Who asked for Ireland's blasphemy law?
Padraig Reidy says "Down with this sort of thing!"
09 Jul 09

I’m not sure which piece of unpopular Irish news is being buried by which: the announcement of a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, or the shuffling through of a law creating penalties for blasphemy, an offence that has never properly existed in the Irish state.

While there is certainly a store of resentment in the population at being asked to vote again (that is: vote properly, you morons, as the government is barely holding back from saying) on the Lisbon Treaty, there is a certain sense of bafflement at the new blasphemy legislation, smuggled in under the guise of defamation law reform today. Nobody wanted this law: no one can think of a single thundering priest, austere vicar, irate rabbi or miffed mullah ever calling for tougher penalties for blasphemy. Certainly there were the frequent, and frequently ignored missives from Armagh, warning the Irish not to abandon God for 4x4s and Nintendo Wiis. And there was widespread dismay when popular comic Tommy Tiernan pushed the bible-baiting a bit too far on the Late Late Show. But never did anyone suggest we needed tough blasphemy laws. Until Justice Minister Dermot Ahern decided we needed to fill the “void” left by our lack of one.

Technically, Ahern is correct that Bunreacht na hÉireann requires that blasphemy be a criminal offence. However, no one ever bothered to formulate what the exact offence might be, and we muddled on for quite a long time without anyone worrying about this (perhaps, as a friend pointed out to me, because all blasphemous material was grabbed by the all-powerful censors long before it could ever get to court). In 1999, there was an attempt to prosecute a newspaper for a cartoon mocking the church, but the judge in that case noted that he could not prosecute, because there was no definition of what legally constituted blasphemy. Well now there is. And it concerns itself with what might or might not upset cause “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of [a] religion” (note, not just Christianity, as was the case with English blasphemy law: this is, at least, equal opportunities idiocy).

As Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland has pointed out:

“The proposed law does not protect religious belief; it incentivises outrage and it criminalises free speech. Under this proposed law, if a person expresses one belief about gods, and other people think that this insults a different belief about gods, then these people can become outraged, and this outrage can make it illegal for the first person to express his or her beliefs.”

So Irish law has now enshrined the notion that the taking of offence is more important than free expression. If something might cause a motivated group to be “outraged”, rather than, say, cause them to live in fear, then it is illegal, with a fine of up to E25,000 payable.

Note the ease with which a prosecution could be brought, and the punitive nature of the fine: this is not legislation that simply serves to tie up a few loose ends.

The minister claimed that his only alternative to this legislation was to have a referendum. This again, is technically true: any constitutional change in Ireland requires this. But the minister dismissed the notion of organising a referendum as being too costly in these straitened times.

Yet yesterday, we were told there is to be another Lisbon referendum in October. Wouldn’t it have been sensible to hold both the Lisbon referendum and a referendum on the abolition of the concept of blasphemy from the constitution on the same day, cutting down on costs? Wouldn’t it, minister?

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.