The 1967 Sexual Offences Act was a landmark piece of British legislation that de-criminalised sex between consenting males over the age of 21.
Despite it’s many flaws (including the fact that the sex had to take place behind locked doors and involve no more that two adult males) it was seen as an important step down the road to gay rights. Except in Scotland and Northern Ireland, that is, where the legislation didn’t apply.
The 1967 Sexual Offences Act was only extended to Scotland in 1980 and to Northern Ireland in 1982. So why did it take 15 years for Scottish and Irish gay men to receive the same (admittedly limited) legal protection of their English counterparts?
It has been argued in some quarters that this was simply down to the fact that the British Parliament did not always have the right to legislate for Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is a bit of a smokescreen, based on legislative systems that existed hundred of years ago and which have been gradually changing ever since. If there had been the will to implement the Sexual Offences Act in Scotland and Northern Ireland in 1967 it could have been done quite easily.
The real issue was opposition from the Church. In Scotland, the Church of Scotland had rejected the findings of the 1957 Wolfenden Report on Homosexual Offences and opposed any legislative changes that arose from that. The position of the Catholic Church was, of course, as hostile as ever.
Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church took the same stance in Northern Ireland too. Somewhat ironically, when the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association began its campaign for legal parity in 1975, the Catholic Church found an unusual ally in the form of anti-Papist extremist, the self-styled ‘Reverend’ Ian Paisley. Never one for under-statement, Paisley launched the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign.
The net effect of the fire and brimstone campaigns in both countries was to seriously delay the implementation of the first piece of gay rights legislation. The law in Scotland was not changed until section 80 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 was enacted on the 13th November 1980.
In Northern Ireland it was necessary for Jeffrey Dudgeon to take the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights in 1981, where they were found to be in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As a result of this verdict – and despite the worst efforts of Ian Paisley and other religious bigots – the British Government extended the provisions of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act to Northern Ireland in 1982.
It was a long fight for so few rights.