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Sex laws crisis: a political storm composed of incompetence and hypocrisy 

Joe Craig

8 June 2006

The release of a convicted child rapist by the courts has unleashed a political storm in the South.  The grounds for release were that it had been unconstitutional to prevent him from arguing that he had made an honest mistake about the child’s age. The storm even briefly appeared to threaten the continued survival of the Fianna Fail/ Progressive Democrat government, widely seen to have been negligently incompetent in having failed to prevent such an occurrence.

The pathetic excuses wheeled out, particularly by an insufferably arrogant Michael McDowell, the Minister for Justice, were widely held as displaying an attitude of complete indifference to the concerns of the ordinary public: 

  • He claimed that both he and the Attorney General knew nothing about the issue despite it having been flagged up as a potential problem on numerous occasions. 
  • That they did know about the issue was acknowledged by the precipitate government claim that it was a ‘human error’ and ‘communications failure’ that led to the release – then saying that they would hold an inquiry to find out what had happened. 
  • All this while it is simultaneously claimed that the government’s actions, or inaction, would have and did not make any difference to the outcome.

The sheer incompetence of the government is exposed by the fact that their rushed legislation - to ensure that statutory rape can still effectively be prosecuted and that those already convicted cannot seek release on constitutional grounds - is itself widely held to be unconstitutional.  It effectively criminalises teenage sex, and while excluding young girls from the possibility of prosecution , it is open to the charge of discrimination by making young boys liable to criminal charges.  It also opens up children to cross-examination in court by the defence in criminal proceedings.

This mess was accompanied by demonstrations (not particularly large) of concerned parents, especially mothers, and by agitated calls on radio phone-in shows.  Claims of hysteria met counterclaims of government indifference.

The upshot is this reactionary legislation and the moral ‘panic’ that has followed is  that the issue of teenage sex is marginalised by placing it under the heading of adult abuse.  In the process the real questions of young people’s sexuality, how it develops and how it should be regarded has been put into the most repressive context of adult abuse.  The reactionary character of the whole affair is revealed by the proposal of the Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Aherne that a referendum be held to explicitly rule out the possibility of presenting a defence that an honest mistake had been made when one partner involved in sexual activity is close to the age of consent.

There are of course legitimate parental concerns about the safety of children and concerns more generally about how they should be protected.  However the circumstances of this explosion of concern reveal not so much a new move to protect children but a reactionary wave that, as so often before, uses sexual issues to introduce repressive measures and bolster authority.

A visitor from another country could not be blamed for believing that child sexual abuse had only just surfaced in Irish society.  Of course such abuse has been to the fore for some years now as the widespread abuse of children by the various arms of the Catholic Church has been reported again and again – another conviction taking place while this controversy raged.   Yet where are the calls to protect children by stripping the Church of its control of primary schools?  Where is the indignation when the religious continue to deny substantial wrong doing at the open hearings of the tribunal set up to deal with this problem which have also been taking place this week?

Where is the outcry over revelations, again this week, that young asylum seekers have been illegally kept in a residential centre that doesn’t meet basic standards of care or that 250 of these young people have disappeared from such care over the last five years?  Had 250 white and Irish born children disappeared in circumstances where there are strong suspicions of sexual exploitation the outcry would have been deafening.

Why does the concern for the State’s protection of children now produce angry denunciation while barely six months ago a report that that 1 in 7 children are living in consistent poverty was met with silence and indifference? An estimated 148,000 children in the state go without basic items such as a substantial meal over a two-week period or do without adequate heating in their homes.

What this crisis shows is that an arrogant government can act with impunity against children if they are foreign and evade responsibility if their clerical allies carry out the abuse.   They are however always vulnerable to a law and order offensive supported by an opposition even further to the right than they are and able to benefit from the atmosphere of racism and repression that the government has itself created. Minister for Justice Michael McDowell has led the way in creating the tide of reaction that came close to burying him.. 

The hypocrisy and panic around children is left unexposed and no genuine programme of protection is put forward because there is no socialist alternative.  The Labour Party has signalled it’s rallying to a racist agenda and the trade unions are just completing a new round of partnership deals with the reactionary politicians that have just been discredited.

This crisis in the political establishment, and those in the future, will not by themselves lead to anything progressive. For their to be real change an opposition must be created that, however small it is initially, can honestly and credibly present a principled socialist alternative that encapsulates the needs of the most vulnerable and oppressed.  To do so requires a political party with a full political programme that can, for example, tackle the questions of church/state relations, racism, child poverty and sexual freedom.  Socialists need to increase the size of their movement. Within any strategy for regroupment they need to develop a political programme which can provide answers to the many questions that present crises to the current political order.  Without such a programme not only will the left not be able to intervene successfully, it will itself be vulnerable to all the reactionary garbage flowing about in capitalist society.



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