This magazine is almost a week old, so the time seems right to address the great big Fianna fail elephant in the room. The provocation that lead to us putting this project together. Last week I attended a meeting of ‘Blasphemy Ireland‘. I’d been incensed by media reports of Dermot Ahern’s (Irish Minister for Justice, Equality & Law Reform) proposed Defamation Bill. The Irish Times, amongst other publications, had reported that the minister intended to invent a new offense of ‘Blasphemous Libel’ (presumably, literally disparaging God’s reputation in print).
If you haven’t been following the debate, check out these links the media’s coverage.
Crime of blasphemous libel proposed for Defamation Bil
A Blasphemy Clause That Doesn’t Fit The Bill
Letter from National Union of Journalists
Harney defends introduction of blasphemy law
Ahern ‘bemused’ by criticism
European Lawyers Oppose Blashemy laws
Even a scan of the article / op-ed titles gives a rough map of the development of the debate. Politician announces an unpopular and unnecessary amendment, introducing for the first time real penalties for a constitutional offense that the Supreme Court has previously ruled unenforceable. The opposition (Labour), suggest reducing the fine to a mere 1000 euro (down from the proposed bill’s 100,000 euro maximum!), and excluding works that have any ‘literary, artistic, social or academic merit’. The paper of record (and a dozen other rags) immediately act to criticise the proposed legislation. As does the national union of journalists, citing the European Convention on Human Rights. A much loathed politician, whose party collapsed last year for lack of public support, speaks out to defend the legislation. A UN mandated ‘security’ and human rights organisation, actually ‘the worlds largest security orientated intergovernmental organisation‘ suggest ‘chilling effects‘ on free speech if the bill is enacted. The Minister responds by calling his critics ‘fantasy conspiracy theorists’, and stating that he has been advised by the Attorney General that the constitution compels him to enact legislation, and that in the currant economic climate a constitutional amendment (which he himself would prefer) would be unwise. He adopts some of the protections proposed by the Labour opposition, namely the exclusion from prosecution of works of ‘literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value’. However the minister alters the oppositions suggested wording, so that ‘genuine‘ rather than ‘any‘, value would be required for protection: Putting the onus on the writer / broadcaster / commentator / pundit / horses mouth, to prove that their speech is of worth. The minister also fails to adopt the oppositions proposed fine reduction. In response, Labour withdraws their support for the Defamation Bill, and Fine Gail (the largest opposition party) propose a referendum on this aspect of the constitution. Lawyers advising the Council of Europe release a report stating that ‘insult to religious feelings should not be a crime; and that the offence of blasphemy should be abolished’.
With all this in mind, I headed to a meeting in that infamous hall of sedition, Wynns Hotel on Talbot Street, last Wednesday evening. The meeting had been organised by a new organisation, Blasphemy Ireland (thus far largely an amalgamation of the Irish Humanist and Atheist societies). The panel were composed of Michael Nugent, chair of Atheist Ireland and co-author of the play I Keano; Ian O’Doherty, contrarian Irish Independent columnist; Dick Spicer, chair of the Humanist Association of Ireland; and Robbie Bonham, comedian and cartoonist.
Overall the meeting was enormous informative, and the points made by the panel, and most of the audience were cogent and intelligent. Anyone who has regularly attended meetings or lectures, no matter how esteemed, will understand how rare that combination is. The campaign however seems, so far, too focused on Atheistic / secular objections to the inclusion of religious protection in statute. As a member of the audience pointed out, all religions constantly derogate the opposition – ‘No one comes before the Father except through Me’, John 14:6-9, ‘flee from the worship of idols’ (1 Cor. 10:14), etc. The more religious among you will doubtless recall better examples with ease. As such, the Defamation Bill as proposed, would endanger religious speech (especially minority religious speech) as much, if not more than secular criticism.
Ian O’Doherty pointed out that religious extremists will use the law to pillory journalists, leading to chilling effects on journalistic expression.
Dick Spicer explained that he was already in contact with Christian fundamentalists who planned to use the legislation to ‘martyr’ themselves, by attempting to be fined, and ultimately jailed (for non payment) under the proposed offence. He pointed out that some Christian fundamentalists do not view Allah as the same God they worship, but literally as the devil (what could be more heretical to Muslims!), and are prepared to state this publicly; specifically for the purposes of ‘martyrdom’.
