Blasphemy and the Constitution – what’s in a word?

 

Sir, – The Constitution is the highest legal instrument in the land to which the law must defer. Consequently it deserves respect. However, it must also be worthy of that respect. The blasphemy provision brings the Constitution into disrepute, both by its unnecessary restriction of freedom of speech and protection of religions. The Defamation Act of 2009 was brought in (in part) to give effect to this provision. Dermot Ahern, who was minister for justice at the time, said: “We diluted it in a way that made it pretty ineffectual”. The law was tested in 2015 by remarks that Stephen Fry made on RTÉ television. Following a complaint from a member of the public, the authorities declined to prosecute on the ground that they couldn’t find a sufficient number of people who were “outraged” – the term used in the Act.

Two points follow from this. It is contemptuous of the Constitution to have a law which pretends to give effect to a provision of the Constitution but which is actually designed to be inoperable. That said, it is not inconceivable that a clique of some kind could drum up a number of citizens who would testify that they were “outraged” by something and so force a prosecution. Apart from being a waste of resources, it could bring the State and the Constitution into contempt.

If this were all, then perhaps it would not matter too much. After all what’s a bit of “an Irish solution to an Irish problem” to worry about and a little ridicule. However, that is not all. The International Humanist & Ethical Union’s Freedom of Thought Report of 2017 pointed out that there are at least seven countries with “clear signs of active persecution” of those who do not espouse the majority faith. That means apostates, former adherents who have rejected that majority faith, unbelievers and Christians in some Islamic states, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. There are altogether 30 countries with “extreme persecution”, including judicial and extra-juridical killing.

For example, Saudi Arabia announced in September that on-line satire would attract a jail sentence of up to five years. It also encouraged its citizens to report such online “terrorism”. In Pakistan, Asia Bibi, a Christian, was jailed and sentenced to death after complaints that she drank from the same vessel as her Muslim fellow-workers. In Bangladesh last June, Shahzahan Bachchu, a well-known poet and writer on humanism and secularism, was shot dead in the street, one of many freethinkers to be murdered in that state.

By removing this anachronistic, patronising provision from our Constitution, we will take a further step to becoming a grown-up society and will show our support for oppressed minorities around the world. – Yours, etc,

ALAN TUFFERY,

Raheny,

Dublin 5.

A chara, – My father used to say that if you can’t say something pleasant then say nothing. For this reason I will vote to retain the constitutional ban on blasphemy. – Yours, etc,

JOHN F CRONIN,

Terenure,

Dublin 6W.

Sir, – After a decade of campaigning for this week’s blasphemy referendum, Atheist Ireland is asking for a strong Yes vote on Friday to support freedom of religion and belief, and freedom of speech. Our laws should protect people from harm, not protect ideas from criticism.

Blasphemy is a medieval crime, added to our Constitution in 1937, and crowbarred into our statute books a decade ago. Even the Catholic and Protestant bishops agree that it is obsolete. So do all of the political parties.

Our blasphemy law causes our media outlets to self-censor themselves, and it breaches our international human rights obligations. The UN Human Rights Committee and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission have told Ireland to remove it.

States that execute people for blasphemy have cited the Irish law at the United Nations, as what they want introduced around the world. Voting Yes will support Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, atheists, and other minorities who face persecution in these repressive states.

For decades, every group set up to examine the Constitution has concluded that it should be removed, including the 1991 Law Reform Commission, the 1996 Constitution Review Group, the 2008 All-Party Committee on the Constitution, and the 2013 Constitutional Convention.

Voting Yes might seem an obvious choice, but we must all make sure to turn up on Friday to make that choice. Please vote Yes on Friday. – Yours, etc,

MICHAEL NUGENT,

Chairman,

JANE DONNELLY,

Human Rights Officer,

Atheist Ireland,

Drumcondra,

Dublin 3.

Sir, – The reference to blasphemy being an offence should be removed from our Constitution for two main reasons. First, it has no place in the Constitution of a democracy. Second, it provides solace to regimes which execute, torture and persecute people on the grounds that they have offended religious beliefs.

Being offended on grounds of belief – a highly subjective thing – should not form the basis of a criminal prosecution and a fine of up to €25,000. There is no right not to be offended on political or any other ideological grounds.

Why should religious beliefs be afforded special protection? They should be open to scrutiny, criticism and satire, just like every other kind of belief.

Blasphemy laws are incompatible with freedom of speech and freedom of expression, cornerstones of a democracy and a healthy society. These fundamental freedoms should not be qualified by a prohibition on causing offence to one category of beliefs. Some may say that this is a pointless referendum, that a prosecution will never materialise, but then why retain the provision?

Blasphemy laws have fomented murder, violence, torture and persecution. In Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Yemen, blasphemy is punishable by a penalty up to and including death. In Egypt seven people were sentenced to death in 2012 for their roles in producing a video. Asia Bibi (a Christian) was convicted of blasphemy by a Pakistani court and sentenced to death by hanging in 2010. She is still in jail. Pakistani politicians Shahbaz Bhatti (a Catholic) and Salman Taseer, who called for reform of the blasphemy law, were assassinated in 2011.

Embarrassingly, Ireland belongs to the blasphemy club. Pakistan has cited Ireland’s blasphemy law in defence of its own.

Blasphemy laws are silly laws which can have dangerous consequences. I call on the people of Ireland to vote to remove the reference to blasphemy from our Constitution. – Yours, etc,

ROB SADLIER,

Rathfarnham,

Dublin 16.

A chara, – It is hard to see the point of voting to remove the word “blasphemous” from the constitutional article on decorum in public life. For the religiously minded, God does not need legal protection, but the clause at least requires some level of respect towards the sensitivities of the religious to the things they regard as truly sacred.

Removing it sets a jarring note of contradiction in an age that is otherwise so very careful to avoid giving offence across a whole spectrum of views. The argument has been made that blasphemy laws are so weak as to be unenforceable anyway, and therefore, no merit in keeping them in the Constitution. For sure, not a single prosecution over blasphemy has taken place in recent times, and that despite the determined efforts of some to make themselves into a cause célèbre on these grounds.

But surely this argument could be extended to blasphemy’s constitutional travelling companions of “sedition” and “obscenity” – both of which are alive and well in this State. Has a single columnist or TV pundit ever been prosecuted for endless column inches attempting to undermine the very mechanisms through which this State came into being?

For claiming to greater or lesser degrees that 1916 through the 1918 general election and subsequent War of Independence were a bad mistake, and the State which followed it a “failed state”? And where does one even start with obscenity? Then why not remove these from the Constitution as well?

Last but not least, if blasphemy laws are truly so weak as to be a “waste of time anyway”, then why are we spending millions on a referendum aiming to remove them from the Constitution instead of on, say, social housing or hospital waiting lists?

An interesting set of priorities for 21st century secularists! – Is mise,

NICK FOLLEY,

Carrigaline,

Co Cork.