When a Meath Dail candidate joined a Gay Pride parade with his partner, barely an eyebrow was raised. Changing times, indeed. So why is only one member of the 226-strong Oireachtas openly homosexual? Willie Dillon reports
Before the present government leaves office, Justice Minister Michael McDowell will bring forward legislation permitting gay civil partnerships in this country. The new measure will be approved by a Cabinet which has no gay members, before being formally passed by the two almost entirely heterosexual Houses of the Oireachtas.
But we live in a society where it is estimated that one in ten people is gay. If that's accurate, it must apply just as much to politics as any other walk of Irish life. Therefore with 166 TDs and 60 senators, we would expect around 20 of them to be gay.
With the clear exception of Senator David Norris, however, nobody in either House has ever declared themselves to be homosexual. This means that an unusually high proportion of politicians are straight - or that some are not being entirely open about their sexual orientation.
So where are all the gay politicians? It's a mere 13 years since homosexual acts were decriminalised in this country. In a very short time, we have come from a position of social marginalisation and sometimes violent intolerance to one of seemingly total acceptance. The image of gay people has changed enormously.
"It's kind of the last barrier, having gay people in government," says Brian Finnegan, editor of gay magazine GCN. "It's the last big hurdle."
So how long will it be before we have TDs who acknowledge being gay? Possibly no longer than the next general election. The first generation of politicians who have come out as gay is preparing to step on to the national stage.
At least two gay candidates are standing for the Dail next time around. They are not gay activists. They are not campaigning under the banner of any minority gay rights group. They are standing for mainstream political parties and will be fighting hard for a Dail seat.
The best known of the two is sex abuse campaigner Colm O'Gorman, who is standing for the Progressive Democrats in his native Wexford. The other is newcomer Dominic Hannigan, who will carry the Labour colours in the new constituency of Meath East. Neither man is highlighting his sexual orientation, but neither are they denying it.
And perhaps the most remarkable thing about their candidacy is that it is so unremarkable. The total absence of fuss is another indication of the major social changes we have seen in recent years. If either is rejected by the electorate, it will have a lot less to do with their homosexuality than their own political skills or the popularity of the parties they represent.
Hannigan, a dynamic and ambitious Meath County Councillor, is seen as one of Labour's brightest young hopes. His sexual orientation was no secret to family and friends. But he publicly acknowledged it for the first time by walking in the recent Gay Pride parade in Dublin, accompanied by his partner Chris.
It was a simple and effective way of disarming political opponents who may have contemplated doing battle on the basis that he had something to hide. Hannigan is adamant that his sexuality is entirely irrelevant to his work as a public representative.
"The electorate are much more sophisticated nowadays," he says, "and the majority of them will be voting on the issues that are affecting their community, such as schools, health and crime. That's what they want me to be working on and that's where I am focusing my efforts. I'm not a gay candidate for the Dail. I'm a Dail candidate who happens to be gay."
Councillor Hannigan says that, apart from one unsigned and "quite nasty" letter in the Drogheda Leader newspaper, the response to his parade appearance has been positive. "I've been pleasantly surprised by the amount of people who contacted me or came up to me in the street to voice their support."
Malcolm Byrne, a young Fianna Fail councillor from Gorey, Co Wexford, was "outed" unexpectedly last January. A local paper reported that his details were posted on a popular gay dating website. The story was picked by the nationals and was reported in what he regarded as salacious terms by The Sun.
Byrne says the disclosure had no effect on his work as a public representative, while the "tremendous" support he received confirmed his faith in basic human decency and fairplay.
"My family and friends would have known that I was gay and I would have gone out on the gay scene," he says. "But I don't necessarily see it as something that I have to put on my election literature. I don't particularly see the relevance of it."
He now fears being pigeonholed by the media. "The only calls I ever get from national journalists are about being gay. But I wasn't elected on that basis. I don't expect people to vote for or against me on my sexuality, but on my work record.
"People are still coming to be with their issues and they're judging me on how I deliver on those issues." Byrne laughs: "As one person said to me, what you do in your own time is your own business, but you still haven't got that road resurfaced."
Colm O'Gorman says he doesn't think people are particularly interested in whether a candidate is gay. He says he has always been very matter of fact about his own sexuality. "Any votes that it might cost me, I was never going to get in the first place.
'When we talk about equality, whether it be about sexuality, gender, race, creed or disability, we should be aiming for the point where we can acknowledge difference without seeing it as in any way remarkable. I think we are heading that way and I find it hugely encouraging and a real sign of a maturing society."
He insists there have already been gays in the Oireachtas. "The reality is that we have had people who have served the country ably and well, and we may well have them now. It would be ridiculous to suppose that there haven't been people who have sat in the Oireachtas and served with great dedication who also happened to be gay."
Brian Finnegan says he knows of one TD who is gay, but has chosen not to say so publicly. "This is somebody who has had a long career, of which being gay has not been a part. Getting it out of the way at the beginning or early in your career is probably the best way to do it now. If you have been around a long time, and it's never been in the public domain, it's very difficult to come out."
But it's not all sweetness and tolerance. "It depends on what constituency you're standing in," adds Finnegan. "If you have political ambitions and really want to get elected, but you're in a conservative constituency in Connacht, coming out mightn't be the wisest thing. That's a pity, but hopefully it will change as we evolve as a society."
Brian Finnegan also believes that Bertie Ahern's personal situation is a good example of Irish people not judging politicians on their private lives. "In America, it wouldn't be acceptable for somebody in his position to run for the presidency. Ireland tends not to be so hard on politicians because of their personal lives."