On Wednesday a group of Independent Senators brought forward a motion to criminalise the purchase of sex in Ireland. The Government tabled an amendment which included that “…prior to Government making a definitive decision on whether legislation should be enacted reflecting legislation in Sweden and Norway there should be a considered public debate”. Following a lengthy Seanad debate, the Government amendment was carried with 29 yes and 13 no.
Strong support was shown for the motion and the Government amendment was not carried without several Senators questioning the need for any further public debate. Senator Katherine Zappone said “…there has already been significant public debate on this issue.” Senator Fiach Mac Conghail said “The Government’s amendment seeks a “considered public debate”, but that is and has been happening since the start of the Turn off the Red Light campaign… It is an insult to imply, therefore, as the amendment does, that another considered public debate is needed…” Senator Averil Power said “…I do not accept there has not been public debate because, as I said, a range of organisations have been working on this issue quite publicly.” Senator Rónán Mullen started with a reference to St. Augustine, describing the Government’s position as a case of “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”
Of the 13 Senators and the Minister of State that spoke, only Senator Mary M. White stood up and questioned the Swedish Model and pointed out that there is another side of the argument which has not been heard yet. Amid gasps and interruptions from other Senators, she mentioned Turn Off the Blue Light (TOBL) and the emails TOBL had sent to all Senators appealing for sex workers to be included in discussions on sex work. However the Oireachtas transcript of the debate has incorrectly transcribed her as speaking of Turn Off the Red Light, a mistake the Irish Times has already copied.
Today the Irish Times reported that Senator Mary M. White is facing expulsion from the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party she belongs to, for refusing to vote for the motion calling for the criminalisation of people who pay for sex. Fianna Fáil supported the motion and voting against the party whip entails automatic expulsion from the party. It is not yet known what consequences Senator White will face for speaking up for sex workers, and if she will continue to support sex workers.
The last politician to publically speak out against the Turn Off the Red Light (TORL) agenda was TD Mick Wallace, who said in March that he believed the welfare of women working in the sex trade would be improved if the trade was not forced underground. Ruhama quickly hit back at him in the media and he promised to meet Ruhama and listen to their views. Ruhama have since been keen to publicise his attendence at political briefings they’ve held. TOBL wrote to Mr Wallace twice to try to engage with him, but he did not reply.
A second article in the Irish Times today reported that Senator Rónán Mullen said part of the Government amendment “could have been written by a pimp”. It is not clear whether he meant it was written like he imagines a pimp might write, or if he is actually alleging a pimp has infiltrated Government and is writing amendments. Dr. Paul Ryan of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) recently wrote in the journal.ie that the consensus that the Swedish model will eradicate sex work in Ireland is so powerful “…that to question it one risks standing accused of being an apologist for pimps, brothel owners, criminality and the exploitation of women.” TOBL has already faced such allegations. In August the Sunday World published an article alleging that TOBL is run by a pimp. We complained directly to the Sunday World but got no reply. We have since formally complained to the Press Ombudsman.
TORL has huge political support in Ireland. Led by Ruhama and the Immigration Council of Ireland (ICI), the TORL coalition is made up predominantly of religious and women’s organisations. However, most disappointingly to us, several trade unions have also joined. The more support TORL gains, the more follows, like a great snowball effect. People buy into the groupthink and support TORL simply because so many others do that surely it must be the right thing to do?
TORL say they want to end prostitution and sex trafficking and ‘the solution’ is to criminalise the purchasers of sex. They cite some very questionable evidence to support their arguments, but unfortunately they are almost never questioned, and thus most people blindly support them. A new Irish blog, Feminist Ire, has written some excellent articles recently about the Swedish Model and the dodgy stats TORL is relying on and is a must read for those genuinely interested in sex work.
It might seem reasonable that “Nihil de nobis, sine nobis” (Nothing About Us Without Us) should apply here, that Ireland shouldn’t decide prostitution policy without the participation of the people affected by that policy, but so far sex workers have been excluded. We learnt during the Seanad debate that the Minister for Justice and Equality is expected to publish a report shortly re the September 2010 Department of Justice and Law Reform visit to Sweden. It is already known that this visit didn’t involve meeting with any organisation representing or advocating for sex workers, only supporters of the law. This is sadly typical of how things have been to date.
It is thought that none of the trade unions that have joined TORL considered any other position before doing so, though as none of these trade unions have ever replied to any of the letters TOBL has sent to them, this cannot be confirmed. It is especially hurtful that organisations of workers that have banded together to achieve better working conditions for themselves are opposing sex workers being able to do the same. In contrast, in the UK sex workers have the International Union of Sex Workers, part of GMB (Britain’s General Union), fighting for their rights.
The complete lack of understanding of the sex industry that the trade unions clearly have is also offensive. Eamon Devoy of the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union (TEEU) makes ridiculously uneducated speeches about sex work in Ireland, sometimes ending with a joke about how they, the electrical union, will do what they can to “turn off the red light”. This is not however a joke. Sex workers are human beings whose lives are impacted by prostitution laws. How dare people like Mr Devoy campaign for new prostitution laws without even attempting to understand the issues?
We have learnt from the Feminist Ire blog recently that virtually the entire global health sector supports the decriminalisation of sex work and granting sex workers occupational health and safety rights, including The World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, the UN Secretary General and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health. We also know that in the UK both the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Council support the decriminalisation of sex work for the benefit of the women and men involved. Yet in Ireland it seems the Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation (INMO) and the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) joined TORL without even considering any other position?
The main opposition to sex worker rights being established in Ireland is Ruhama, the powerful religious anti-sex work organisation. Ruhama is a joint initiative of the Good Shepherd Sisters and Our Lady of Charity Sisters, who have been ‘caring’ for Ireland’s ‘fallen women’ since 1848 and 1853 respectively, predominantly in Magdalen Laundries until their last one was closed in 1996. The sex workers rights movement on the other hand only began in the mid 1970s, and only reached Ireland in 2009 with the establishment of SWAI. A more unfair advantage Ruhama has is the generous Government funding it receives which enables it to lobby the Government so successfully. No such funding is available for sex worker organisations.
Let’s hope the Government means it when it says there should be a considered public debate and that the voices of sex workers are to be heard in that debate. The huge discrimination against sex workers in Ireland makes it very hard for sex workers to speak up, and the Government will need to consider this also, and provide a safe way for sex workers to contribute without being exposed to intrusions of their privacy. It would be wonderful if ordinary sex workers from all over Ireland were invited to share their views and these views were then considered, and this would also be quite remarkable, given the almost total exclusion of sex workers in Irish society to date.