JUSTICE Minister Alan Shatter has been criticised after warning against criminalising people who are buying sex if prostitutes had clearly "initiated the transaction".
He raised concerns about cases where prostitutes turned out to be "significantly older" than a young person who was buying sex "perhaps for the first time".
Mr Shatter was responding to a Dail report calling on him to change the law so that only those who hire prostitutes are prosecuted.
Under the current law, prostitution is not illegal but seeking to sell sex in a public place, operating brothels and pimping are all offences.
Mr Shatter told the cross-party Oireachtas Justice committee that its proposed criminalisation of all buyers of sex raised questions about "the principles of equality" in the current law.
"This proposed immunity for the seller would preclude the prosecution of, for example, a prostitute or sex worker who clearly initiated the transaction or is significantly older than a young adult who purchased sexual services and perhaps for the first time," he wrote.
His comments drew a strong response from the justice committee, and last night, Ruhama, a group that represents victims of prostitution, said it was "disappointed" with the minister.
Geraldine Rowley of Ruhama told the Irish Independent: "We have just gone through a consultation process where there were 800 submissions and hearings, which included survivors of prostitution, which clearly presented the harm of prostitution.
"We welcomed the unanimous recommendation that came from that Oireacthas Committee to criminalise the buying of sex and we call on the minister to act on that decision and we are disappointed with the comments by the minister."
She said Ireland had "a serious problem" with organised prostitution and criminalisation had already proven to be a deterrent in a number of countries where it was introduced.
The chairman of the Oireachtas Justice Committee, Fine Gael TD David Stanton, has written back to the minister to say the vast majority of prostitutes here were migrant women from disadvantaged backgrounds, whereas the buyer was usually a "better-off man".
Mr Stanton agreed that it was nearly always prostitutes who initiated the transaction by advertising or offering sexual services. But he said the committee had taken into account the background of those involved in prostitution.
"There exists a body of international and national evidence indicating severe poverty, child sexual abuse, early home leaving and homelessness in the early lives of those who enter prostitution," he said.
Mr Stanton said the justice committee wanted to criminalise the buyers of sex to reduce the demand for prostitution because the current law was not working. He said that even if the buyer was younger, the prostitute was still a victim in the committee's eyes.
Mr Shatter has previously said that there is a need to update the 1993 law because prostitution is no longer street-based and has since moved largely indoors and is organised over the internet. And he has said prostitution has existed since time immemorial and that "no society has ever succeeded in abolishing it".
Mr Shatter is seeking advice from Attorney General Maire Whelan and Health Minister James Reilly on the committee's report before he publishes a bill to update the prostitution legislation.
The justice committee is hoping that publishing its correspondence by Mr Shatter will "stimulate debate" about the review of the prostitution legislation.