It does seem bizarre that, in 2009, a modern European nation would seek to shield religious belief from criticism – yet that is what is happening in Ireland right now. In repealing the 1961 Defamation Act, the Irish government sought to expunge the worst excesses of Ireland’s draconian laws restricting free speech, but in the process it has ended up making offending religious belief a criminal offence.
Aside from a €25,000 fine (reduced from the €100,000 originally sought by the government), the new Defamation Act gives the authorities the power to stage raids on publishers: the courts may now issue a warrant authorising the police to enter, using ‘reasonable force’, premises where they have grounds for believing there are copies of ‘blasphemous statements’.
Many are asking why on earth blasphemy should be criminalised, particularly at a time when the Catholic Church in Ireland is being investigated for widespread child abuse and its public image has hit rock bottom.
The government has responded to its critics by saying there is a constitutional requirement for a specific blasphemy law in Ireland. Indeed so: freedom of speech is guaranteed by Article 40.6.1 of the Irish constitution. However, it goes on to prohibit the publication of ‘blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter’. One might call the Irish constitution a clear case of the left hand giving and the right hand taking away.
The fact that this has been the case since the constitution came into effect in 1937 seems to have blinded the government to its usual option: the traditional Irish response to divisive issues is to pretend that they don’t exist. It is not for nothing that Ireland’s acceptance of abortion for those with enough money to travel to Britain is called ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the constitution, only one case was ever taken under the blasphemy prohibition since the introduction of the constitution in 1937 (a 1999 case against a newspaper, in which the Supreme Court concluded that it was not possible to say ‘of what the offence of blasphemy consists’ and that ‘the state is not placed in the position of an arbiter of religious truth’). So, at the very least, it seems peculiar to bring the issue into the light of day in 2009.
It is true that the repeal of the 1961 Defamation Act and its replacement with (slightly) less outrageous legislation would leave a hole in the statute books if blasphemy were not outlawed. Yet the obvious answer is to amend the constitution, which, in Ireland, requires a popular referendum. Yet the minister behind the update to the defamation laws, Dermot Ahern, says that a referendum would be ‘costly and unwarranted’. The government is, however, perfectly happy to pay to send the country to the polls on the issue of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty for a second time. Presumably no cost is too high so long as the people make the decision the establishment wants.
Thanks to JT for the tip.