Mystery surrounds reform of our laws on blasphemy
Why the Government has decided to reform Ireland's blasphemy laws is a bit of a mystery. Maybe the ostensible reason is the actual reason, namely to bring legislation into line with the Constitution and to take account of the Supreme Court decision of 1999 which said it was impossible to say "of what the offence of blasphemy consists".
Or maybe the Government was lobbied by a religious group. But who?
It's hard to believe it was any Christian group. When is the last time Christians in Ireland made a genuine song and dance about blasphemy, by which I mean, took to the streets in protest?
Maybe it was the Muslims who lobbied them, or perhaps the Government, aware that Muslims still take blasphemy very, very seriously, has decided to move to protect their sensibilities.
It could have been motivated, partly at least, by the likes of the Danish cartoon controversy of early 2006 when millions of Muslims the world over took to the streets in protest at the depiction of a Mohammed-like figure as a bomber and Danish exports to Muslim countries were badly hurt.
The Government could well be terrified at the prospect of something like that cartoon being printed here and Irish exports to the Muslim world being affected as a result.
The proposed new crime carries a juicy fine of up to €100,000.
Pat Rabbitte wants to reduce it to a maximum fine of €1,000, but a measly amount like that isn't going to make a newspaper think twice about printing an article Muslims might find offensive. A fine of €100,000 is a much bigger deterrent.
If this Bill passes into law, editors are going to have to think long and hard before printing an article by some hard-hitting columnist that Muslims mightn't like.
I have to confess to slightly mixed feelings about this Bill.
When the Danish cartoon controversy broke, I defended the magazine's right to print the cartoon, but on the other hand if I was the editor I probably wouldn't have published it because I feel you should show some minimal amount of respect for the religious beliefs of others.
On the other hand, it's a fact that many of the worst terrorist outrages of recent times have been committed in the name of Islam and the Danish cartoon probably wasn't depicting Mohammed but merely a generic Muslim in a turban -- the 'turban' in this case being a turban-shaped bomb.
The number one objection to this Bill is the free-speech objection. But please, let's not hear liberals make this objection.
Modern liberals do not believe in unqualified free speech and shouldn't pretend otherwise.
In fact, apart from Muslims, there is no group in the Western world today trying to limit free speech more than liberals, or rather, left-liberals.
There are all manners of speech that the left would now like to see banned as 'hate-speech'.
Consider, for example, what happened to Kevin Myers last year when he wrote a very hard-hitting and polemical piece about aid to Africa.
Various immigrant support groups tried to have him charged with incitement to hatred.
No charges were ever laid against him, but the fact that they even tried says it all. The National Union of Journalists never came out in support of him, nor were petitions signed on his behalf by fellow journalists.
No one was asking his fellow journalists to agree with what he wrote, but hadn't they a duty to protest at the attempt to have him charged with incitement to hatred?
So much for Voltaire's oft-quoted dictum, 'I hate what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it'.
In Canada, there is now in place a system of 'human rights' commissions that actively hunt down anyone guilty of un-PC utterances. A pastor was fined and silenced for condemning the gay rights agenda as "wicked".
His freedom of speech has been completely set aside.
The columnist Mark Steyn and his publisher were hauled before another of these commissions over something Muslims deemed offensive. In the end, neither Steyn nor his publisher were fined, but a shot had been fired across their bows.
In Britain, they've done away with anti-blasphemy laws altogether but effectively replaced them with the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 which outlaws among other things, inciting hatred on the basis of someone's religion.
It'll be interesting to watch the left-wing reaction to this new Government Bill unfold over the next few weeks.
The left has no problem with religion-bashing, but it hates anyone bashing its favoured minority groups.
If it looks like this Bill is being introduced to protect Christianity, it will be fought tooth and nail in the name of free speech.
But if it looks like it's being brought in mainly to protect Muslims, they'll be in two minds because, in reality, the left is in two minds about free speech itself.