Ireland’s bizarre war on blasphemy
The new criminalisation of blasphemy is not a return to the pious past, but rather is underpinned by a very modern suspicion of offensiveness.
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 (1).
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’ (2). 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 (3).
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’ (4). 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 (5). Presumably no cost is too high so long as the people make the decision the establishment wants.
Some commentators have sought to portray the blasphemy law as the desperate move of an unpopular ruling party, Fianna Fáil, playing to the conservative, rural gallery. It is true that country conservatives do form a significant proportion of the party’s support, but there are problems with this argument.
Firstly, the Green Party, a minority partner in Ireland’s coalition government that has no ties to traditional, rural Ireland, saved the blasphemy legislation from defeat in the Seanad, Ireland’s undemocratic pretend parliament for various worthies and failed politicians. Likewise, the opposition Labour Party, home to Ireland’s liberal elites, has not sought to have the law struck down, instead favouring its amendment to make it more palatable to the cultural constituency. Labour’s Pat Rabbitte sought a reformulation that excepts from the definition of blasphemy material which has ‘literary, artistic, social or academic merit’, harking back to the interminable debates about what is art and what is pornography (6).
Only the republican party Sinn Féin and the conservative Fine Gael, two parties which otherwise have little in common, have come out strongly against the bill.
Secondly, Fianna Fáil is currently clinging on to power with a desperation that would make former British prime minister John Major blush. As such, any move that might please older rural conservatives is likely to incense the party’s not inconsiderable urban support base. It’s not as if blasphemy is particularly likely to energise rural voters – the economic and social changes that swept through Ireland in the last decade and a half were not confined to the major cities, and while the Catholic Church grumbles about a decline in spiritual values it has not actually demanded this law, nor are there many votes to be picked up on a ‘Catholic Ireland’ ticket. Even the other usual suspects, the ‘mad mullahs’ of Islam, are notable by their absence from the debate. Put simply, the religious lobby is not behind the move to criminalise blasphemy.
Dermot Ahern may, as some have speculated, want to position himself as a future leader of Fianna Fáil, but there are plenty of populist issues he could choose to demonstrate his ability on – resuscitating a medievalist law protecting an apparently omnipotent being makes little sense when there is no public demand for it.
The reintroduction of a blasphemy law isn’t the country’s first foray in controlling ‘thought crime’. After all, the Emerald Isle is home to libel laws that make even Britain’s gagging orders seem progressive. But the new law is different in character from the pieties of the past. Noted atheist Richard Dawkins attacked the new proposals for dragging Ireland back to the middle ages: ‘One of the world’s most beautiful and best-loved countries, Ireland has recently become one of the most respected as well: dynamic, go-ahead, modern, civilised – a green and pleasant silicon valley. This preposterous blasphemy law puts all that respect at risk.’ (7)
Putting aside the question of what tired old clichés about Ireland’s natural beauty and the hapless Irish being loved by foreigners have to do with anything, Dawkins appears to have misunderstood the nature of the proposed legislation. The reintroduction of blasphemy as an offence isn’t evidence of Ireland backsliding into traditional religious superstition – in fact, it shows just how up-to-date Ireland is when it comes to contemporary conceits.
It is true that in recent decades Ireland has struggled to modernise, particularly in the area of social policy. Homosexuality was illegal until 1993; even contraception was illegal until 1980, only becoming widely available a decade later. Abortion was banned ‘forever’ by a bizarre and unenforceable constitutional amendment in 1983, and divorce only became possible in 1995. It is also true that this Church-inspired backwardness was a legacy of Ireland’s piety, itself a symptom of economic underdevelopment – one reason why some socialists as far back as the 1970s suggested supporting the entry of multinational corporations into the economy as Ireland’s capitalist class had failed so badly in its mission to develop the country.
Today things are different. Ireland has seen significant economic development, though uneven in distribution and even more narrow in its financial base than the UK, and this has resulted in significant social change.
In fact, the new law is a very modern phenomenon. Rather than harking back to the days of God-fearing, or at least priest-fearing, Ireland, the blasphemy law has more in common with contemporary politically correct measures of social control.
The Irish government has shown that it is far from adverse to micromanaging people’s behaviour. In 2004 Ireland became one of the first countries in Europe to introduce a widespread total ban on smoking in public places. Similarly, high-profile green measures such as taxing plastic bags and this year’s ban on incandescent lightbulbs in advance of EU legislation passed with barely a whimper of protest in either the Dáil or the press. In fact, both measures were widely lauded in elite circles as they ‘encouraged’ people to do the right thing – by taking away their ability to do otherwise. Domestic refuse recycling was similarly ‘encouraged’ by the introduction of hefty bin charges. Most recently, the state has decided to allow itself the right to access two years worth of every citizens’ email correspondence, telephone calls and text messages. Viewed in light of these measures, Ireland’s blasphemy law is a simply logical progression from regulating people’s behaviour to regulating their thoughts. All of these measures, controls on freedom of speech included, are rooted in a view of the public as a dangerous, and indeed toxic, source of problems.
The new blasphemy law is clearly an issue of offence. In an era when robust debate is needed more than ever, the government of Ireland has not only succeeded in assaulting the right to free speech – it has also introduced a law that incentivises outrage by encouraging religious groups to play up hurt feelings when their views are challenged.
Of course, we’re assured that no one will actually go to jail for having a go at God. Dermot Ahern has told us that: ‘No innocent conduct will be captured.’ (8)
So, the Irish government is asking people to trust that it will be sensible – precisely what it won’t trust the public to be.
Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. Visit his website here.
Brendan O’Neill welcomed the abolishment of England’s blasphemy laws, but regretted how Ofcom and others are keeping their censorious spirit alive. Shirley Dent didn’t buy the cheap iconoclasm of ‘Chocolate Jesus’. Nathalie Rothschild disapproved of London Underground’s ban on posters for the play Fat Christ. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.
(1) Libel and blasphemy bill passed by the Dail, Áine Kerr, Irish Independent, 9 July 2009
(2) Bunreacht na hÉireann (PDF)
(3) History of Irish Blasphemy Law, Blasphemy.ie, 8 May 2009
(4) Position of blasphemy in our Constitution cannot be ignored, Dermot Ahern, Irish Times, 1 May 2009
(5) Position of blasphemy in our Constitution cannot be ignored, Dermot Ahern, Irish Times, 1 May 2009
(6) A second Lisbon referendum, Irish Times, 9 July 2009
(7) Crime of blasphemous libel proposed for Defamation Bill, Carol Coulter, Irish Times, 29 April 2009
(8) Blasphemy law a return to middle ages – Dawkins, Alison Healy, Irish Times, 13 July 2009