Speech in Seanad Éireann regarding Blasphemy Referendum

I spoke in Seanad Éireann on 20 September 2018, querying the Government’s rationale for the forthcoming referendum on blasphemy.


Seanad Éireann
Thursday, 20 September 2018

I will oppose this legislation and the referendum on three grounds. It is entirely unnecessary and it ignores the legal historical context of this constitutional provision. It does nothing to protect or promote free speech, which is the stated the aim of the proposal, and the cost of this referendum is an unnecessary and scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money because it will cost at least €3 million. Unfortunately, this proposal is typical of our Government and our political classes at the moment and it underscores the hypocrisy and tokenism that pervades so much of the Government and political agendas. We have just come through a summer where controversies have raged in respect of health, post office closures and the disgraceful treatment of women at the hands of the CervicalCheck programme. What does it say about the Government that the first Bill to be put before the Dáil this term is not related to these issues but to remove the constitutional offence of blasphemy? It is almost hard to believe but taxpayers have forked out more than €150 million on holding referenda since the year 2000, with each trip to the polls costing between €15 million and €20 million.

Since Fine Gael entered government in 2011, we have had nine referenda. While it is proposed to hold this referendum on the same day as the presidential election, holding this poll is not without costs all the same. Each additional referendum held on the same day will add approximately €4 million to the overall cost due to additional ballot papers, counting staff and so on. It was the former Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Ronan Keane, not the Archbishop of Armagh or Dublin or any other religious leader that one might care to mention, writing in the LRC report on this topic in 1991, who said that a referendum devoted to removing blasphemy “would rightly be seen as a time wasting and expensive exercise”. How right he was and how true that still is. Why are we here ramming this through the Seanad in just one day? Is it the case, as on many issues, that the Government feels that this issue is uncontroversial because Opposition and other non-Governmental parties are supine when it comes to any of these big philosophical discussions? Why does the Government feel that it is so uncontroversial or with little or no opposition to it? Does the Government, therefore, think that debate on it is unnecessary?

Introducing this legislation, the Minister referred to Ireland’s reputation being somehow impugned by the blasphemy provision. He made a spurious comparison between Ireland and those countries, chiefly in the Islamic world, that have the death penalty for uttering blasphemy against Islam. This demonstrates the crass level of analysis which is being brought to this discussion. A report just last year by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom found that the current laws on blasphemy in Ireland are among the least restrictive in the developed world. So much for the notion that Ireland is some kind of international pariah. What is really going on here is another expensive photo opportunity for this Government to talk about how progressive it is by proposing yet another amendment to the Constitution. The fact that it has moved against the purely symbolic reference to blasphemy, in addition to proposing a similar deletion of the purely symbolic reference to women in the home, gives us a clue to the real intention here – more politically correct red meat to the liberal gallery of media supporters that fawn uncritically over this Government. I refer, in particular, to the people who cannot help scratching the itch that is the God question.

At least the Minister conceded in the Dáil that there have been no prosecutions for blasphemy in this country. The most recent one occurred in 1855 when we were still in the grip of the neighbouring jurisdiction. The reference to blasphemy has effectively been rendered a dead letter by virtue of the decision of the Supreme Court in Corway v. Independent Newspapers in 1999 when a private prosecution against newspapers for blasphemy was thrown out. The Defamation Act 2009 – and I participated in the debate in this House – introduced hurdles which effectively ensure that no prosecution could ever be brought and the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, openly admitted that this was the aim of that legislation. As the 2009 Act was going through the House, many Senators, including Senator Bacik and her Labour Party colleagues, made outlandish claims that the 2009 Act would open the door to future prosecutions for blasphemy. That scaremongering has been shown to be entirely and predictably wrong.

In view of all of this, why not simply introduce a Bill to amend the 2009 Act and remove the offence from our law altogether? That could be done in short order and at almost no expense. It would also leave the purely symbolic words in the Constitution where they pose no threat to pluralism and free speech, but of course that would not allow any virtue signalling. That is the problem and that is why we have to have a costly referendum. It will not happen because there is a vocal minority of commentators and politicians, mainly on the political left, who are deeply offended by the reference to blasphemy and any reference to religion in our Constitution. As I said, the God question is the itch they cannot help scratching. Let us remember that we have no problem with legislation that protects certain classes of people from statements made by others through, for example, the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989. Through those laws, we acknowledge that speech is not unlimited, yet there are no proposals to repeal these laws in the name of free speech.

In 2013, the Convention on the Constitution suggested that the proscription of blasphemy should be replaced with a new general provision to include incitement to religious hatred. All religious denominations should be given equal protection. Unsurprisingly, this Government ignored that suggestion. Religious freedom is a fundamental right protected in international human rights law, yet we seem to be happy to erode it progressively in Ireland. If we were going to spend millions of euro of taxpayer’s money on a referendum, would it not be a more appropriate gesture to insert clear protections for believers, non-believers and others in the Constitution instead of just deleting words? It seems that the aim is to ensure speaking out against certain belief structures will be unlimited. That is a good whereas the profession or support for those same beliefs is to be limited and proscribed because they are bad. That is the new definition of tolerance that is regnant in this country. To be more specific, an American author wrote some years ago that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice. This is the bizarre form of free speech that many seem to have in mind.

Just listening to the previous speaker, to link in the wrongs of our past on the side of Church and State and to see that as somehow relevant to this debate on a rather meaningless and toothless provision on blasphemy in our Constitution shows the superficial level of the debate that has been going on in this country. I have been clear and consistent in my view that a blasphemy provision should not be in place to protect one religion or to protect God from offence. God is not quaking in his boots at the thought of the Minster abolishing the constitutional provision on blasphemy. However, the hard-pressed taxpayer should be livid at this latest raid on the public purse by our political rulers to pander to their liberal base, their cheerleaders in the media and the usual human rights quangos. As I said in 2009, I find persuasive comments made in the past on the difficulty of determining what is offensive to God.

One person’s meat is another person’s poison and I suspect the same may be true for deities. Clearly, if blasphemy were to be understood as giving offence to God, it would be completely unworkable in modern legislation, but that is not how it has been understood.

There is a distinction between seeking to protect God from offence and seeking to protect the reasonable and lawful practice of religion and religious expression. A significant number of people in this country from all denominations and faiths have a profound religious belief which anchors the manner in which they view the world, interact with their fellows and seek the welfare of their families and their community. We had an opportunity to amend the Constitution, if we were going to spend public money, to recognise the harmful effect of gross offence aimed at these people, but this Government has not taken that route. Why?

The Government enjoys using the word “progress” in relation to its proposals to amend the Constitution, but it is a very strange concept of progress and one that is riven with hypocrisy. We have heard much talk about championing rights, but there is no consideration of the rights of increasingly marginalised groups such as people with religious beliefs. In addition to the reasons mentioned regarding costs and so on, I will oppose this proposal because it is a missed opportunity to achieve generous and appropriate protection for the rights of people of all faiths and none and because it is a scandalously self-indulgent raid on the public purse on behalf of an elite group of people in our society who are radically out of touch with the problems that beset most ordinary people.


The debate is available here.