Letter: Gay Bill ignored Northern Ireland

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Sir: Peter Scott's letter on the age of consent for homosexual men (23 February) commends campaigning groups and the Independent. Yet the latter has ignored the Northern Irish dimension to this issue, and the former also excluded Northern Ireland from their proposals. The result is that while the age of consent for homosexual men in Britain will become 18 and is already 17 in the Republic of Ireland, homosexual men aged 18, 19 and 20 in Northern Ireland are to be treated differently from everyone else in the European Union and virtually everyone else in the Council of Europe.

This is especially odd given the Government's Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment (PAFT) initiative, which came into force in Northern Ireland on 1 January 1994, whereby the Government commits itself to scrutinise carefully all policy options to see whether they treat a number of groups differently without justification. To the credit of the Government, the list goes well beyond the legal categories of discrimination so as to protect people of 'differing sexual orientation'. Perhaps the House of Lords will amend the Bill to include Northern Ireland.

The votes and explanations of Northern Irish MPs are also of relevance to a wider audience. John Taylor, MP, (the only Ulster Unionist who voted for 18, alongside John Hume, MP, of the SDLP) has observed that 18 might be defensible when the Government is called to account in Europe whereas 21 will not be, an argument which has some relevance to Northern Ireland. His colleague Martin Smyth, MP, was one of the parliamentarians who wrote a reasoned argument before the vote for maintaining a differential. Thereafter, he seemed to acknowledge that, while he personally would not like to see the age reduced from 21, it would be difficult to imagine Parliament resisting 18 as the age for Northern Ireland if the question were put to it.

None of this is to recommend a differential rather than parity, nor integration rather than separate consideration for Northern Ireland. It is, however, important that on all human rights matters Northern Ireland is considered by those in authority in a rational, accountable, timely manner.

This is by no means the only odd omission of Northern Ireland from a very odd Bill. The Government might explain why some of the provisions on child pornography are not to apply to Northern Ireland.

All political parties in Northern Ireland are supposed to welcome the idea of a bill of rights based on the European Convention. It seems to be assumed that the European Court of Human Rights would require movement on the age of consent from 21. So how do those who call both for a bill of rights and for a result it would not tolerate reconcile these positions?

Finally, your leading article is wrong to say that it is 'up to Britain's homosexuals to build on recent public debate'. The essence of human rights is that we are all diminished when the rights of some are infringed. Likewise it is wrong to ignore Northern Ireland just because one might live in Westminster or Dublin. It is up to all of us to ensure that Northern Ireland has decent human rights law. Yours,


Department of Jurisprudence

The Queen's University of Belfast