Friday, November 8, 2013

Ireland to review constitutional blasphemy clause.

In 2009 Dermot Ahern, then Irish Minister for Justice, passed a bill which included: "A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000".  Blasphemy was defined as "that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage."

Those of us concerned with living in a secular plural society that tolerates both religious practice and the criticism of religion were shocked. This law was utterly unnecessary and none of the major religious sects active in Ireland were lobbying for an anti-blasphemy law.

Dermot Ahern defended his bill as being required by Article 40 of the Irish constitution which contains an anti-blasphemy clause:

6. 1° The State guarantees liberty for the exercise of the following rights, subject to public order and morality: 

i. The right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions.
The education of public opinion being, however, a matter of such grave import to the common good, the State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.  The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law"

Mr Ahern assured us that prosecution was effectively impossible because of a 1999 supreme court ruling that a blasphemous offence was impossible to define.

We were not reassured and we were correct. It is true no-one in Ireland was prosecuted under this bill. But Mr Ahens poorly thought out legal spring cleaning became a torn in the side of human right campaigners fighting for human rights in semi-theocratic states whose rulers used Ireland has a shinning example of censorship to protect their religious power bases. Even Christain churches expressed concern with a thinly veiled warning of Islam "..because of the way such measures have been used to justify violence and oppression against minorities in other parts of the world."

By 2012 Dermot Ahern had long fallen from power and the new government established a Convention on the Constitution, a forum of 100 representatives of Irish society and parliamentarians under an independent Chairman to "consider and make recommendations on certain topics as possible future amendments to the Constitution."

On Sunday 3rd November 2013 the convention debated and voted on a motion to remove blasphemy from the Irish constitution. I fully expected my peers to recommend the removal of this outdated article which is causing so much harm to human right campaigners living under theocratic rule. Indeed, this article is so worrying that the United Nations special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion (Professor Heiner Bielefeldt) requested the following message be read to the form:

"There is a growing consensus within the human rights community that we have to move away from anti-blasphemy laws which, as countless examples demonstrate, generally have intimidating effects on religious belief minorities, dissenters, converts and others.
Rather than resorting to blasphemy legislation, what we ought to do is try to overcome stereotypes and prejudices by enhancing interreligious and intercultural communication."

The results were unexpected.

38% voted to retain the offence of blasphemy in the Constitution, a shockingly high percentage considering Christan support for its removal.  Worse, a jaw dropping 49% of the forum members answered yes to the question "[s]hould there be a legislative provision for the offence of blasphemy."

Delegates were then asked:
 "In the event that the Convention favours change to the Constitution should the offence of blasphemy be: 

1) Removed Altogether 
2) Replaced with a general provision to include incitement to religious hatred"

58%, the majority, voted in favour recommending to the Irish government that the anti-blasphemy clause in the Irish Constitution be replaced with a general provision including incitement to religious hatred. 9% were undecided.

This is both vague and unnecessary. Ireland already has the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act of 1989 which bans incitement to hatred on account of race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origins, membership of the travelling community or sexual orientation. I await further details before commenting further.

The convention ignored a recommendation to replace the clause with a "positive clause on freedom of expression based on Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. This option was recommended by Atheist Ireland, and previously by the 1996 Irish Constitution Review Group chaired by TK Whitaker."

Both the Islamic Cultural Centre and the Knights of Columbus argued for the blasphemy offence to be retained. Dr Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland stated the ban protects both peaceful co-existence and freedom of expression.


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