I awake this morning to a more frightening world. Yesterday blasphemy became a crime in Ireland, one element of a bill supposedly focused on defamation. Today in Ireland, certain categories of ideas gain for the first time a special status; a protection normally reserved for human beings.
Yesterday, in the final moments before the hammer fell, facing a Seanad rebellion the government found a Green party TD wandering the halls to swing the vote. They succeeded in enacting the worst and most pernicious piece of legislation in this countries history. This is our response.
[Note: This article is an editorial – if you’d like more information on the legislation itself, and how it will be enforced, please read our original piece, published in June: Proposed Irish Blasphemy Legislation]
When the Founding Fathers of the United States framed the Bill of Rights, drafting their amendments to the American constitution, they made sure to enshrine both the freedom to worship and freedom to critique. Indeed, not only are these rights protected in the foremost amendment to the US constitution, both rights are stated in a single paragraph.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The framers of the American constitution recognised implicitly that freedom of speech and the plurality of religious worship necessitate one another. Despite the many abrogations of individual freedom and privacy that have occurred since, this right has remained effectively inviolate. Opinion, especially factually true opinion, may usually be expressed.
The framers of the second Irish constitution had less noble motivations, in publishing the document which persists (necessitating frequent amendment) to this day. In consultation with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland, they enshrined the ‘special place‘ of that religion, the importance of a woman’s role as home-maker, and the pre-eminent sanctity of monogamous heterosexual marriage.
Dermot Ahern, Ireland’s current minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, claims that this flawed and outdated document compelled him to create legislation prohibiting blasphemy, and further that it would be against the spirit of the constitution for such legislation to be toothless. Thus he has created a bill, passed without debate during a session attended by, on average only six TDs at a time, which foists a €25,000 euro ($34,900 USD, or £21,439 Sterling) fine on anyone who “publishes or utters matter”…
“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.”
Perhaps the minister, in claiming to be compelled to legislation is being honest. After all, article 40 of the flawed and outdated Irish constitution states…
“The State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, 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.
The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent material is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
So, while the Irish supreme court had ruled that deciding “of what the offence of blasphemy consists” was impossible; and despite recent recommendations from an Oireachtas (parliamentary) committee that references to sedition and blasphemy be removed from the bill, national and international criticism from journalists, and lawyers alike, and frequent suggestions that the constitution as a whole should be replaced, Dermot Ahern may honestly have seen it as his duty to create a heavily penalised crime of blasphemy.
Perhaps this legislation will be struck down at a European level. Perhaps it will prove unenforceable in practice, as the conflicting and competing claims of religious doctrine make prosecution more trouble than it’s worth. These outcomes would be wonderful, and they seem reasonable, but they are in no sense guaranteed. Irish Attorney Generals and Directors of Public Prosecutions have in the past shown little hesitation in bringing manifestly unfair and unnecessary cases to trial, based on bad legislation and the demands of religious special interest groups.
What is less ambiguous is the likely effect of this legislation, whether effectively enforced or not. Without any significant outcry to bolster their indignation, the Irish news media are certain to reduce their coverage of contentious religious issues. Lets take the infamous Muhammad caricature controversy, as an example. Perhaps it was unnecessary for the Irish media to republish the cartoons that were the source of such outrage four years ago, but in today’s new legislative climate, it would be unwise even to report on the debate. Books which take issue with religious convention are this morning more difficult to publish, plays, radio progammes and television shows mocking or challenging the veracity of religious claims more difficult to commission and to broadcast.
Domestic Irish comedy has long been a deceased, decaying creature, lumbering on in blissful disregard of its own death, but we can say goodbye to any hopes of a native broadcaster producing the next Life of Brian, or a foreign broadcaster choosing Ireland as the location for another Father Ted. A friend (who shares my opposition to the blasphemy legislation) has spoken of his distaste in siding with folks like Bill Maher, Sarah Silverman, and “Richard bloody Dawkins”. It’s easy to forget that almost every influential post war satirist from Spike Milligan, to Peter Cook, Chris Morris and the Pythons, would have also have faced prosecution under this legislation.
Ireland seems fond of its dead writers, we name bridges after Samuel Beckett and erect statues of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, we build writers museums and interpretive centres, and opine grandiloquently on their literary significance. Dead writers are more likeable. Lest we forget, all of these men were in their day accused of blasphemy. All wrote controversial, critically acclaimed works which could have faced prosecution under this bill. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that had Dermot Ahern been in a position to enact his censorious legislation at the turn of the century, much of our great literature, from Salome, to Waiting for Godot, to Ulysses might not have been published. More recently, the Irish comedian Abie Philbin Bowman performed a critically acclaimed comedy show ‘Jesus the Guantanamo Years‘, reimagining the father of Christianity as an imprisoned Middle Eastern terror suspect. Could such an act get a booking in this country today?
Advocates of civil liberties refer to such ‘soft censorship’ as chilling effects. The chilling effect here may influence more than a few edgy comedies and current affairs pieces. Ireland is inarguably recovering from decades of unhealthy religious influence in public life. We know now that the amount and extent of sexual abuse at the hands of the religious orders – who still by the way control 92% of our primary schools, extended to monstrous proportions. The influence of religious interest groups in delaying the legalisation of contraception, homosexuality, and access to sexual health information – all prohibited until the 1980’s and 1990’s, were and continue to be readily apparent. We are a nation coming to terms with multiculturalism, while at the same time dealing with our liturgical demons. Freedom of speech is not merely important at the current moment, it is vital to the recovery of our society from decades of the abuse of the influence of religion over every aspect of civil life.
