TWENTY-FIVE years ago this week the law was finally changed in England and Wales to permit homosexual acts between consenting adults over the age of 21. Scotland and Northern Ireland followed suit in the early Eighties. A quarter of a century on from the Sexual Offences Act, the Pope has declared that homosexuality is an 'objective disorder'. Strictly speaking, the term is formulated in the inherited language of Scholastic philosophy, but in plain speech disorder means disease and the Pope's pronouncement opens the way for intellectually sanctioned discrimination.

For one intensely Catholic country, discrimination is condoned by more than theological niceties. It is legally enforceable. Ireland still retains the legislation repealed here in 1967. The Irish government and its present prime minister, Albert Reynolds, appear keen to show a liberal attitude towards questions of personal freedom and liberty. But for the past 15 years the Irish state has fought against a campaign to decriminalise homosexuality.

It is 15 years since a young lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin, not only took the outrageous step of admitting his homosexuality publicly, but decided to fight the state in the courts for retaining the two pieces of legislation, inherited from the British, that criminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults in the republic: the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and its 1885 amendment. Backed by a young civil-rights barrister, he fought the case through the Dublin High Court, which rejected it. In 1988 they brought it before the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The court decided in their favour and ruled that the Irish government was acting illegally. The Dublin government has still not implemented that ruling.

In practice, these acts are never used. The police do not go out and arrest known homosexuals. There is a small and very low-key gay community which is tolerated - perhaps because it is small and low key - and a handful of gay pubs and clubs. But the fact that the offences remain on the statute book creates a pervasive atmosphere of fear and repression. Many gays are forced into marriage to maintain the pretence of 'normality'. Their careers and jobs are at risk, as every employer knows he can sack a practising homosexual at will. Welfare organisations openly aiding gays put at risk their state funding.

Today the academic who went to court, David Norris, is a senior lecturer in English at Trinity College and a senator, and his lawyer, Mary Robinson, is the President - unable now, because of constitutional conventions, to speak her mind publicly on sensitive issues without the advice of the government.

Despite statements to the contrary, Mr Norris believes the Irish government has no intention of acting on recent reprimands from Strasbourg. As a consequence, he has re-entered the case there and is seeking damages against the Irish state. The case has thus become a test of the power of the European Court to bring member states into line on issues of human rights.

'For Albert Reynolds it is not a priority,' says Mr Norris. 'They are giving us the runaround. A Public Control of Dogs Act will be introduced in the next session. Dogs are more important than the violation of fundamental human rights.'

When Mr Norris failed in the Dublin courts the main plank of the judges' argument was that the law was necessary to coerce men into marrying and fulfilling their social duties. In this it has certainly been successful. As many as 50 per cent of Irish gays are believed to be married men whose wives, almost always, remain ignorant of their husbands' orientation.

For those gays not trapped in this kind of situation the past 10 years have seen the tentative emergence of small and cautious gay communities in Dublin and about three other cities. The atmosphere is likened to the old closet days in Britain, before the law was reformed. The Irish gay community, with rare exceptions, is certainly not proud. Meek is the term that immediately springs to mind.

Sandra Campbell, an English lesbian resident in Dublin, sums up the feeling: 'Last year we were having a picnic in Merrion Square (in central Dublin) to assert gay pride. All I could find there was a handful of forlorn figures hiding behind a hedge.'

With the law as it stands, this is hardly surprising. Ms Campbell, a computer consultant with many years' work experience in the UK, has learnt the hard way that homosexuals in Ireland are forced to keep two CVs: one for work within the gay community and one for the rest of the job market. In most Irish business and industry, gays, whatever their qualifications, will not get past the front door, even to be interviewed, and are forced into lying to disguise work done for gay organisations.

The government's position until now has been to resist repeal because the Acts were never used. This may be largely true, but the fear that they could be is always there. The law has been invoked more than once in complex marital cases, as recently as March last year. While there is no divorce in Ireland, the state, like the Catholic church, will recognise annulment - that is that no marriage existed in the first place.

In one case a husband, who was gay, produced witnesses to testify to his sexuality, in order to prove that his marriage was such a sham it qualified for annulment. The judge hearing the case stopped the proceedings at this point. He said that if they were going to tell him what he thought they were going to say he would have no alternative but to hand over their testimony to the authorities, who could then proceed against them.

