Irish Politicians break promise to reform Blasphemy laws

blasphemyIreland rather absurdly has a Blasphemy law, and this is not some archaic dictate inherited from the dark ages, but was introduced in July 2009 by the then Fianna Fáil-led government.

Enacting something like this as recently as 2009 would appear to be truly bizarre, because nobody was demanding it should happen, and nobody was particularly bothered about the lack of a specific blasphemy law. Once enacted, this rather weird piece of legislation did not in fact protect religious belief at all, but instead criminalised free speech. If a person expresses one belief about gods, (for example, a Christian asserting that Jesus is God and not just a prophet), and other people think that this insults a different belief about gods, (for example Muslims who do not believe that Jesus is god), and if these people then become outraged, (would Muslims ever do that?), then this outrage alone makes it illegal for the first person to express his or her beliefs. – and that quite frankly is how absurd this is.

So What Could Happen In Theory?

If you utter material that is “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion“, then you could in theory be fined up to 25,000 Euros.

Why the Heck did they do this, what motivated them?

All is not as it appears to be, this legislation was introduced to solve a constitutional problem, and not to actually protect a specific religious belief. Blasphemy is mandated by the 1937 Irish Constitution, and was also enacted by the 1961 Act. They needed to abolish the 1961 blasphemy act completely, but to do that legally, they also needed to also hold a referendum to amend the constitution. That costs a considerable amount of time and effort, and for something that the vast majority don’t really care about, they ended up with a political decision to pop into place this daft bit of 2009 blasphemy legislation as a place-holder to enable the state to legally conform to the constitution and so they could then abolish the 1961 act.

There is a desire from most to wipe away all this nonsense away, and that includes Ahern who introduced the 2009 legislation, he explained

As a Republican, my personal position is that Church and State should be separate.
But I do not have the luxury of ignoring our Constitution.

So, as Minister for Justice I faced a choice – referendum or reform

… “If we repeal in full the provisions of the 1961 Act in reforming the defamation laws, we create a gap unless some provision is made for the constitutional offences. We must be mindful also of the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Corway v. Independent Newspapers in 1999 where the Supreme Court indicated a need to address the law on blasphemy.

At this stage I would suggest our duty is to ensure there is no gap created in the case of these offences which are recognised by the Constitution”. 

So the issue is this, the older 1961 act, that the 2009 legislation replaced, could in theory have resulted is either seven years’ penal servitude, or two years’ imprisonment.

As a side note, I’d really love to see how they would have ever implemented the penal servitude option, seven years on Dalkey island perhaps. If you think I’m kidding about that penalty, I’m not, that was the exact wording of the 1961 act.

Has anybody ever been tried Blasphemy?

The last actual (almost successful) case was in 1855 at Kingstown, (now known as Dun Laoghaire) and concerned a Protestant Bible being burned on a bonfire of “irreligious” books organised by Vladimir Petcherine, a Catholic priest. He was in fact later acquitted after claiming that he had not intended to burn any Bibles. I should also perhaps point out that until 1922, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom.

Since then nothing, not one case. Well OK, there was the attempt in 1999 when John Corway brought a private prosecution against Newspaper editor Aengus Fanning for a cartoon published during the 1995 divorce referendum, which depicted the government parties’ leaders snubbing a Catholic priest who was holding out a Communion wafer. The Supreme Court refused to allow the prosecution, stating that the concept of blasphemy was actually meaningless

“in the absence of any legislative definition of the constitutional offence of blasphemy, it is impossible to say of what the offence of blasphemy consists … In the absence of legislation and in the present uncertain state of the law the Court could not see its way to authorising the institution of a criminal prosecution”.

Since then … nothing, not one case, and there never will be, because the long-term intent here has always been to amend the constitution and completely do away with it all.

Really do away with it all?

Yes indeed, all political parties agree that Blasphemy should not be a criminal offence, and in October 2014, there was an official announcement that they would indeed hold a referendum.

So What has happened now?

They are backtracking on that promise, and would now appear to be going for the “Do Nothing” option.

Does this really matter?

In an Irish context, “no”, the existing 2009 legislation has not been actively utilised by anybody. I suspect it never will be, and so perhaps the “do nothing” option is understandable from a political viewpoint, the desire is to enact legislation that buys votes, and this one would simply be a distraction from that.

It is still crazy to have such a law, and is also utterly absurd that the constitution forces them to retain it.

However, there is a bigger picture here, the reason this really does matter is because various Islamic states use the very existence of the Irish Blasphemy law to justify their own existing blasphemy laws, and when challenged, they simply point to Ireland, a western nation, that is on paper doing exactly what they do.

The problem with the Islamic variation is that in contrast to Ireland, they actively utilise it to oppress all religious minorities.  Even an accusation of blasphemy can often result in a mob murdering some innocent individual, and because there is a legal blasphemy law, in many minds such behaviour is justified.

Blasphemy law, legislation for a supposed crime that in reality has no victim, is not simply an archaic relic, but today is still in some nations a lethal religious weapon that is actively utilised to suppress basic human rights, both freedom of thought and also freedom of speech, and that is why we need to openly challenge and obliterate this utterly medieval absurdity, even in Ireland.

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