Ironically the defamation bill of which the blasphemy amendment is a part, creates new protections for Irish journalists from accusations of libel. Timely protections, as Ireland has historically had some of the most egrigeous slander and libel legislation in the world. Legislation that prevented the reporting in the 1980’s of endemic political corruption which siphoned untold amounts from the nations coffers (see previous article). A culture of institutionalised corruption which continues today. A legislative climate which for example, protects the anonymity of investors personally loaned hundreds of millions of euros by the ‘troubled’ Anglo Irish Bank.
What place then, in this or any defamation bill, for the protection of special categories of belief from offence? Blasphemy is of course, not the same thing as defamation. And neither are accurate definitions of what this new legislation prohibits. What it makes illegal is broadly, intentionally offending religious people. But why, one might ask, is it necessary to intentionally offend? Ignoring for the moment the reversal of the the fundamental legal principle of the Presumption of Innocence (under the new legislation a defendant must prove the “genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value” of their speech), and the impact on the great literary and satirical works already referenced: The freedom to reason necessitates the freedom to articulate.
Language is the tool of thought, framing and to some extent delimiting possible conceptualisations. This is why the freedom to criticise and yes intentionally offend, is vital. Tolerance requires not silence but active plurality, the intolerance of intolerance. What Isaiah Berlin called the difference between positive and negative liberty, the distinction between freedom from and the freedom to. Healthy, positive social change of the kind Ireland desperately needs, only ever occurs though reasoned debate – protest alone is rarely sufficient, but the freedom to freely discuss, to complain, to offend and to upset the status quo, is a necessary prerequisite. These are subtle points, but ones with unsubtle practical consequences. This legislation bring religion right into the heart of issues like gay marriage and adoption – areas of law and civil life that demonstably conflict with matters held sacred by all of the Abrahamic religions. Areas of law that appear to conflict too with opinions held by Mr. Ahern himself. During the dail debate on the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, Fine Gael TD Brendan McGahon stated…
“I regard homosexuals as being in a sad category, but I believe homosexuality to be an abnormality, some type of psycho-sexual problem that has defied explanation over the years. I do not believe that the Irish people desire this normalisation of what is clearly an abnormality. . .
Homosexuality is a departure from normality and while homosexuals deserve our compassion they do not deserve our tolerance. That is how the man in the street thinks. I know of no homosexual who has been discriminated against. Such people have a persecution complex because they know they are different from the masses or normal society.”
At the time Ahern, who as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has rejected proposals for Irish Civil Partnership legislation, not only indicated his agreement with McGahon’s bigotry, but added…
“Will we eventually see the day in this country when, as has happened in the USA, homosexuals will seek the right to adopt children? We should think seriously about this possibility.”
We can’t know that Dermot Ahern intends to use his position to do everything in his power to limit the rights of those he believes to be ‘abnormal’ and unworthy of tolerance, but his own statements do imply that he would not be unhappy if that was one side effect of the new legislation.
Not only is this law unnecessary, dangerous and the result of dubious motivations, to call it poorly worded is a mealy understatement. It is possessed of the self evident ‘truthiness‘ of a Jeremy Carkson rant, or a Daily Mail editorial. This new law places the beliefs of Scientologists, preachers the Church of the Subgenius and worshippers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster on the same footing as the dogma of major world religions. It provides for the “seizure and removal by any member of the Garda Siochana of all copies of the statement to which the offence related that are in the possession of any person“. In practice this wording could refer to anything from the pulping of magazines to the purloining of computers containing browser caches of pages repeating the offence. That, I need hardly point out, might include your computer, since you are currently reading an unquestionably blasphemous website.
Much as been made of the Mr Aherns ‘generous’ last minute climb down on the original wording of the bill – which provided for imprisonment in addition to a €100,000 euro fine, for spoken or published ‘blasphemy’. No one seems to have mentioned that this aspect of the bill directly contravened the 60 year old United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 12 of which reads…
Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
Good thing they caught that, on the day the bill was passed.
Religion has many uses, notably as a consolation or hermeneutic device. It provides for some a map of our affective world. Its allegories, be they biblical or koranic, may like Aesop’s fables promote ethical behaver and self reflection. As the writer Alan Moore is fond of saying magic becomes really interesting once you realise it’s reality is an internal one. Secular philosophers have all but abandoned the effort to deduce or advocate a poetic ethics, let alone a pragmatic ideology of purpose. In it’s place have arisen life coaches, new religious movements, ala carte Catholicism, and secular humanism. All of which are worthwhile if individuals find them personally meaningful. It is when we begin to mistake religious belief for concrete reality, protecting doctrine as a special category of privileged knowledge, that we find ourselves in trouble. Meaning is non exclusive, it is the domain of the purely relative. Belief can hold no absolute claim on truth. By enshrining dogma into law, we necessarily make ourselves slaves to outdated traditions that like our constitution, were invented by men now dead, to suit conditions that no longer apply.
The response of my peers to this legislation has been characteristically Irish – variations on ‘Isn’t it terrible’, ‘there’s nothing we can do’, ‘ah sure it’ll all blow over’. One friend has already withdrawn a piece written for this website, afraid of its ramifications for his future career. Another seems genuinely scared even to even read articles discussing blasphemy, given “the current climate”.
As for myself, I have no €25,000 to give the criminal justice system. I own no property and am, to be brutally honest the proud possessor of student loans of the type mathematicians refer to as ‘non trivial’. That said, to quote the ever succinct Twenty Major, I shall continue to “blaspheme who I want, you God fearing cunt Ahern“.