The Northern Ireland Assembly has unanimously voted in favour of a report which recommends keeping the age of consent at 17.
Criminal law for Northern Ireland remains in the control of the Westminster Government and it wants to lower the age of consent to 16 in the Province, bringing it into line with the rest of the UK.
But critics say Northern Ireland’s age of consent law is a good child protection measure and point out that the mainland has higher rates of sexually transmitted infections amongst teenagers and higher teenage pregnancy rates.
Although the Assembly vote is not determinative, it sends a strong signal to the Northern Ireland Office that an attempt to lower the age of consent would be unpopular.
The vote backs a report produced by a committee of MLAs in January. Presenting its conclusions, the committee’s chairman Stephen Farry MLA said: “In coming to its decision the committee felt there was no public lobby in Northern Ireland for change.
“The committee felt that it was for the minister to prove his case and the burden of proof should not rest with those who wish to defend the status quo.”
During the debate, committee member Alastair Ross MLA said: “Let us remember we are not primarily talking about two 16 year-olds engaging in consensual sexual activity but perhaps a 16-year-old girl and 40-year-old man who aims to take advantage,” he said.
“It’s also the message that lowering the age of consent would send out. Having sex requires emotional and physical maturity and lowering the age to 16 would send out the message that the government expects young people to be engaged in sexual activity and so are legislating for that fact.”