Sunday 20 August 2017

Explainer: Why is Stephen Fry being investigated by gardaí for blasphemy and what happens next?

Everything you need to know about the curious case of Stephen Fry and 'The Meaning of Life'

Gay Byrne and Stephen Fry during their appearance on 'The Meaning of Life'
Gay Byrne and Stephen Fry during their appearance on 'The Meaning of Life'
Cathal McMahon

Cathal McMahon

Gardaí have launched an investigation into Stephen Fry and RTE over comments the actor made on 'The Meaning of Life' two years ago.

Yesterday Independent.ie revealed that the investigation was sparked after a member of the public made a complaint to Ennis Garda station in Co Clare shortly after the show was broadcast in February 2015.

Mr Fry now faces a fine of up to €25,000 if a decision is made to prosecute him.

Here is everything we know so far:

What was said?

In February 2015, RTE broadcast an interview by Gay Byrne with Mr Fry for 'The Meaning of Life'.

During the show the comedian and writer was questioned about what he might say to God at the "pearly gates".

Mr Fry, an atheist, replied: "How dare you create a world in which there is such misery? It’s not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?"

He went on to say that if he was met by the Greek gods he would accept them quicker because, "they didn’t present themselves as being all seeing, all wise, all beneficent."

He added: "Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish.

"We have to spend our lives on our knees thanking him. What kind of god would do that?"

A clip of the interview was posted online and it has since been viewed over seven million times.

At the time there was a media furore surrounding the comments.

Mr Byrne said in an interview with Ray D'Arcy on RTE Radio One afterwards: "Everybody is getting much more excited about this thing than I am because we've had a good number of people on the programme down through the years and we've done a lot of programmes with many people expressing atheistic views and beliefs and views on God and so on."

How was the report made?

That month a member of the public walked into Ennis Garda station in Co Clare where he told gardaí that he wanted to report a crime.

He told Independent.ie: "I told the Garda I wanted to report Fry for uttering blasphemy and RTE for publishing/broadcasting it and that I believed these were criminal offences under the Defamation Act 2009.

"The garda then took a formal written statement from me in which I quoted Fry’s comments in detail. This written statement mentioned both Fry and RTÉ specifically."

He said he was asked by the garda if he had been personally offended by the programme and If he wished to include this in the written statement. 

"I told the Garda that I did not want to include this as I had not personally been offended by Fry's comments - I added that I simply believed that the comments made by Fry on RTÉ were criminal blasphemy and that  I was doing my civic duty by reporting a crime."

The man, who has asked not to be identified, confirmed to Independent.ie that he is "not a religious zealot". He added that he is not a member of Atheist Ireland or any political movement.

What did the gardaí do?

The complainant was told the garda would “look into it” and report the matter to his superiors.

In late 2016 the member of the public wrote to the Garda Commissioner Noirín O'Sullivan asking if the crime was being followed up.

"A few weeks later I got a standard 'we have received your letter' from her secretary," he said.

A number of weeks ago the complainant was called by a detective from Donnybrook garda station to say they were looking into the report he made about blasphemy on RTÉ.

"He said he might have to meet me to take a new more detailed statement."

What does the law say?

The Defamation Act was passed in 2009 and was introduced in January 2010 by then Justice Minister Dermot Ahern.

Section 36 states: "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 €25,000

It prohibits the “publishing or uttering [of] matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion”.

The person must also intend by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, "to cause such outrage".

There have been no publicised cases of blasphemy brought before Irish courts.

But if there have been no cases then why does the law matter?

vana BacikLabour.jpg
Ivana Bacik
 

Labour Senator Ivana Bacik, a qualified barrister who campaigned against the introduction of the law in 2009 welcomed this test of the legislation.

She said then Justice Minister Dermot Ahern made a grave error introducing the blasphemy law in 2009 and while criminal prosecutions haven’t been pursued in Ireland the law has been used as a model by other less democratic states.

"Pakistan and other repressive states pointed to our law as an example of a law they wished to pursue.

"It is being used as a model by these regimes and this is not what Ireland should aspire to."

Atheist Ireland said it welcomed the garda investigation into Mr Fry for blasphemy, saying it "highlights a law that is silly, silencing, and dangerous".

What happens next?

Gardaí said they cannot officially comment on an ongoing investigation. However a senior source added it was "highly unlikely" it would lead to a prosecution.

"Gardaí will speak to all those who are available for interview and a report will be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions."

Atheist Ireland has published a list of 25 blasphemous quotes in order to "challenge the law".

In a statement released on their website yesterday they wrote: "In solidarity with Stephen Fry, we are republishing those 25 blasphemous quotes, and adding in the quotation that has caused the Irish police to investigate Stephen Fry.

"If we are prosecuted, we will challenge the constitutionality of the blasphemy law. If we are not prosecuted, it will again highlight the absurdity of this law, which should be repealed immediately. We again call on the Irish Government to honour its commitment to hold a referendum to remove the ban on blasphemy from our Constitution."

What does everyone have to say about this?

Gardaí say they do not comment on ongoing investigations.

RTE have also declined to comment on the matter.

And Stephen Fry is also staying quiet about the matter.

A spokesman for  the actor told the Telegraph: "[There is] nothing for us to say while this is under investigation."

What does everyone else have to say?

While the main players have been quiet about the matter a number of others have spoken out to criticise the law:

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