A South Belfast man who has been present at many key events in recent Irish political history recently added another feather to his cap when he was awarded an MBE for services to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
But for Mount Prospect Park man Jeff Dudgeon, the honour marks only the latest step in his journey, from a student in Derry during the first flushes of the Troubles to taking a landmark case against the British Government that led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland.
A student at Magee University College in the mid-60s, Jeff witnessed first hand the initial stirrings of what would eventually lead to the Troubles, taking part in the University for Derry campaign.
“At that time, things were very optimistic in the world. It was a modernising period and everything seemed quite cheerful and happy. So the Troubles of 1968 onwards came as a great shock to us. We thought things could be resolved and there was a new blossoming of respect and understanding.
“But that was all an illusion. People had seemingly forgotten their history but not their past. The university issue was a big one for Derry and the city always maintained that fight.
“While it was not the cause for the Troubles, it was certainly the motor for it. It politicised the whole city, not least John Hume, because it was a genuine grievance.”
Jeff moved back to South Belfast and took part in the Civil Rights and People’s Democracy movements, as well as being a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. He first came to public prominence as plaintiff in a six-year landmark case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dudgeon vs United Kingdom. It came about due to legislation at the time still outlawing male homosexuality in Northern Ireland. Jeff had been arrested and interrogated by the RUC about his sexual activities in 1975, subsequently filing a complaint to the European Commission of Human Rights.
Four years on, the complaint was declared admissible to the ECHR and the hearing in 1981 was successful as it was ruled the law contravened the European Convention on Human Rights and forced the British Government to decriminalise the act here the following year.
“The whole thing started in one of the worst years of the Troubles but we were living a parallel life to the war that was going on around us. There were only a few gay venues around Belfast at the time and there was nobody out in the city after hours because no-one dared venture into Belfast after dark.
“We survived the Troubles by not engaging by and large. Individually people were affected – injured and killed, with several of the venues bombed – but in some senses it wasn’t our fight.
“Because I had political training from my days back in People’s Democracy and the Northern Ireland Labour Party, I was the best-placed person to do it. Because I had the contacts and the skills, it was almost inevitable I would be the person that would take the case.”
Despite fighting against the might of the British Government, Jeff said he was always confident the court would rule in his favour. The case, which was only the 35th judged by the court, has since been cited in several other cases around the world.
“My lawyer had advised me that Strasbourg operates on something called margin of appreciation, where states are allowed to have variants on standard laws if they are marginal. But there was nothing marginal about total criminalisation.
“I would get life imprisonment in Belfast for something that was legal in Birmingham. We knew that was daft and that’s why I thought I would win. I wouldn’t see myself as a hero because there were 20 people helping in one way or another, doing different aspects of work pertaining to the case. But it set an important precedent. Because most of the Caribbean countries came out of the British Empire, they still have the same British laws but most haven’t changed their views on homosexuality. So it is going to be increasingly cited in courts there, which is heart-warming to think.”
Jeff says he hasn’t been surprised by society here moving on from the ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign to the more accepting culture we have now.
“We always knew the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church were a small segment of society. They were vocal and organised but not representative. So I knew we would overwhelm them.
“The big problem we have here now is homophobic violence. It tends to not be organised but rather carried out by feral youth. That has by no means gone away and may take centuries for it to happen.
“But things have changed dramatically because so many people have come out. Many of those who might have been aggressive have that tempered because they know a relative or friend who is gay. It’s no longer unknown and that’s the big difference.”
At the turn of the century, Jeff turned his hand to another field, that of literature, when he wrote a book entitled Roger Casement: The Black Diaries – With a Study of his Background, Sexuality and Irish Political Life.
The tome explored claims the titular Black Diaries were written by the Irish nationalist and chronicled his promiscuous homosexuality. Jeff took criticism from many quarters for the book, with detractors saying the Black Diaries were forgeries.
“It’s hard for people to accept the diaries as Casement’s work, even if the evidence is overwhelming that he wrote them. They try to find every way around it to say they are not genuine and throw a thousand options at you to suggest he did no operate as a gay man.
“That controversy has by no means died and is continually ongoing. The Roger Casement Foundation are always trying to prove he didn’t write the diaries but that’s just part and parcel of anti-revisionism. It’s a small but vocal movement.
“The book itself is sold out and has doubled in price anytime I’ve seen it. I’ve thought of maybe writing more about Casement’s time in Germany and I have been researching that period. I don’t know if I’ll publish again but once my website is reconstructed I’ll probably put the pieces up on that instead.”
Having been a member of the Ulster Unionist Party for several years, a move into the frontline of politics followed for Jeff last year when he ran for a seat in the Irish Seanad.
Although unsuccessful in his bid after standing for one of Trinity College’s three seats in the senate, Jeff said the move was still a useful exercise.
“I stood as the Labour Integration candidate in South Belfast in the 1979 Westminster election and got 800 votes, which was quite good for an independent.
“The Seanad bid was the same thing, I did it because I could and not because I was going to win. I just wanted to make a point about an Ulster Unionist standing for the body.
“That’s what politics is all about, it’s a chance for you to pursue your ideas. But that is the type of thing where I’ll not know if I’ll run again until something else turns up and I won’t be able to stop myself.”
Awarded a MBE for services to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Northern Ireland in the New Year’s honours list earlier this month, Jeff insists it won’t mark his retirement.
“I think it’s a first in terms of the citation. I looked at another couple of people who got awards and they weren’t for anything specific, they were just written as services to the community. So I think that is a good positive step.
“I suppose as you get older you get more traditional and these things matter to you more. It will be nice to look back on in years to come but it’s not the end of the road by any means. I’m still healthy and able to keep working at a micro-level throughout South Belfast.”
Jeff says that micro-level is what keeps him active on a daily basis in the local area.
“I like to keep my hand in with the local community. Another thing that happens when you get older is you become more localised. My interest in global politics is still there but I tend to notice the smaller things and I see minor problems all around South Belfast.
“I get irritated by things like people removing wildlife and their habitats from their frontages to put in concrete and stones. There is no real thought given to that by residents. Every week someone has paved over another garden here.
“I take a few hours each week to go around the likes of Tate’s Avenue, Malone Avenue and Wellesley Avenue picking up litter as well to get the streets looking healthier.
“That helps change an area from looking tatty and distressed to the opposite. People talk about the big society, well that is it in action.”