Vitriol spewed over a phantom prosecution of Stephen Fry for blasphemy. That came after outcry against nuns generally and Sisters of Charity particularly, over the national maternity hospital. The public conversation on those issues elicited remarkable coarsening. Road rage on air, in print and on social media is now accepted public speech. Self-appointed hatred is the posture of preference. It defiles any genuine sense of liberal values.
Firstly may I say, I found Stephen Fry’s interview with Gay Byrne remarkably apt. His anger at a “capricious, mean-spirited, stupid God” is the cry of Job. The Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, Dr Paul Colton, put it well, saying Fry “is fully entitled to express his views about God”. Tellingly, he pointed out “he only highlighted something many people struggle with”. Some who have are great saints.
The public debate over the past days was not a reflective discussion of God. It didn’t pick up the thoughtful conversation between Byrne and Fry about the possibility of one, or where between infinite love and casual cruelty the deity might be. No, our debate had Fry bound at the stake, ready for the firelighters. Ironically our blasphemy law is part of a history of appreciable liberalisation.
It was introduced at about the same time as civil partnership for same-sex couples, by the same justice minister, Dermot Ahern. Both issues abutted constitutional imperatives. Legally and politically, they were handled adeptly and marked progress.
It is an inconvenient truth but Article 40.6.1.i. of the Constitution states: “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
Responding to media demand for reform of the libel laws, Ahern moved to repeal the Defamation Act, 1961. It prescribed that: “Every person who composes, prints or publishes any blasphemous or obscene libel shall, on conviction thereof on indictment, be liable to a fine not exceeding five hundred pounds or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both such fine and imprisonment or to penal servitude for a term not exceeding seven years”.
Addressing the Dáil committee on justice on May 20, 2009, Ahern summed up his options thus: “As regards the offence of blasphemous libel, I think we would all agree that the optimal approach, and certainly the one that I find most preferable, would be to abolish it. As a republican, my personal position is that Church and State should be separate. But I do not have the luxury of ignoring our Constitution. So, as minister for justice I faced a choice — referendum or reform. I chose reform…”
The choice of reform over repeal was wise. Ireland in 2009 was in the eye of an economic storm. He served in the most unpopular government ever. A referendum then would have met only blasphemy on the doorsteps. It would have distracted a government stretched to its limits addressing multiple crises.
The offence of blasphemy was renewed in the 2009 act. It was heavily hemmed in — firstly, by the requirement that there was intent “to cause such outrage”. Intent is notoriously difficult to prove. Secondly, there is a defence if there is “genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter” complained of. It is extremely unlikely there could ever be a successful prosecution. As Ahern explained this week, that was the intention.
His legislation was an artful advance on the status quo, and compliant with the constitution.
Like him, I would vote to repeal the blasphemy provision in the Constitution. Free speech is generally an essential value. But it is not unfettered. Libel is one essential bulwark, and provisions against hate speech another. It is astonishing that in pursuit of a supposedly liberal republic, and the separation of Church and State that public speech against religion is so frequently imbued with hate. There is no concurrent appreciation that freedom of religion is one of the essential interlocking freedoms in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In Ireland old sectarianism and authoritarianism has become a self-appointed hatred. In its expression, it is too often poisonously illiberal. Remarkably, at the moment organised religion collapsed, it mutated enhanced. It flatters itself as different because it opposes those same hierarchical institutions, just as their power is waning. There is certainly no cost to kicking now. But there is a consequence. It creates a coarsened society. It is iconoclasm of a sort that believes by defacing images, you emasculate them. It’s history now, but Ahern’s civil partnership was assailed as an Uncle Tom’s charter in terms which were vitriolic and accusative.
The condition of our public debate masks a deeper problem. Vitriolic spleen is a diversion from the complex, measured discussions leading to better choices. The churning of emotion absolves the need for reason. Nowhere was that clearer than in the deployment of Sisters of Charity as straw men in the debate over the National Maternity Hospital. As stated in this column previously, the scandal hiding in plain sight is the vested interests of consultants using vast amounts of State money to trade up from a clapped out plant on Dublin’s Holles Street to a state-of-the-art one in St Vincent’s— the better to profit from private practice. Amidst bitter disagreements amongst themselves, one issue never caused a murmur: private practice in public hospitals.
Like Ahern’s choice in 2009, Health Minister Simon Harris now belatedly understands the conundrum. He is told to sort it, but he can’t confiscate property. Some of those most agitated by nuns have such expansive notions of property rights they exercise self-appointed authority to prevent the installation of water meters on the public road. Any law to impinge on the property rights of the Sisters of Charity would be unconstitutional. Any referendum would unhinge a primordial Irish instinct and certainly be defeated. A state that does ideally have a responsibility to provide a national maternity hospital outside of religious control, has limited options for colocation. Every policy choice influences another, and perhaps displaces it.
In the gale of vitriol passing for debate, who would know? Only simple options are offered. The monster within themselves, becomes “the other” whom they must hate. Little thought is given, and no responsibility is taken for consequences. It can’t be dismissed simply as populism. Commonplace abuse is too pervasive, and crudity too common place for that excuse to be acceptable. I recall the 1983 campaign for the Eighth Amendment which was universally crude, and frequently abusive. Far from being a low water mark historically, it is a standard now almost uniform, not least among those likely to be most appalled and who should be most ashamed by the comparison.