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Monday 20 May 2019

New Zealand hints it will get rid of blasphemy laws after garda probe into comments made by Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry. Photo: GETTY

Cathal McMahon

The Prime Minister of New Zealand has hinted that it will get rid of their own blasphemy laws after he was questioned about a garda probe into comments made by Stephen Fry.

On Saturday revealed that gardaí received a report that remarks made by the British actor on RTE show 'The Meaning of Life' may be in breach of the 2009 Defamation Act.

During the programme, presented by broadcaster Gay Byrne, Mr Fry described God as "capricious", "mean-minded" and "stupid" for allowing so much suffering in the world.

On Monday it was revealed that the investigation was dropped after detectives failed to find a “substantial number” of people offended by the remarks.

The story was carried across various news outlets and in New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English was questioned about their own blasphemy laws on Monday. reports that Mr English did not previously know they had a similar law and he claimed it was “just an accident of history”.

“Someone told me it has been used once but I can't imagine a use for it. I think laws that over reach on addressing free speech are not a good idea.

“I think a lot of people would be quite taken aback if they saw here what was happening in Ireland, police taking up an investigation under blasphemy laws.

“Frankly, I didn't think we had it, I thought it had gone.”

Asked what they would do about it, Mr English responded: “We could get rid of it.”

Former Irish Justice Minster Dermot Ahern told the Irish Independent on Monday that blasphemy was included in the 2009 law "because we had to" as it is written into the Constitution and was included in the previous defamation act.

"We diluted it in a way that made it pretty ineffectual," Mr Ahern said.

"We implemented the crime but made it in a way that it would be virtually impossible to prosecute."

Mr Ahern said that ideally he would have held a referendum on abolishing the law, but the economic climate at the time would have made it impossible.

Asked about the matter on Monday, Health Minister Simon Harris agreed that a referendum should be held the constitution's stance on blasphemy.

"It’s silly. It’s a bit embarrassing. It needs to be changed. I’m very pleased that the Government wishes to see a referendum in relation to this issue. It obviously does require constitutional change," he said.

Mr Harris said the Government has committed to holding a number of referendum during its lifetime and he hopes blasphemy is one of them.

"I’d hope to see it sooner rather than later. This is a democracy. People have the right to express whatever view they do.

The law 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 to cause outrage.

Anyone prosecuted under the Defamation Act for this offence can be fined up to €25,000.

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