1988, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Norris v. Ireland, and David Norris as litigant and Mary Robinson as counsel were successful.
However, the ruling was ignored by the Fianna Fáil government then in power, and I regret to say, was not acted on either during the Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrat coalition from 1989 to 1992. It was with the Fianna Fáil–Labour coalition in 1993 that there was finally a political will to act. Between Máire Geoghegan-Quinn as Minister for Justice and Mervyn Taylor as Minister for Equality and Law Reform, they steered through an amendment ending criminalisation of male homosexuality with an equal age of consent.
It was then, through the combination of civil activism, court action, international agreements and political will that the law changed. This is not to claim that it was no help that they were both senators, particularly in terms of publicity for the cause, but the main events might still have happened on the same days in history without the Seanad.
What about the fight for marriage? Katherine Zappone and Ann-Louise Gilligan brought this to the fore with their unsuccessful case in the High Court in 2006. Around the same time, the Labour Party twice proposed bills in private members’ time in support of a form of civil union. The Green Party in government secured civil partnership in 2010 as part of their coalition agreement with Fianna Fáil. It passed the Dáil without division. It passed the Seanad with five votes against. We will have a referendum on marriage soon because of the vote of 79% in favour at the Constitutional Convention, a product of the Fine Gael–Labour programme for government.
While I am very much in favour of abolishing the Seanad, I can understand the reasons others may wish to keep it. But to claim it the place where progress on equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people happened in Ireland, strikes me as a form of alternative history.