New blasphemy laws - Free speech is not up for discussion

JUSTICE Minister Dermot Ahern has defended the move to establish a crime of blasphemous libel, stating only that a definition was required by the Constitution. It is difficult not to be disturbed by the development.

Whose needs does it serve? What problem does it resolve? At the very least a more comprehensive explanation must be given for regulations that carry severe penalties – up to €100,000 – that are, like it or not, based on subjectivity.

One man’s blasphemy is another man�s comedy classic. One man’s revelatory moving statue is, according to another, the rock we all perish on. Some people, many millions, believe that the final battle between good and evil – the Very Beasts of Satan – will take place at Megiddo in Israel thereby preparing the way for Final Rapture. A substantial tourism business has developed at this ancient site, a set-the-scene battlefield tour for the Chosen Ones.

Others may consider these beliefs daft and feel moved to vigorously express that contrary view – would that make them blasphemers?

One of the prices we all pay for living in a tolerant, relatively peaceful, inclusive and still more-or-less coherent society is the prospect of having our cherished certainties challenged, even sometimes derided. We can be offended or not. We can choose to react or not, accepting that our hurt is a consequence of our own decisions and the lesser of two evils. We can, in the great security of our beliefs – if we have them – show the forbearance central to nearly all great religious texts.

“Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” was how that ideal was expressed at another time in another place.

Mr Ahern’s proposal envisages that the level of outrage felt by members of any religion, in response to things said or written about them, as a defining factor in determining whether an offence has been committed. The offence taken does not have to be rational or balanced, it just has to be felt. All across Europe we have seen this position come alive by large-scale expressions of outrage by Muslims in response to films, books or cartoons. We have seen public meetings on euthanasia interrupted because some people were offended. Are the meeting’s organisers therefore blasphemers?

Last December, there was a vote on a resolution on “combating defamation of religion” at the UN, which was adopted by 86 votes to 53, with 42 abstentions. Ireland and all other EU countries opposed the resolution.

Explaining Ireland’s vote Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said: “We believe that the concept of defamation of religion is not consistent with the promotion and protection of human rights. It can be used to justify arbitrary limitations on, or the denial of, freedom of expression. Indeed, Ireland considers that freedom of expression is a key and inherent element in the manifestation of freedom of thought and conscience and as such is complementary to freedom of religion or belief.”

Justice Minister Ahern’s proposal is in direct conflict with Foreign Minister Ahern’s explanation and suggests that Ireland’s position has changed in recent months. If it has we need an explanation rather than a fatherly “trust me” from our justice minister.

This Government has shown a considerable contempt for the notion of transparency in public affairs by emasculating the Freedom of Information Act. We cannot allow the core principle of free speech be undermined.

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