Blasphemy Referendum: Beware of unwelcome consequences

We should consider the irony of booting blasphemy out of the door while legitimising even more draconian curtailments of speech, writes Margaret Hickey.

The presidential campaign is overshadowing the other question to be put to voters when they go to the polls on Friday.

That question, whether to remove or retain Article 40.6 of the Constitution which makes blasphemy an offence, is not getting the discussion it deserves because it is seen as somewhat moot, a dead letter. That view is borne out by the fact that the last prosecution under blasphemy law in Ireland was in 1855.

In the Constitution, the offence of blasphemy specifically applies to Christianity. It was not until 1999 that the laws against blasphemy were broadened to protect other faiths too. This was not only to reflect a more religiously pluralist country but also to honour the constitution’s own guarantee of religious equality.

For people of religious belief, blasphemy is a sin. In Christendom, the line between sin and crime, between Church censure and State prohibition, tended to be a very thin one, especially where major transgressions were concerned.

Today we have come a long way. The freedom to blaspheme God and his prophets, whatever the faith, is considered well within the limits of legitimate freedom of expression.

In 2005, when a Danish publication, Jyllands Posten, published cartoons mocking the Islamic prophet Mohammed, the Danish government’s failure to take action against the paper sparked violent protests in Denmark.

When other western publications reprinted the offending images and politicians around the world defended their actions, the backlash escalated. Because the counter protest was fragmented and unco-ordinated, protesters felt somewhat isolated and vulnerable.

Later in 2015, when Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, well known for its ribald brand of ridicule, published cartoons of Mohammad, the paper’s office was stormed and 12 of its staff including its editor shot dead.

This time, world reaction was finely co-ordinated and overwhelming in its impact. World leaders including our taoiseach of the time, Enda Kenny, led a crowd of over a million in solidarity through the streets of Paris. The battle cry ‘Je suis Charlie’ echoed around the world. It was an unprecedented global shout-out for freedom of speech and its setting in the very heartland of ‘liberte’ could not be more iconic.

Since 2015, blasphemy has become a somewhat esoteric and dated concept. It does not even need a campaign to make the case for its removal from our Constitution.

Just a bit of embarrassing, old-fashioned verbal junk that needs to be swept away and the less said the better. Nobody seems to consider the irony of booting blasphemy out of the door while legitimising even more draconian curtailments of speech. Hate speech. Hate crime. These are the new blasphemies and they are far more wide ranging and repressive than the old blasphemies ever were.

The current presidential campaign is a good example of how easy it is to fall foul of the new orthodoxies and be branded a heretic against political correctness. When Liadh Ní Riada was discovered to have had expressed misgivings about the HPT vaccine, she was dragged before the ‘auto da fe’ of orthodoxy to recant.

Liadh Ní Riada

She did, of course, explaining that her concerns merely related to the lack of clear information for parents from the HSE. But suppose she still held these misgivings, is she not free to hold them?

New information is always coming through on medical and scientific questions. It is the nature of science that the jury is rarely ever in. Surely the role of people in public life is to raise questions?

In this instance, Ms Ní Riada never brought the issue into the campaign. The thought police unearthed her views, such as they were, and held her to account for them.

Peter Casey, a professed enemy of political correctness, did not blink when branded a racist by a fellow candidate for his belief that the Traveller community is not a distinct ethnicity and that they should be treated like the settled community when it comes to allocating public housing.

Incumbent President Michael D Higgins, in comparing the life expectancy of Travellers with the rest of us and the higher rates of suicide among their young men, was, by inference, levelling even more serious and substantial charges against him.

This trick of inflating the issue to disarm a dissident is the stock and trade of politically correct enforcers. It is this trend to shut down reasoned discussion by branding and tagging sideline voices with pejorative labels that should worry us.

Freedom of speech is a precious value and should be defended on all fronts. It cannot be reduced to a campaign against prickly, religious fundamentalists as if they were its only enemies.

In fact, the religious demographic in this country is particularly tough skinned these days. Or perhaps it is

the lack of general sympathy for their sensitivities that keeps them from complaining.

The most recent standout act of blasphemy against the Christian faith and its god in this country was delivered by actor Stephen Fry when interviewed by Gay Byrne in his series, The Meaning of Life, in 2015.

Fry used the kind of language on air that is generally still spelt out in print with a lot of asterisks. There was no doubt about its falling foul of blasphemy but there is, of course, also the question of whether it also falls foul of profanity too.

Where we draw a line on that score is a related but distinct question, but here, too, the boundaries are rapidly fading from view. Freedom of expression is close to open borders in respect of both profanity and blasphemy in certain organs of media.

But we must not be fooled. New ideas of where and how freedom of expression should be limited are fast emerging. The politically correct becomes the politically enforced before you can say George Orwell.

Hardly surprising, it is journalists again who are often the first casualties. Sometimes it is the outlets they write for that deny them a voice. Tragically sometimes, when the newspapers show the same disregard for political and ideological boundaries, the consequences can be horrific.

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi of the Washington Post, who was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey, is the latest victim. He was writing about organised crime and its links to politicians in his native country, something that has already cost the lives of young journalists in Slovakia, Malta, and Poland in recent months.

Jamal Khashoggi

Of course, that is far, far down the road from planting a ‘phobic’ or ‘ist’ tag on a political or ideological opponent. But it is the same road.

Where we place the blocks or mines on the path of free speech has always been a contested discussion.

Quietly erasing blasphemy from our Constitution makes open season on religion official, but if there are parallel movements towards the suppression of other voices, including religious voices, including the voices of conscientious objectors, in the national conversation, then we will just have ushered in censorship under a new guise.

How far the defence of censorship goes may vary from time to time and place too place, but its breaches will carry a cost for those who cross the line and that is often a cost for truth too.


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