Stop all this sex stuff now, orders Dublin council

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THE OWNERS describe it coyly as a "lingerie shop with attitude", but to Dublin's local authority, an Ann Summers outlet is a sex shop and unsuitable for high street consumption.

Exactly two months afteropening its first Irish branch, the English company has been given leave to seek a judicial review of an order from Dublin Corporation directing it to cease trading.

The issue has attracted much public interest in a country whose sex industry has, until recently, remained largely hidden. Chat shows and newspapers have debated the issue exhaustively and the ensuing publicity may have contributed to the fact that the store is already one of the most profitable in the chain.

Still, the elected members of Dublin's local council continue to insist the majority of people in the capital do not want "seedy outlets" in their city's main street. Its order to close the O'Connell Street store comes after a senior delegation travelled to London in the summer to try to dissuade the company from opening the branch. "It's not that we're saying no to these kind of shops in general. It's just that they're not suitable for this particular main street," said Sean Purcell, a corporation spokesman.

But the collection of more than 10,000 signatures on a petition to prevent the enforced closure of the store suggests otherwise. On one day alone, more than 9,000 people passed through its doors and, according to management, customers travel from the farthest parts of rural Ireland to sample its wares. The store receives dozens of CVs each week from people seeking employment."People love it," said Helen Johnston, the store's manager. "Irish people have been denied access to these type of goods for too long. It's time the politicians listened to their constituents."

The shop sells silk underwear, PVC and sex novelty toys and is debating whether to introduce sex aids, such as vibrators, to its stock. "We like to be sensitive when we open up in a new country, so we're taking on board customers' attitudes to sex aids," explained a spokesperson.

For Patricia Casey, professor of psychiatry at University College Dublin, the debate surrounding the store is symptomatic of a gulf between the old order and Ireland's large young population.

"I don't think the Irish are puritanical, but we're certainly not as liberal as Britain and I think many parents are still shocked by the notion of their teenage children engaging in sexual activity. Shops like these make the whole issue of sex more in-your-face," she said.

Just this week a survey suggested that Irish teenagers, and their British counterparts, are the most sexually active in Europe. Last weekend, a parish priest in Co Meath made the front pages of national newspapers when he observed that these days if a teenager goes down on their knees, they are more likely to be performing oral sex than praying.

The ensuing furore was hardly in keeping with the image Ireland now likes to project of itself, as a modern, post-Catholic society.

That the Republic is still struggling with its transition towards a more liberal secular society is also evidenced by the sometimes erratic behaviour of the Censorship of Publications Board of Ireland. Last July it ordered the country's main listing magazine, In Dublin, to cease trading for six months after it was judged to be "usually or frequently indecent or obscene". Its crime was to carry advertisements for "health clubs" and masseuses in its classified section.

Back at the shop, Ms Johnston said: "Irish people are still hypocritical about sex but it is changing. The entire debate about this place is very silly when you think about it. Really, the whole thing is innocent and just a bit of fun."