Changes to defamation Bill made by Minister

 

MINISTER FOR Justice Dermot Ahern has amended his proposals on blasphemous libel in the Defamation Bill to allow for a defence of “genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value” in the alleged blasphemous material.

“As a republican, my personal position is that church and State should be separate,” he said. “But I do not have the luxury of ignoring our Constitution. So, as Minister for Justice I faced a choice – referendum or reform.”

He said the Bill before the committee introduced no new statutory offence in regard to criminal or defamatory libel. Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan had stated twice in the Seanad, he noted, that an outstanding issue remained to be addressed, in making legislative provision for the offences, including blasphemous libel, contained in Article 40.6.1.i of the Constitution.

He had said that by repealing all the provisions in the 1961 Act, a gap would be created unless some provision was made for the constitutional offences. Mr Ahern said he had reiterated this point.

“I am, therefore, puzzled as to the hysterical and incorrect reaction whipped up by some media reporters and commentators on this point,” he said, adding that his explanation would disappoint “fantasy conspiracy theorists that have detected dark machinations and bogey men behind this proposal and have attributed to myself the most debased motives”.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said this week the plan to introduce a new blasphemy law risked flouting international standards on free speech. Mr Ahern acknowledged yesterday that the all-party Committee on the Constitution, which favoured removing the Article from the Constitution, saw no need for a constitutional amendment in the short term.

“However, I, as the responsible Minister, and we, as legislators, do not have the luxury of pursuing a ‘do nothing’ approach while we wait for an opportune moment to move a constitutional amendment,” he said.

Successive attorneys general had said that he had a constitutional obligation not to leave a legal void, he said. “Until the Constitution is amended, it is necessary that blasphemy remain a crime and that the relevant legislation must make provision for punishment of this crime. There is no alternative to this position.”

He added that he wanted it put on the record that in bringing forward this proposal neither he nor his department consulted with any religious organisations, nor did they seek or receive any representations in that regard.

Fine Gael’s spokesman on justice, Charlie Flanagan, said the amended proposal was “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”, and would ensure that it would be almost impossible to bring any prosecution. He said if the only argument was a constitutional one, an amendment could be proposed before the forthcoming Lisbon referendum.

Earlier, Mr Ahern withdrew an amendment that would have permitted a judge to order costs against a defendant in a libel action, in the light of the manner in which the case was fought, even if money had been lodged in court. This followed requests for its withdrawal from both Opposition deputies and Fianna Fáil backbenchers Seán Connick and Thomas Byrne.