Opinion Editorial

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Editorial: Responsibilities of freedom of speech

'The Constitution says that citizens have the right to freely express their convictions and opinions.' Stock picture
'The Constitution says that citizens have the right to freely express their convictions and opinions.' Stock picture


The people go to the polls this Friday to vote in a presidential election and blasphemy referendum. When it was decided to hold these votes on the same day, it was not expected that what could be defined as the principle of 'freedom of speech' would emerge as a central theme to both. However, that could now be said to have occurred thanks to the intervention of presidential candidate Peter Casey on the issue of Traveller culture and ethnicity.

The Constitution says that citizens have the right to freely express their convictions and opinions. However, there are certain restrictions on this right. For example, the Constitution says that the publication or utterance of something blasphemous must be a criminal offence. The Constitution does not itself define blasphemy although it is described as to publish or say something that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage or intending to cause outrage. By and large, there has been little debate on this issue in recent weeks, although it is expected that the referendum will be passed.

Mr Casey's comments on Traveller culture and ethnicity were insulting to the more than 26,000 members of the Travellers community in Ireland, as well as many other people who strongly object to and disagree with his comments, although many others, particularly on social media, have concurred with the sentiments he has expressed. In our view, his comments were unbecoming of the high office to which he seeks election, the Office of the Presidency of Ireland, and have been rightly criticised and condemned.

In recent times, a new awareness has developed in relation to offence which can be given, even unintended, and taken in relation to public utterances on a myriad issues. As a consequence, there has been strong push back against what many feel to be an encroachment on the principle of freedom of speech. As always, there is a delicate balance to be struck on such issues. In the minefield in which this debate is taking place, it would seem that these issues must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

As the former Taoiseach Enda Kenny stated in Dail Eireann last year on the recognition of Travellers as an ethnic group, for some time Ireland has implicitly recognised Travellers as having a distinct ethnic identity: By reporting periodically since 2000 to the Council of Europe on the situation of Travellers in Ireland on the Council's Framework Convention on National Minorities; by reporting periodically on the situation of Travellers to the United Nations and Council of Europe on the main international conventions/monitoring bodies against racism; and by explicitly naming Travellers as a protected group in equality legislation.

The Government recently presented the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy for the years 2017-2021, an initiative to improve the lives of the Traveller and Roma communities in Ireland. In that strategy, it was noted that Travellers and Roma are among the most disadvantaged and marginalised people in Ireland. It is important that cross-departmental initiatives continue to address, as a moral and societal imperative, not just the needs of Travellers but to adopt an approach that considers both the direct and indirect effects of policies on all groups and individuals that are socially disadvantaged.

As such, the issue of Traveller culture and ethnicity has been significantly settled in this country. As has been also pointed out, despite having the community recognised as a distinct ethnic group, Travellers are still not treated as equals. They remain severely disadvantaged. However, it serves no useful purpose to attempt to re-open the specific issue of culture and ethnicity in the midst of a presidential election.

In the context of such an election and for the avoidance of all doubt about the motivation and timing of his comments, Mr Casey should simply withdraw them.

Sunday Independent

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