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The last boom industry

Strumpet City is what Dublin was dubbed during British imperial rule because of the huge number of prostitutes who serviced British soldiers and others - notably the young James Joyce - in its dark lanes and alleyways. But Catholic missionaries made sure that Monto, the Irish capital's most notorious red-light district, was cleaned up soon after the foundation of the Free State.

Recently, Ireland has seemed in danger of becoming the Strumpet State as brothels have sprung up all across the republic. More than a thousandwomen now supply sexual services everywhere from Dingle to Dundalk in a racket worth over €200m annually.

The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, acknowledged in a Dail debate in February that the problem is "extraordinarily prevalent". In the upper chamber of Ireland's parliament, Senator Katherine Zappone said she was "revolted that . . . a large number of Irish men are . . . enabling the enslavement of women".

Not just women. Anyone still under the illusion that child sex abuse in Ireland was a problem confined to a few paedophile priests would have beenshocked recently by a former Dublin prostitute's stark account of her seven-year ordeal. "The nation is finally beginning to take a look at the intrinsic harm of prostitution," she wrote in the Irish Examiner on 15 February. "I welcome this because it is a harm I have understood since I was a 15-year-old prostitute, being used by up to ten men a day. The one thing that linked those men together, besides their urges to pay to abuse myyoung body, was that they all knew just how young I was."

The justice minister, Alan Shatter, is framing legislation to tackle the rackets. Campaign groups are urging him to go further than his Whitehall counterpart by criminalising completely the purchase of all sexual services, as Sweden and Norway now do. In Britain the buyers can only be prosecuted if it can be proven that the woman was a victim of trafficking - often a long and costly process.

With the Garda unit dedicated to dealing with organised prostitution down to just two full-time officers, Ireland's sex trade is one of the few still flourishing in these post-Tiger times. Two decades ago, there were only about 200 prostitutes here, almost all of whom were Irish and soldthemselves on street corners. Today, most are brought in from eastern Europe, Asia and Africa and are available 24 hours a day inside anonymous apartment blocks - cheap and plentiful since the property crash.

Behind closed doors
At present, it is not against the law in Ireland to buy or sell sex, provided the transaction takes place in private settings. When that ruling came into force in 1993, it drove prostitution indoors, giving the women even less control over their conditions.

It is illegal to advertise prostitution in Ireland, but that can be easily circumvented simply by marketing "independent female escorts" on websites registered in other jurisdictions, usually the UK. A recent undercover investigation by the national broadcaster, RTE, revealed the sordid reality behind glossy "escort" sites, exposing the ruthless pimps who pay the women a pittance and constantly move them around the island to keep them confused and disorientated - and meet their clients' demand for variety.

“To the buyers, it's like flicking through a takeaway menu: shall I have Polish, Chinese or Thai tonight?" explained Sarah Benson, CEO of Ruhama,a Dublin-based NGO that offers front-line support to victims of prostitution and trafficking.

Ruhama is part of the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, a broad alliance of professional organisations, unions and voluntary groups lobbying to end prostitution. They want an array of legislative changes to fill the loopholes in Irish law that have allowed this trade to flourish.

An area they are targeting is telecoms, after the revelation that one "escort" website alone uses over 4,000 mobile-phone numbers to sell sex. Solucrative are these that pimps have sold the client contacts on them for up to €100,000.

“The sex trade will only survive while there are men willing to buy sex," said Benson. "And the men buying sex in Ireland are often married or in steady relationships - frighteningly normal."

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible