Back-slapping moral guardians behind Human Trafficking Bill will cost us dear
It was one big fat love-in up at Stormont this week, with the final passing of Lord Morrow's Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill. At the centre of it was Morrow himself, simpering like a bride as the compliments rained down on him like confetti. Health Minister Jim Wells delivered a rousing encomium to Morrow which ended with the toast: "Well done and remember that, in 100 years time, you will be remembered when all the rest of us are forgotten."
Justice Minister David Ford, despite acknowledging that the Assembly "should not make law without a sound evidence base", paid tribute to Morrow's "dedication and tenacity" and said that he was confident that "we have robust, comprehensive and effective legislation".
"I barely know where to start," said Lord Morrow, in response, reeling from the love. "I am slightly overwhelmed by the many generous remarks that have been made in the House, even by those who may be on the side of the detractors." The rest of the transcript is lost in the sound of mutual manly back-slapping. So raise your glasses, one and all. To Lord Maurice 'Wilberforce' Morrow of Clogher Valley, saviour of the fallen. To Jim 'Girl Power' Wells, fearless defender of women's rights - unless they happen to be a pregnant rape victim wanting an abortion, of course.
Well done, men, well done. With the help of your allies, such as so-called feminist groups like Women's Aid, you're on track to make Northern Ireland the first part of the UK to make paying for sex a criminal offence, which won't reduce trafficking at all but will endanger the lives and well-being of vulnerable sex workers. Insuperable international evidence from the United Nations and the World Health Organisation demonstrates this vital fact.
Sex workers themselves, even those who hate the work, the ones who have been raped and beaten and abused, begged you not to implement it, because they are terrified of the effect it will have. But you stopped your ears, you sneered at them, you shouted them down. Because Daddy always knows best, doesn't he?
Laura Lee, an independent Irish sex worker based in Glasgow, screwed up every ounce of her courage and appeared before the justice committee to tell MLAs how dangerous and misguided criminalising the purchase of sex would be.
"It took a lot for me to come out in Northern Ireland and reveal myself as a sex worker," Lee told me in a private email. "I did it because it was the right thing to do, to stand up for those who can't have a voice themselves due to the stigma."
She was treated with atrocious hostility, ignorance and disrespect, particularly by the chair, Paul Givan. This week, in Stormont, she was attacked again by Jim Wells, who claimed that she was "not a genuine sex worker but a spokeswoman for the sex industry - someone who was inextricably linked to a ring using over 300 women in Ireland for prostitution". Lee rejects this completely, and is planning to take legal action.
Any dirty tactics are justified, it seems, against those who disagree with you when you believe that God is on your side. Reasoned argument, engaged debate, the dispassionate weighing up of different points of view? Forget it. In Northern Ireland, laws can be based on gut instinct, prejudice and superstition.
This is not merely a little local difficulty. Moral crusades like Morrow's - together with opposition to gay marriage, gay adoption, gay blood donation; the championing of creationism; Givan's proposed 'conscience clause'; the blatant violation of women's rights when it comes to accessing abortion services - these are all diminishing our democracy and destroying our international standing. As for Sinn Fein's capitulation to the fundamentalist agenda - well, let's just say that rights are terribly important to it, as long as there's votes in it.
Don't be in any doubt that this is hitting us right where it hurts. Advertising ourselves, globally, as the last outpost of theocratic bigotry, a culchie Genesis theme-park, does not play well with potential investors. Especially big IT firms like Google and Apple, who pride themselves, indeed sell themselves, on a youthful spirit of open-mindedness and tolerance.
So let the old men slap each other on the back. They may have won this time, but their complacent posturing will come at a cost.