Tuesday 22 January 2019

Having a token vote to remove the blasphemy law is pointless

Ending the constitutional ban on insulting God will do nothing to stem the attack on free speech, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

'Treating everyone equally by abolishing the nonsense that there's an inalienable right not to be offended might well be the best way to go. That, however, is not what Leo Varadkar's Government is planning to do.' Photo: Laura Hutton/PA
'Treating everyone equally by abolishing the nonsense that there's an inalienable right not to be offended might well be the best way to go. That, however, is not what Leo Varadkar's Government is planning to do.' Photo: Laura Hutton/PA

Of all the things that the Government could have done to follow up on the abortion referendum, having another vote to remove the constitutional prohibition on blasphemy is surely the most pointless.

The only thing that comes anywhere near to it in pointlessness is having a referendum to remove the Article stating that a woman should not be forced by "economic necessity" to work outside the home. Neither Article is ever invoked, never mind enforced, rendering both referendums meaningless theatre which, pass or fail, will make absolutely no difference to anyone's life.

It's the blasphemy referendum which is the most irksome. The relevant Article states: "The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law." The Dail could, to all practical intents and purposes, legislate away every punishment for blasphemy without breaching the text of the Constitution at all.

It's not as if these laws are ever used. Someone made a complaint a few years ago against Stephen Fry for making certain comments about God on Gay Byrne's TV show, The Meaning Of Life. It was decided, amusingly, that there was no injured party - God obviously had better things to do with His time than put in a formal complaint - and therefore it was dismissed.

Intellectually speaking, this was all settled in the 1990s by the Supreme Court, which deemed that not only was there no workable definition of blasphemy in law, meaning there was no actual offence of which one could be convicted, but also that "It is difficult to see how the common law crime of blasphemy, related as it was to an established Church and an established religion, could survive in a Constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion."

That's why no one ever bothered doing anything to firm up the law until 2009 when, for reasons best known to itself, the Fianna Fail Government decided to legislate for blasphemy, with fines of up to €25,000 for offenders, another meaningless piece of bureaucratic busybodying.

Some of those involved in bringing forward the Bill have claimed that they had no other choice than to legislate but had deliberately defined the offence in such a way that it could never, in practice, be implemented.

Whatever the truth of that, it never has because to do so would be daft. The truth is that one can say anything whatsoever about God, Jesus, and all the saints and little cherubs, and there will be no consequences. Literally none.

Tommy Tiernan was deemed by sensitive souls to have mocked the Crucifixion on The Late Late Show more than 20 years ago. It hardly hurt his career, much less left him with a criminal record.

Broadcasters and newspaper columnists regularly say things about religion that would have them locked up in an actual theocracy.

So why pretend that anything will change after October if a majority votes, as it surely will, to consign Article 40.6.1 (i) to history's dustbin?

The one thing that can be said for removing the constitutional disapproval of blasphemy is that, in an increasingly multicultural society, there is no justification for not extending to Muslims, Sikhs and others the same protections in law which are currently enjoyed by Christians. If we don't want to change the law to make insulting the Prophet Muhammad a prosecutable offence, as some Irish Muslims have urged, then it's best just to take away those privileges, however emptily symbolic, from followers of Jesus too.

Treating everyone equally by abolishing the nonsense that there's any such thing as an inalienable right not to be offended might well be the best way to go. That, however, is not what Leo Varadkar's Government is planning to do. The blasphemy referendum will be a stand-alone piece of tokenism. It certainly won't be accompanied by any commitment to robustly defend free speech in all its messy glory, nor will abolishing that one measly Article mean that Ireland suddenly becomes a haven of brave truth-telling. There will still be plenty of things after October which, if said publicly, will lead to severe personal and professional consequences.

The modern articles of faith which can bring ruin down on one's head are now those which challenge the progressive, liberal consensus, and that term is used with a certain irony, since there's nothing progressive or liberal about those who enforce them. People have lost their jobs for expressing the "wrong" opinions on Twitter or Facebook. Some have been prosecuted, even jailed.

Jon Ronson's book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, details cases of those whose lives have been ruined by a single joke in poor taste.

Irish politicians have long yearned to control what can be said on social media and keep coming up with cunning ruses to try and do so. The latest is Fianna Fail's silly, headline-grabbing plan to crack down on so-called "fake news". TDs don't mind fake news that suits their own agenda.

Free speech is under constant and sustained attack, and undoing the law on blasphemy will do nothing to stem that or increase tolerance for rival points of view. What Ireland really needs is a version of the First Amendment in the US which explicitly forbids its legislators from enacting laws "abridging the freedom of speech". That is the freedom on which all others rest.

Here, by contrast, the suggestion is that the prohibition on blasphemy will be replaced by wording which makes incitement to religious hatred an offence defined by law.

That's actually quite worrying. A vague platitude that's never enforced is set to be replaced by a law which could be used by every extremist, special interest group out there to stamp down on criticism and mockery. And all, according to Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, to "send a strong message to the world" and heighten "Ireland's international reputation".

What is this pitiful obsession with what "the world" thinks about us? Does the world spend its time worrying what we think of them? Of course it doesn't - nor should it. This embarrassment in official circles at Ireland's supposed backwardness is just a new, insidious form of colonial deference. We ought to have grown out of it by now.

Sunday Independent

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