Yesterday’s marches, ceremonies of remembrance and defiance, were among the greatest expressions of solidarity and determination seen in Europe since VE Day — May 8, 1945 — when the final destruction of an evil as malignant as that expressed in France and Nigeria last week was celebrated.
More than a million people marched in Paris in solidarity with the victims of last week’s attacks by Muslim extremists. They also marched in support of the non-negotiable right to free speech and the freedom of the press. Hundreds of thousands more, more than a million in total possibly, attended similar ceremonies right across Europe yesterday and on Saturday.
The Paris show of strength was attended by about 40 heads of state or government. German chancellor Angela Merkel, British prime minister David Cameron, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu ,and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu were among those who marched with French president François Hollande. The message to those who might challenge Europe’s deeply held democratic, comparatively liberal, social beliefs was clear, unambiguous and could hardly have been more forcefully expressed. Taoiseach Enda Kenny was there too — thankfully and very rightly — but he must have hoped that none of his colleagues had the inclination to challenge him about our constitutional ban on blasphemy.
This anachronism is a manifestation of the autocratic intolerance and bigotry like that which so tragically warped the minds of Chérif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly to the point that they sought martyrdom but achieved nothing more than passing infamy. The ban would also have made the publication of a magazine as confrontational as Charlie Hebdo all but impossible and saddled it with legal bills that would have closed it sooner or later.
Our constitutional ban on blasphemy was originally intended to protect the Catholic Church from the kind of scrutiny that eventually changed that institution’s place in this society for ever but that is neither here nor there; the measure is a legacy from another time, another place and its repeal is long overdue. Avoiding the challenge involved in having it repealed is symptomatic of a weak and cowed administration. Weekend suggestions that the referendum needed to nullify the ban might not be held before a general election is as cowardly and as hypocritical as it is unacceptable. It is another example of the kind of feeble leadership that so undermines our political process.
We are, however, offered the pantomime-season assurance that an utterly irrelevant and patronising referendum on lowering the age limit for presidential candidates will go ahead. This seems a perfect opportunity for the Government to shake off the ineptitude and evasion-as-leadership that has dogged its performance and poll ratings. Scrap plans to have the age vote — it is hard to imagine riots razing our cities — and give real meaning to the freedom-of-speech solidarity expressed so vividly across Europe this weekend by having a vote on our blasphemy ban.