The Government lost a vote in the Seanad yesterday on the Defamation Bill but managed to salvage the legislation by calling for a walk-through vote which gave enough time for two missing Senators to be found.
The Government defeat came on an amendment to the Bill proposed by Senator Eugene Regan of Fine Gael proposing to delete the provision in the legislation making blasphemy a crime.
In an electronic vote whereby Senators press a button, the Government was defeated by 22 votes to 21 in the 60-member upper house.
However, Fianna Fáil whip Diarmuid Wilson immediately requested a walk-through vote which takes about 10 minutes to complete. In that period two Senators, Geraldine Feeney of Fianna Fáil and Deirdre De Búrca of the Green Party, had time to get to the chamber and the amendment was defeated by 23 votes to 22. The Bill itself was then passed by the same margin.
A Green Party spokesman said Ms De Búrca was initially absent through “a misunderstanding” while showing a trade union delegation from Colombia around Leinster House. Ms Feeney was at the dentist.
“We have made no secret of our unhappiness about the provision on blasphemy but that had nothing to do with the vote,” said the spokesman.
The controversy surrounded a clause in the Defamation Bill dealing with the crime of blasphemy which Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern insisted had to be included for constitutional reasons, although this was disputed by Opposition parties and Independents.
“Until the Constitution is amended, it is necessary that a sanction be provided in regard to blasphemous libel,” Mr Ahern told the Seanad.
“We have three options on this. We can have a referendum and change this. We can pass a section dealing with blasphemous libel in order to comply with the Constitution, or we could just drop this Bill altogether,” he added.
The Minister added that he had amended the Bill to remove the threat of imprisonment and reduce the fine for blasphemous libel from €100,000 to €25,000.
Mr Regan claimed the offence of blasphemy should be dealt with through other laws such as the incitement to hatred legislation.
Senator Dan Boyle of the Green Party said that while he accepted the reason blasphemy was included in the Bill, the effect would be to codify an offence that most people did not believe in and that made a nonsense of the legal process.
“To move forward from here, we need to address the wider issue. This measure is nothing but a legalistic repair job in regard to a short-term political expedient,” he said.