State Papers1992-2002

‘What happens in the bedroom is not for regulation’: Top civil servant’s advice on 1992 condom bill

Legislation raised issue of ‘Church/State domination’ at sensitive time in Northern talks, Dermot Nally told taoiseach

Two issues of personal sexual morality dominated 1992. The first was the notorious X case in which a 14-year-old was not allowed to travel to the UK for an abortion. The other concerned the availability of condoms.

Officially, condoms in 1992 were only available in chemists or other health centres, but hundreds of pubs and nightclubs decided to defy the law and install condom machines. In May 1990 the Irish Family Planning Association was convicted and fined for selling condoms in Dublin’s Virgin Megastore in a case that brought international ridicule on Ireland.

The continuing Aids epidemic also made the easier availability of condoms an urgent priority.

Government secretary general Dermot Nally urged then taoiseach Albert Reynolds not to introduce the Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Bill before abortion referendums that were due to be held that year.


Three concurrent referendums were held on November 25th. The first was in relation to suicide being grounds for an abortion, the others were about freedom of travel and freedom of information.

In June 1992 Mr Nally suggested to the taoiseach that introducing the Family Planning Bill “would expose the whole issue of Church/State domination here at quite a sensitive time in the Northern talks. Is Northern Ireland a hotbed of immorality because of their contraceptive law?”

He added: “The “genital [sic] politics inherent in that referendum are already sufficiently horrific.”

Mr Nally took a very liberal tone in his advice to the taoiseach, stating that he would be “totally against the State interfering, in any way, in matters of personal morality which do not affect public order.

“What happens in the bedroom – out of public view – is not a matter for regulation by act, order, regulation or directive.”

The bill, as proposed by then minister for health Dr John O’Connell, initially forbade the sale of condoms from vending machines in pubs and discos.

Mr Nally advised that “restrictions of sales outlets is really anything more than a carry-over of emotions into commerce. The two do not mix. We are proposing to ban sales where they are most likely to be wanted”.

He finally argued that the age at which condoms could be purchased should be lowered from 17 to 16. “The age of criminal responsibility is 14, a person can get married without permission if he or she is over 16, but under the Bill would be unable to buy contraceptives.

“And the recent X cases shows, only too tragically, what can happen to 14-year-old girls.”

In November 1992 the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats government was replaced after an election by a Fianna Fáil-Labour government.

A much more radical Family Planning Act, put forward by Labour health minister Brendan Howlin, which allowed for the sale of condoms from vending machines, was enacted in 1993.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times