I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I will be sharing time with my colleague, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.
I am pleased to introduce the Convictions for Certain Sexual Offences (Apology and Exoneration) Bill 2016. Less than two years ago the people of this republic came together and declared that all citizens should be treated equally no matter who they loved. On 23 May 2015 this became the first country in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry. That day we all reflected on how far we had come as a country and a society. We were also allowed a brief moment to pat ourselves on the back. The world stood and watched the good news coming from Ireland being beamed into their homes. It was a powerful expression of who we were - an open, free and tolerant country and people, able to celebrate and embrace the richness of human diversity.
On that day I also thought of people who were gone; people who had passed on. I thought of gay friends of mine who had passed away and not lived long enough to see that day of days. I thought of those who, for the bulk, if not all, of their lives had been isolated, alienated, discriminated against, persecuted and, in some cases, prosecuted for being who they were. I also thought of colleagues like Senator David Norris, whose personal courage and, at times, sheer bloody-mindedness helped to usher in legislative changes and changes in societal attitudes and opinions. He cannot be here today, but I know that he is following the debate attentively.
The State inherited from Britain the draconian laws we applied to sexual acts between consenting men.
As a state, we applied and enforced those laws, with varying levels of enthusiasm, for decades. It is impossible to be certain of the number of convictions that took place under what I have described as anachronistic legislation related to acts of "gross indecency" and so on. Such phrases are now, thankfully, in the past. It is most likely that the numbers are in the high hundreds, perhaps more. The point is not, ostensibly, the number of people convicted of offences but the chilling effect the criminalisation of LGBT citizens had - the paralysing fear of being found out, always having to look over one's shoulder and having to pretend to be someone one was not so as not to bring shame on one's family. That completely destroyed countless lives in this country. I often wonder how many good people were lost through emigration, not as a direct result of economic misery but of the deep-seated and suffocating conservatism of post-independence Ireland and its official policy of hostility to gay citizens. It is impossible to know.
While we cannot right the wrongs of the past, we must acknowledge that as a society we have come a long way in a relatively short space of time and made Ireland a better, more equal and tolerant place. Many Members of this House are responsible for that, including Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin when he was Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality with responsibility for equality issues, as well as Senators Ivana Bacik, David Norris, Jerry Buttimer and others.
When I sat the leaving certificate examinations in 1993, sexual acts between same-sex couples were illegal. By the time I got to college in September of that year, gay men had finally been liberated and were no longer made into criminals simply for having a sex life. Shortly after that, the employment laws were amended and we have seen a raft of other legislative changes in the past 24 years that have objectively made the country a much better, more tolerant and inclusive place.
An important element of the drive towards equality is the need to come to terms with our past. I firmly believe those Irish citizens - our brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins and friends - who were harassed and tormented by a State culture that officially treated them with cruelty, hostility, derision and ridicule are owed an apology. As was done in the United Kingdom, we should apologise to and exonerate those who were convicted of sexual offences before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993. They would be innocent of committing any crime today. Turing's law, as it has become known in the United Kingdom, was passed yesterday, but unlike the proposition before us, it provides for a pardon. We have not provided for such for a very good reason. We believe that to do so would imply that what gay men did was wrong and it was not. The Bill provides for an apology and an exoneration. It also goes much further than that. It will, if accepted by the Government and passed in both Houses, officially acknowledge that the offences and prosecutions involved were "improperly discriminatory, contrary to human dignity and in breach of personal privacy and autonomy". I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, and his senior colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality who has a very strong track record as a legislator in this area and a campaigner and advocate for equality, to not just agree not to oppose the Bill but to accept it, its central ambition and the manner and spirit in which it has been tabled. If the Minister of State and his ministerial colleagues are concerned about elements of the Bill, I suggest we take it to Committee Stage with the minimum of delay. We were 26 years behind the United Kingdom in decriminalising homosexuality. Let us not be left far behind again and let us act now. If there are technical issues with the Bill, let us discuss them in a spirit of openness in order to achieve what most of us in this House would wish to achieve. I acknowledge that nothing we do today can make up for the hurt and cruelty visited on LGBT citizens throughout our history. Moreover, there is still some way to go before we can say with certainty that we have reached what we might term "full equality". However, in apologising for what we did in the past and recognising that it was wrong, we can go some way towards righting those wrongs and healing those wounds.