Michael Nugent pointed out that Charlie Haughey, Ireland’s former Taoiseach (prime minister), a man described by the Moriarty Tribunal as ‘devaluing democracy‘, amongst other things for his receipt of ‘unethical’ payments from businessmen and wealthy non-nationals seeking citizenship; was the politician who introduced the current blasphemy legislation (with its 7 year maximum prison term). Apparently, when prompted to define Blasphemy in Oireachtas debate, Haughey responded ‘Everyone knows what it is’.
At the close of the meeting I was more convinced than ever that this legislation in particular, and the whole body of Irish defamation law in general, are ill considered and stand in opposition to the free exchange of thought that is at the heart of the democratic process. As someone building a career as a writer and humorist of sorts, with a poison pen and acerbic tongue, I won’t deny a personal interest in the freedom to puncture inflated egos, tip sacred cows, and to depict in words an often unpopular, and occasionally correct version of reality.
And so, this blog / PDF magazine / website, which would have come about anyway perhaps, under another and less contentious name, became ‘Marshmallow Ladyboy Jesus’. The title encapsulates my view that rights exist only as far as they are expressed; that the default state of permissiveness in any area of public life is, forbidden. By titling our site so provocatively, we do not aim at incurring a prosecution we could neither afford to fight, nor under the proposed Blasphemy legislation, win; but rather to point out the silliness of stifling speech, particularly speech critical of the inherently absurd elements of faith, state, and self importance in public life.
Marshmallow Ladyboy Jesus’s Blasphemy Amendment FAQ
So what exactly does the constitution say?
Article 40.6.1, states the “publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law” [Note – There doesn’t seem to be a linkable, searchable Irish constitution online].
Article 40 also, rather frighteningly states…
“Organs of public opinion… while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.”
What’s the current state of the law?
Under Charlie Haughey’s 1961 Defamation Act, blasphemous OR obscene material is punishable by up to a seven year prison sentence, and a 500 punt (634 euro) fine.
What did the Supreme Court say?
In 1999, in the case of Corway -v- Independent Newspapers, the Supreme court ruled that currently, as the 1961 act failed to specify the nature of blasphemy, “it is impossible to say of what the offence of blasphemy consists”.
What does the Defamation Bill propose?
“A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000.”
Under the Bill “Blasphemous matter” would be “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”
This means that an article or broadcast would need to intentionally offend an unspecified number of members of any religious group, on any unspecified ‘sacred’ topic.
Why is this wrong?
As we here at Marshmallow Ladyboy Jesus see it, the proposed legislation is flawed in a number of regards.
1. The proposed legislation curtails a fundamental human right, free speech, without a substantive benefit to society. Whether or not the state has the right to curtail human rights for any reason whatsoever, is a debate for another day. Hint: It doesn’t.
2. The proposed legislation would make an offense merely of causing offense, in relation to the ‘matters held sacred by any religion’. This not blasphemy, which Websters define as ‘the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God’, but rather heresy, ‘adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma’.
3. The proposed legalisation prohibits criticism of any opinion held by any religion. This is the rub of the matter. No one, be they journalist or concerned citizen, would be free to make statements which offended the opinion of any religious organisation on any issue. Let’s just go over that again. ‘Matters held sacred by any religion’, needn’t include merely the faith and practises of any religious group, but any area of culture, law, human behaviour or public life, which is ‘worthy of religious veneration’ (Websters again).
3. The degree of the proposed fine is so high that it seems likely to forestall any criticism of any religious group or belief by bloggers, independent journalists, newspaper letter writers, and anyone not protected by the financial clout of a major institution.
4. Ireland has suffered gravely from it’s existing Defamation legislation’s delimitations of free speech. Arguably, the deafening journalistic silence during periods of political corruption in Ireland documented by the McCracken, Flood and Moriarty tribunals, were in large part due to the ‘chilling effects’ of existing libel law. We do not need to extend the ‘protection’ of defamation law; rather it should be severely curtailed, so that it acts to protect individuals from persecution, rather than organisations and public figures from reasonable suspicion.
5. The proposed libel legislation is opposed by all of the opposition parties, the national union of journalists, and independent European and UN legal advice organisations.
What can I do to stop it?
Head over to Blashphemy.ie, where a campaign is being organised. Write a letter (ideally on paper, as emails are generally ignored), to your local TD, to Dermot Ahern, and to the Taoiseach. Even old rubber lips himself needs to get re-elected.
The Bill is currently before the Oireachtas (Irish parliament) Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights, here’s a list of it’s members.
You can also show your support by joining the Blasphemy Ireland Group on Facebook, and much more importantly by heading along to the next meeting in your locale.