Belfast Telegraph

State papers: Stormont's officials wanted ban on sex shop

By Adrian Rutherford

The opening of Northern Ireland's first sex shop in the early 1980s caused such a stir that officials considered reviewing our 125-year-old obscenity laws.

The store opened in east Belfast in 1982, with pickets from Christian groups telling the owners of 'Mr Dirty Books' they were unwelcome on the Castlereagh Road.

Newly released state papers reveal that privately, civil servants and officials were so shocked by its opening that they looked at updating the law on the sale of pornography, and enlisted legal advice.

A letter from JE Durling, a senior legal assistant, written in August 1982, said the law as it stood was inadequate to stop someone setting up sex shops.

He wrote: "I have come to the conclusion that reality probably demands that in Northern Ireland there is legislation along the lines of the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981."

At the time Northern Ireland still relied on the common law offence of obscenity and the Obscene Publications Act 1857.

However, Mr Durling wrote that times had changed considerably, with magazines such as Playboy becoming an accepted part of many corner newsagents' trade.

"I very much doubt whether a resident magistrate would seek to condemn these publications insofar as their market is largely confined to those who wish to pursue their prurient pleasures."

Mr Durling said it was difficult to see how courts could, on current legislation, prevent "the ongoing tide of disreputable publications".

He suggested the Department of Environment might consider introducing legislation similar to Schedule 3 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 in England.

Under the act, a licence for a sex shop could be refused if the applicant was deemed unsuitable or there was already an "appropriate" number of outlets in the area.

In another letter, JE Taylor, an official with the Criminal Justice Division, discussed the various laws which could deal with matters of public decency.

These included the 1824 Vagrancy Act, the Town Improvement Act of 1854 and the 1889 Indecent Advertisements Act.

Mr Taylor noted that he had not yet had an opportunity to visit the Castlereagh Road sex shop.

He concluded: "Our statutes on indecency are old and are virtually the same as the ones which England and Wales relied upon before the Obscene Publications Act in 1959. Indecency has not been a big problem in Northern Ireland.

"In relation to the Castlereagh Road sex shop it seems that the proprietor is following the requirements of the 1981 Act, perhaps thinking that this will protect him from prosecution.

"The acid test will be however a police raid and a subsequent decision by a court."

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