We'll never eradicate prostitution - so target vile trafficking instead
Alan Shatter is right. He often is, you know. Right in more ways than one. The Justice Minister has a peremptory manner. That does not go down well with the multitudes of citizens who are accustomed to the folksy style of most Irish politicians.
But when it comes to issues that call for thought and study instead of kneejerk reactions, you can hear him thinking aloud. Lately he has been thinking aloud about a question that has provoked more kneejerk reactions than any of us have had hot breakfasts.
A few years ago, the Swedish government decided to criminalise the purchase of sex. Norway and Iceland followed suit. Elsewhere, many people rejoiced. They thought it a brilliant idea, an advance for women's rights. They demanded similar action in their own countries.
In Ireland, the campaign to punish the customers instead of the suppliers has taken fire. An Oireachtas committee has supported the proposal. The minister contemplates introducing similar legislation here. He has consulted the Attorney General.
He has done well to contemplate and consult instead of rushing to judgment. For the supposedly brilliant idea is nothing of the kind.
The campaigners tell us that the move has worked well in Sweden. What exactly does that mean? Do prostitutes have the increased legal protection they undoubtedly need? Has the number of their potential customers dwindled? Are there fewer instances of trafficking, coercion, sexually transmitted diseases? Do the Swedes think they can eradicate prostitution?
The last question is the easiest. Anyone who thinks you can eradicate prostitution is looking for pie in the sky. It has featured in every culture known to history.
Can the campaigners hope for even a diminution in the practice? The Swedish example tells us very little. Not long after the new law came into force, the government had to admit that it did not know the number of prostitutes in the country; in other words, it was working in the dark.
In the Irish case, what would be the prospect of numerous successful prosecutions by our overworked police force? Close to zero.
In short, this is a prime example of gesture politics. It can do little or no good, and it could do some harm.
Prostitution, or specifically the trafficking of women and girls across international borders for the purpose of prostitution and the monstrous treatment of these same women and girls, is a serious question, which calls for serious action.
Criminalising the customers would make a lot of Irish people feel good, and no doubt it has made a lot of Swedish people feel good. It lets them think, comfortably, that they have made an advance in a good cause. But it does nothing to put down trafficking or the vile form of slavery that follows it.
As to domestic action, the only answer is regulation. I know that this idea is far from popular. Many well-informed people, including people rightly concerned for prostitutes' human rights, oppose it.
Granted, its defects are numerous. It is difficult to manage and open to abuse. There is abundant literature, which tells us about ill-treatment of prostitutes under the regulatory system of, for example, a civilised country like France in the 19th Century.
Such abuses derive from a fundamental flaw in human nature, the temptation to oppress the weak. With or without a system of regulation, prostitutes are exceptionally vulnerable. But regulation, properly managed, can go hand in hand with assertion of their rights, including the right to trade openly but discreetly and the right to form trade unions.
Regulation, however, is not enough on its own. More necessary still is a renewed and determined international effort to put down trafficking.
Few governments, however, list this among their priorities. It cannot succeed without substantial public support and pressure -- not an easy thing to organise, since relatively few people understand the vast scale of the traffic or the extent to which traffickers profit from their own anonymity.
In some places, of course, they do not need anonymity. In certain desperately poor countries, girls no more than seven years old are sold openly across borders for purposes of prostitution or domestic slavery, or both.
Ending that abominable practice, if attempted at all, will take generations. But in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, the authorities have the resources for protection and rescue.
I hope Mr Shatter is thinking about the best means of prevention and rescue as well as wondering whether punishing the customers is a good idea. Somehow I suspect that he knows the customers, like it or not, are here to stay.