NI: Age of consent a thorn in side of gay and bisexual pardons debate

Justice Minister Claire Sugden
Justice Minister Claire Sugden

A debate among MLAs on whether to offer pardons to gay and bisexual men convicted of abolished sexual offences was complicated by Northern Ireland’s distinct age of consent.

MLAs were asked to approve a legislative consent motion to extend provisions of the UK government’s Policing and Crime Bill to Northern Ireland, allowing for those men to be pardoned.

Justice Minister Claire Sugden acknowledged there was an “added dimension here because parity in the age of consent with the rest of the UK did not happen here until 2009”.

The age of consent for heterosexual activity was set at 17 in 1950. Sexual activity between men was criminalised until 1982, at which point the age of consent for homosexual activity was set at 21.

The age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual activity was eventually equalised at 17 in 2000 and then lowered to 16 in 2009.

MLAs approved the motion, which Ms Sugden said meant Parliament would be asked to “introduce legislation for us on the same footing as in England and Wales, which, for now, means disregards and pardons for consensual activity with a person aged 17 or over”.

She explained: “A specific issue for Northern Ireland arises because our age of consent changed again in 2009 for both genders and is now, as in the rest of the UK, 16.

“I acknowledge that this means that consensual sexual activity before 2009 where the other party was 16 is no longer considered to be criminal behaviour. However, this is the same for sex with either a boy or girl of that age.

“It is my opinion that the policy basis for the disregard arrangements and the proposed pardons is not just to address convictions for offences purely on the basis that the activity is no longer considered to be unlawful, although that of course is part of it, but rather to right the fundamental wrongs brought about by a criminal law which allowed and perpetrated discrimination and social injustice for a long period against a specific group of people.

“These arrangements are not, and should not be, only about the fact that these offences have been decriminalised. I do not think that there would be a consensus that, simply because decriminalisation occurred, there was an injustice to those previously convicted. The reason for such a significant gesture goes much deeper, and we need to acknowledge that.”

She added: “I am happy to offer a commitment to look again at the whole issue of consensual sexual offences involving 16-year-olds and to bring it back to the Assembly for consideration.

“As this situation is unique to Northern Ireland, it is only right that we have time to properly consider the policy and to provide an opportunity for this Assembly to make a decision.”

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