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17 November 2014

Why I despair at new alliance of our moral zealots

Justice minister and Alliance Party leader David Ford
Justice minister and Alliance Party leader David Ford

Unless you have weird tastes, living under the rule of fundamentalist zealots isn't much fun. There were enough of the Roman Catholic variety in the Irish Republic to make me decide at an early age to emigrate to tolerant England.

I certainly wasn't tempted to move to Northern Ireland, which seemed even worse (locked playgrounds on Sunday and all that).

Unfortunately, as the power of authoritarian Christian churches waned and Europeans became more broad-minded about social issues, militant Islamists began demanding we return to the seventh century.

And fundamentalist secularists began thrashing conventional values, which has been one reason why Ukip are on the rise in England. Ordinary people are increasingly angry at being dismissed as Neanderthals if they have unfashionable beliefs.

I'm fine about gay marriage myself, but I think it's been rushed through and deplore the assumption that anyone who thinks it wrong is a bigot.

Northern Ireland has been offering us some fine examples of religious and ideological illiberalism in the past few weeks - particularly on the issues of cake and tarts (Yes, yes, I know that's a joke in poor taste and the thought police may be at my door any minute now).

Queerspace's malicious setting-up of Ashers Bakery was sickening. And the viciousness of the Equality Commission in alleging three kinds of discrimination is appalling.

Does anyone think for a moment that, if a liberal baker turned down a demand from an evangelical Christian for a cake saying, "Sex outside heterosexual marriage is wrong", that Liam Maskey and his fellow achingly politically-correct commissioners would be threatening the baker?

While, on that issue, I agree with the DUP, I'm depressed that they sang from the Sinn Fein hymn-sheet when they rammed through last month, ill-considered legislation criminalising the purchase of sex.

As Anna Lo, one of those putting up a fight for common sense, put it in the Assembly: "We find ourselves in an interesting position, where those from a more evangelical persuasion, who possibly seek to ban prostitution for religious and moral reasons, find themselves in agreement with those with a more radical feminist perspective."

There were two issues being addressed, she pointed out: "Human trafficking for sexual exploitation and prostitution." They were not the same and needed to be addressed separately.

Caitriona Ruane - who, despite stiff competition, I regard as the most obnoxious MLA I know - gave us the to-do list of evils she aspires to abolish, which includes page 3 girls, "partially clothed women in advertisements to sell cars" and unacceptable language like "manning-up". And she wants prostitution "eradicated".

Most of us would like a world free of anything unpleasant, but we are stuck with human nature and necessary evils.

I don't think prostitution is inevitably wrong. There's a good reason why it's known as the oldest profession.

That's why it can never be abolished, though it needs to be regulated.

The lonely, the disabled, or people cursed with a much stronger sex-drive than their partner, are only some of those for whom it can provide blessed relief.

And, like it or not, there are many women who find selling their bodies preferable to taking ill-paid, or terrible, jobs. Are we going to ban beautiful young women from marrying money?

The zealots are driving anti-prostitution campaigns in Dublin and Westminster, citing the magical Nordic model, a PC absurdity which involves criminalising buyers of sex (who are seen as predators) and legalising sellers (who are seen as victims).

Now I'm not suggesting that MLAs didn't have a serious debate and I'm not doubting their good intentions, but few showed any interest in taking account of the objections of the sex workers themselves, or of looking critically at research demonstrating that - among other unintended consequences - Scandinavian law has driven prostitution underground, has increased the HIV risk and, in any case, is probably impossible to implement here without distracting police from more urgent work and changing the law on surveillance and phonetapping.

Despite the noble efforts of David Ford, Anna Lo, Basil McCrea and the Greens' Steven Agnew to introduce reality into the proceedings, no minds were changed and the legislation went through by 81 votes to 10.

What's next?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards