Blasphemy law is ‘silly’ and ‘a little embarrassing’ says Harris

Minister says ‘this is a democracy, and people have the right to express whatever view they do’

Stephen Fry gives his views on the existence of God during an appearance on 'The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne' in February 2015. Video: RTÉ

 

The blasphemy law is “silly, a little embarrassing and needs to be changed,” according to Minister for Health Simon Harris.

Mr Harris also said he would like to see a referendum on the law as soon as possible. “I’d hope to see it sooner rather than later. This is a democracy, and people have the right to express whatever view they do,” he said.

Mr Harris was speaking after a complaint was made to gardaí alleging blasphemy following critical comments about God by British actor, comedian and writer Stephen Fry during an interview with presenter Gay Byrne on RTÉ in February 2015.

A complaint that Mr Fry’s comments were in breach of the Defamation Act was made by a man in Ennis Garda station more than two years ago. It is understood that gardaí in Dublin acted on the complaint in recent weeks after the complainant wrote to Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan earlier this year to inquire into the status of the investigation.

“Stephen Fry, regardless of your own religious views, clearly he was making a number of points that he felt very strongly about, in his usual witty way,” Mr Harris said.

Earlier on Monday former minister for justice Dermot Ahern said he would have deleted the blasphemy provision from the Constitution if he could, but he was not prepared to hold a referendum on the issue in 2009.

Mr Ahern was speaking after a complaint was made to gardaí alleging blasphemy following critical comments about God by British actor, comedian and writer Stephen Fry during an interview with presenter Gay Byrne on RTÉ in February 2015.

A complaint that Mr Fry’s comments were in breach of the Defamation Act was made by a man in Ennis Garda station more than two years ago. It is understood that gardaí in Dublin acted on the complaint in recent weeks after the complainant wrote to Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan earlier this year to inquire into the status of the investigation.

Mr Ahern said on Monday that the difficult economic circumstances in 2009 meant he did not want an expensive referendum.

“If a referendum had been called it would have brought every headbanger in the country, on both sides, into the debate,” he added.

Law ‘diluted’

Mr Ahern told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show he did not introduce the blasphemy law, “all we did was dramatically dilute it”.

He said a referendum to delete it should be held, attached to a number of other issues.

The former minister said that when he took over the office in 2008 the blasphemy law was not a priority for him, given escalating gang violence at the time.

The following year he was advised by the Attorney General that a change in the wording was required.

“The media had lobbied for change in relation to defamation and slander. The Constitution says there is a mandatory obligation to have a law on blasphemy,” Mr Ahern said.

He added the Law Reform Commission had also advised the blasphemy law was not appropriate but he was not prepared to call a referendum on the issue.

“Having a referendum on this issue on its own would have been a waste of time. In the economic climate of 2009 I decided not to have an expensive referendum.

Mr Ahern said he had been advised by a constitutional law expert who said that the legislation fulfilled the constitutional obligation to have the crime of blasphemy included.

“We put in so many hurdles for it to go forward to prosecution. We couldn’t do nothing. I made a judgment.

He added that under the current legislation the prosecution had to show that the person intended insult and he said that would be difficult to prove.

The Department of Justice has confirmed that preparatory work has begun on a referendum on blasphemy.

A spokesman for the department said the Government had proposed a number of referendums be held during its term, including one on the question of amending Article 40.6.1(i) of the Constitution to remove the offence of blasphemy.

“Preliminary consultations and preparatory work have been undertaken,” the spokesman said.

Further work will be necessary to prepare a Referendum Bill and a Bill to amend the current legislative provision for the offence of blasphemy contained in the Defamation Act 2009, with the “priority and time frame to be decided by Government”.

The man who made the complaint did so on the basis that he believed the comments made by Mr Fry on the programme were a breach of the Defamation Act.

‘Capricious’

When asked by Mr Byrne what he would say if he was confronted by God, Fry replied: “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

And when he was questioned on how he would react if he was locked outside the heavenly gates, he responded: “I would say: ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?’ Because Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him? What kind of God would do that?”

The footage went viral almost as soon as it was aired and a clip of his comments has now been seen almost nine million times on YouTube.

The actor, who is a prolific user of Twitter, has yet to comment publicly on the developments although in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast he told the BBC that he had been “astonished that it caused so viral an explosion on Twitter and elsewhere. I’m most pleased that it’s got people talking,” he said.

The offence of blasphemy, included in the Defamation Act, is punishable by a fine of €25,000 under Irish law.