The law is also used, or misused, in other subtle ways. Employees risk losing their jobs if their sexual orientation comes to light, since employers can say they are sacking a criminal. Under present labour legislation this would amount to sexual discrimination, but no case has ever been brought to a tribunal, because employers know that admitting to homosexuality could result in the aggrieved employee being prosecuted.

Bernadette Forde, of the Employment Equality Agency, says: 'Existing equality legislation would implicitly cover redress for such discrimination. We believe cases are not pursued because of people's fears while existing homosexuality law prevails.'

To add insult to injury, Ireland, which has an acute Aids problem, refuses to fund the gay Aids organisations that have not only laid the groundwork for the care and treatment of sufferers but also campaigned for public awareness and preventive measures. Despite this impressive record, Donal Traynor, of the Lesbian and Gay Health Caucus, was bluntly told by the Department of Health that it could not fund anything to do with the gay community because homosexuality was illegal.

The implications of this are not lost on other agencies, which fear losing their own funding if they are openly associated with gays. For instance, a homeless person who is gay must keep his sexuality a secret so as not to compromise the housing charities. There are cases in which men contracting the HIV virus through homosexual activities have encouraged the belief that they picked it up from drug abuse. It is a reflection on the present social climate in Ireland that it is more acceptable to be a heroin addict than it is to be gay.

Paradoxically, while there is consensus that a change in the law is necessary for liberalising and educating society, there is also a fear that what Mr Norris is campaigning for could lead to a backlash.

Paul, a barman at one of Dublin's few gay pubs, describes the misgivings within the community. He explains the fear that rather than abolishing the legislation outright, the government would replace it with something so tightly drawn that it could lead to a worse situation than before: 'In principle I would welcome a change but in practice the old law will be replaced with a new one giving more power to the police and the authorities to act against us. It will give them a rod to beat everyone. They will be very strict and will stick to the letter of the law. They will seek to entrap cruising gays and become vindictive.'

In spite of these anxieties, Mr Norris scents victory. He is expecting to be awarded damages by Strasbourg and is determined that the money will go to the gay community. One case he has earmarked is that of the Hirschfeld Centre. The only gay advisory and welfare centre in Dublin, it was wrecked by fire five years ago. Applications for a modest grant of pounds 6,000 towards repair have been rejected three times by the Department of the Environment. There is, however, nowhere else for the centre to go and it continues operating, therefore, in a building with unsound floors.

It is this kind of pettiness that enrages Mr Norris. He points to the pounds 169,000 the department has doled out in Dublin recently - pounds 40,000 to a boy scouts' organisation. The irony is not lost on Mr Norris that the Irish state, through him, may end up funding the needs of the minority it has suppressed for so long.

'If it got out, my children could never hold up their heads in the world'

'It's like this. I have spent my entire adult life as a liar. The law does influence the tolerance of society and the other way round. I am open to blackmail. I would certainly lose my job if it got out. If you were in the arts or entertainment, it might be a bit better. But for the rest of us in conventional jobs, no. It's easy to cite David Norris as an example of tolerance. Nobody bothers him. But David Norris is a senator, an academic and, most importantly, he has no wife or child.

'If it got out, my children could never hold up their heads in the world. My wife would be humiliated. She would be seen as a woman whose judgement at the most basic level in life - sexual and emotional - was lacking. She would be less of a woman for choosing someone seen as not quite a man.

'I have tried all my life to be a normal heterosexual man. No one has tried harder. I have acquired all the external manifestations of normality - a wife, children, good job. I feel a huge sense of guilt towards my wife. Men find her very attractive and desirable. She could have done better.

'I admire her and love her, but sexually it's men I want. Women age differently. It gets harder to pretend. She knows something is wrong. When we are out she keeps a cool eye on me, the way women do when they think the husband is after the secretary.

'I'm afraid of getting drunk in case I give the game away. I'm always on my guard in case I let anything slip. Maybe one day I'll be senile and it'll all come out.

'We married because we knew each other. I was trying to do the best for myself, and in a way I have. Without my wife I wouldn't be where I am professionally. If I'd left the country and been free to follow my inclinations I might have had a less fulfilled life but maybe a happier one.

'I have got away with so much for so long I daren't put a foot wrong anywhere else. The guilt makes me behave like a saint, and a saint is not a very nice person to have to live with.'

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