There is a lot to be said for the sensible, evidence based approach to policing adopted by the PSNI in Northern Ireland when it comes to sex work. When I say evidence based, they look for actual harm before bringing down the sledgehammer of the law, their goal being “keeping people safe”. It may amaze some readers to learn that sex workers are people too. The PSNI get it right on many levels, it’s far better for them to know who is working and where, so that they’re aware of any issues which may arise in the future, and through many meetings in formulating our alliance, they also guaranteed that they don’t record on file that a person is a “known prostitute”. That practice is adopted by a number of police forces, and is highly dangerous. Firstly, it stops sex workers identifying themselves and coming forward to report crime, and secondly, it prevents exit. It will come up on a background check, although the person has committed no crime.
No relationship is without it’s merits for both sides, however. The PSNI are aware that as sex workers on the front line, we are valuable sources of intelligence too, because none of us want to see any suffering in the industry and we want to go forward and report anything untoward. Now, when I say “valuable sources of intelligence”, it’s not that we have effectively established Northern Ireland’s answer to the Rat4Leo line, no. But let’s think about this logically. If a man is abusive towards a sex worker, then the chances are that he is being awful at home, and also towards other women, etc. it’s in everyone’s best interests that he is nabbed.
So, having just secured an empire biscuit next time I visit Musgrave Street station in Belfast, let’s compare and contrast with the Republic of Ireland, and what a stark contrast that is. Raids of women working together in safety are commonplace, yes, even since the inception of the new law, the Nordic model. That’s strange, because I’m certain Ruhama et al. assured us for months on end that the new law “decriminalised prostituted persons”. Even prior to the new law coming in, the behaviour of some members of An Garda Síochána is just breath-taking. On July 26th 2015, a sex worker reported that she had been asked to perform a sexual act to get her laptop back from a Garda. From that report, here is some very telling testimony from sex workers themselves –
__”Another who spoke of negative experiences with gardai also claimed to have been forced to perform sex by a garda. She replied to the questionnaire: “I was kicked out over 10 times by guards from lots of places, but have never been beaten. If you work alone they will leave you, but if you are two or more girls they tell you to leave or detain you. The next day after a raid, one of the gardas come back on his own and forced me to have sex with him. He was disgusting man.”_
_Another commented: “I called the garda after being attacked by three guys. Two garda officers turned up but they were not interested in catching these guys.” Another sex worker said: “I had a problem with a racist guy. He didn’t like me because of what I do for a living and he threatened to kill me in front of my house. The police came, but they didn’t do anything even though there were almost 30 people in my yard.”__
On July 12th 2015, a sex worker reported that an off-duty Garda returned to the scene of an earlier raid and raped her, with corroborating evidence from her co-worker. He was fined for a breach of discipline.
The attitude of An Garda Síochána towards sex workers was never more appallingly evident than this report taken from the Irish Times, on October 31st 2016. Here the sex workers contested strongly that they were trafficked or pimped and said that they were simply working together for safety, which is of course illegal, even since the new law. Although they were portrayed throughout the trial as vulnerable victims, they were still found guilty of brothel keeping and fined €5,000. The comments of Det Sgt Byrne sum it up beautifully. “That would have to be organised by others. They wouldn’t have the ‘wherewithal’ to organise that themselves.” No, of course a migrant woman wouldn’t know how to purchase a mobile phone and place an ad online, any more than she’d know how to book a flight or send money home to her family. Despair doesn’t even cover those comments, if he thought they were so vulnerable, why push for them to pay a fine and have a criminal record?
A New Approach
As with any work force, there are always a few bad apples, and it’s not true or fair to say that all Irish Gardaí are abusive or demeaning towards sex workers. They’re not, there are some smashing guards around and I know that rank and file Gardaí didn’t want the new law any more than sex workers did. They are stretched to the maximum as it is, in terms of resources and manpower, let alone assigning several guards to kick the door of an apartment in, on a Saturday night where two consenting adults are having sex. What we need is a blanket policy which takes the safety of sex workers into consideration and a sensible approach to policing.
In 2016, 910 crimes against sex workers were reported to Uglymugs.ie, only ten of those were reported to the Gardaí. Those figures speak volumes, it’s clear that there’s a lot of work to do, but it CAN be done, and a relationship built. What makes me more angry at the current state of policing in Ireland is that I remember how it used to be. Sex workers had allies, even within the police, and the following is a classic example. It was a busy evening at the agency where I worked, there were three of us on call in a two bedroomed apartment by the quays in Dublin. As I was free, it happened to be me that answered the phone. Not to point any fingers (especially at an ally) but the caller had a thick country accent and I’m fairly certain he was stationed at Harcourt Terrace.
“Good evening, how can I help?” “Ladies, ye have a raid coming. Shift.”
What followed was comedic, because the apartment block had glass around the stairwells. We grabbed condoms, phones and toys and headed down one flight of stairs, whilst the pride of Ireland piled up the stairs on the other side resplendent in their high visability jackets. What’s more, we made it to The Quill for last orders.