The British government is to bring the age at which people can consent to sex in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.

Unionist politicians in the province are expected to oppose the move, which is included in new legislation before the House of Commons.

The Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Goggins, said:

“We are certainly not encouraging 16-year-olds to engage in sexual activity.

“What this is about is defining the age at which a criminal offence takes place even when consent is given.

“Where there is evidence of abuse or exploitation, then the new law will deal with that much more stringently, with many offences designed to protect right up to the age of 18.”

In both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland at present the age of consent for both gay and straight sex is 17.

The BBC reports that some politicians in the province think that the one year age difference with the Republic would encourage sexual predators to cross the border.

Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly do not have jurisdiction over criminal justice matters at present, though there are plans to extend their powers.

That could lead to the lower age of consent being overturned.

“In February, they (members of the Northern Ireland Assembly) voted through a motion urging Mr Goggins to drop the plan and just this week a majority – 55 – signed a “no day motion” urging the retention of the current age,” according to the BBC.

The province is generally more conservative on sexual matters than the rest of the UK. Unionist politicians in particular have opposed gay rights.

The Democratic Unionist Party, who are in government with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, are likely to fight to retain the age of consent at 17. The party has been consistently hostile to gay rights legislation imposed by the British government since 1997.