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'I'd be incandescent if a man in his 40s went near my 17-year-old'

Dr Ciara Kelly


Former Scottish Finance Secretary Derek Mackay, who resigned with immediate effect after allegations emerged that he sent hundreds of messages to a 16-year-old boy: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Former Scottish Finance Secretary Derek Mackay, who resigned with immediate effect after allegations emerged that he sent hundreds of messages to a 16-year-old boy: Jane Barlow/PA Wire


Former Scottish Finance Secretary Derek Mackay, who resigned with immediate effect after allegations emerged that he sent hundreds of messages to a 16-year-old boy: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Last week in Scotland, Derek Mackay, finance secretary and heir apparent to the SNP crown, resigned only hours before he was due to deliver his annual budget speech. He was then suspended from the party in the wake of it being revealed he had sent hundreds of private messages on social media to a 16-year-old boy, telling him he was "cute", asking him out to rugby matches and to dinner and liking photos of him dressed in sports gear.

In a statement Mackay apologised to the boy, saying "I take full responsibility for my actions. I behaved foolishly" and said he was "sorry to have let colleagues and supporters down".

'Foolish' doesn't cover it. Foolish is telling a job interviewer the story of how you threw up at last year's office party. Foolish is describing Leo Varadkar as autistic in front of a reporter during an election. Foolish is not a 42-year-old politician and separated father-of-two sexting a schoolboy on Instagram.

Derek Mackay is a grown adult, working in a job with considerable influence and responsibility. You would imagine that Derek Mackay is no fool - so for him to describe his predatory actions as foolish is to minimise them, to trivialise them.

This middle-aged man sent 270 messages over six months to the boy who had told him he was 16 and had made up excuses - such as his "brother had had an accident" or his "Mum wouldn't let him go" - to get out of meeting Mackay. He'd also told Mackay not to 'try anything' with him.

Unless you're 16 yourself, I think when the person you're hitting on says the reason they can't meet you is because their "Mum won't let them", it should set off an alarm bell that what you are doing is more than 'foolish'. It's creepy. It's predatory. It's attempted grooming.

Scottish police are looking into the allegations against Mackay. But as the age of consent in Scotland is 16 - unlike here where it's 17 - it's possible no laws have been broken. But the age of consent is a blunt instrument.

Two 16-year-olds or even a 17- and an 18-year-old fooling around and mutually exploring their fledgling sexuality is one thing. A 16-year-old school boy being hit on by a 42-year-old is another thing altogether. In the latter the difference in maturity and the difference in power renders that interchange coercive. Which is presumably part of the attraction for the senior politician.

The question is though, how do we as a society handle this?

Our age of consent may be 17, but as the parent of a 17-year-old, I know that if a man in his 40s came nigh or near her I would be incandescent.

So should we have one age of consent for peers and a different one for age-gap relationships? Is that too difficult to legislate for? Currently as a society we tend to use shame to deal with it.

Mackay may have broken no laws, but he's had to resign in some ignominy. And I doubt many will feel sorry for him on that score.

Prince Andrew has also felt the brunt of shame and social approbation around the same issue. His close friendship with paedophile and child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein and allegations by Virginia Giuffre that she was procured by Epstein as a teenager for the Prince - along with his bizarre lack of self-awareness in his disastrous BBC interview on the subject - forced him to stand down from official royal duties late last year.

But again his actions are seen by some as more foolish than malign. It was announced only last week that councils around the UK are not required to fly the Union Jack for Andrew's 60th birthday and he is deferring his birthday promotion to admiral - presumably until the heat dies down.

Liverpool City Council, in fairness, had already stated it wouldn't be flying the flag for him irrespective.

But that there was still a suggestion that British councils might fly the flag for his birthday or that he should be ceremonially promoted seems a gross insult to common decency.

And I think we need as a society to discuss how we respond to predatory actions by adults on adolescents, even if they don't fall into the illegal category.

Are we happy once an adolescent reaches the age of consent if an adult twice or three times their age then sees them as fair game? Whose interest does that serve? Not the teenagers', I'll warrant.

In the aftermath of the Tom Humphries trial I excoriated Eamon Dunphy on my radio show for saying on TV3 that he hadn't known about the grooming in the Humphries case, that he'd thought it was more benign than that - that he'd thought it was just "a case of under-age sex".

This revealed a societal misconception around this whole issue that Eamon is not alone in having - there is no under-age sex without the grooming.

Teenage boys and girls do not dream of having sex with saggy-arsed, grey-haired, middle-aged men.

Teenage boys and girls dream of sexy pop stars, or of other boys and girls in their class. How middle-aged predators get to have under-age sex with teens is by grooming them. Bombarding them with messages. Showering them with attention. Complimenting and manipulating them. Coercing or intimidating them.

It may not be illegal as an adult to message, to groom or indeed to have sex with a 16-year-old in Scotland or a 17-year-old here, but there is still something very wrong in it.

It is not foolish, far from it - instead it is coercive and malign.

And Derek Mackay deserves all the criticism being levelled at him. In these instances the age of consent is a legal loophole that some people are hiding behind.

The notion that 'there's no fool like an old fool' should be challenged for the predatory-apologist nonsense it is.


Sunday Independent