Gay rights groups in Northern Ireland are at loggerheads with the Roman Catholic Church and the Democratic Unionist Party over proposed legislation to lower the age of consent from 17 to 16, bringing it in line with the rest of the UK.

Justice Minister Paul Goggins MP, who unveiled the draft Sexual Offences (NI) Order, said that there is no convincing reason for the age to be different than it is in the rest of the UK.

“By changing the age of consent, our aim is to modernise and strengthen the law in Northern Ireland to bring parity with England and Wales and ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are protected from sexual crime to the level as the rest of the UK,” he said.

The change to the age of consent is a matter for the British government and not the Northern Ireland Assembly or Executive.

Many parties in the province are outraged at the proposed bill which they see as symbolic of the decline in moral values.

David Simpson, an MP and Assmebly member for the DUP, which has strong links with the Protestant churches, said:

“The country is in a moral mess and instead of loosening morals further the government should be embarking on a programme of education and responsible parenthood.

“The bringing of life into the world should be based on the love between two responsible adults rather than a casual fling between immature 16-year-olds.”

In contrast, gay rights organisations championed the change, which they argue is logical and fair.

Speaking on behalf of the Gay and Lesbian Youth Northern Ireland, Liam Larmour said:

“We welcome a change in legislation that gives equal status to young people across the UK and are concerned that some agencies are challenging this legislation when the same agencies and their counterparts in the rest of the UK are not seen to be supporting their concerns.”

Mr Larmour also expressed scepticism about the intentions of those who oppose the change, especially as the same groups that objected to the law to lower the age of consent for LGB youth from 18 to 17, are protesting once again.

“We’d be very keen to know, is this the same reason that certain political parties and religious/politically-minded organisations or churches are again challenging the new legislative changes? It certainly seems that way,” he said.

“They have done everything they could think of to deny the rights of LGBT people in society and continue to do so.”

But for many, the change in law will be futile unless it is accompanied by an improvement in sex education so that teenagers feel empowered to make the right decisions.

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell said:

“Even 16 as an age of consent is problematic given that young people, gay and straight, have their first sexual experience before the age of 16.

“If we back up this change in law with earlier, better sex education, we can help encourage people to make wise responsible sex choices including choosing not to have sex.”

Echoing this opinion, David McCartney from the Rainbow Project, an organisation that supports gay and bi-sexual men in Northern Ireland, said:

“An arbitrary age will not prevent assault but training and education will.”

Mr McCartney added that contrary to reports in The Observer, the Rainbow Project has not clashed with the Rape Crisis Centre over the bill.

“We have slightly different approaches to reach the same objective,” he said.

According to The Observer, The Rape Crisis Centre was concerned that lowering the age of consent would allow older men to prey on even younger people, both from the heterosexual and gay communities.

The draft Sexual Offences (NI) Order 2007 aims to provide new legislation to strengthen protection against sexual offences.

It will reinforce protection for children and vulnerable groups against abuse and exploitation.

Any sexual act with a child under 13 will automatically be treated as rape.

The bill also includes tougher sentences for kerb-crawling and soliciting for the purposes of prostitution.

Northern Ireland has always been slow to progress in all sex-related matters.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1982, fifteen years behind England and Wales, and abortion still remains illegal except in life-threatening cases.

A public consultation for the bill will run from November 20 2007 until February 5 2008 and is likely to be implemented next April.

Mr Larmour said that he looked forward to the consultation.

“LGBT young people in particular are always left out of these debates and we welcome the opportunity to consult on the legislation,” he said.