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Why I will be voting yes in the blasphemy referendum

Wednesday, 24th October, 2018 4:33pm

It may seem like an irrelevant cause given the other issues facing Ireland today, but the blasphemy law has relevance in Ireland and internationally.

In Ireland, it has the effect of the media self-censoring because they have no interest in getting caught up in this issue which could result in a €25,000 fine.

Most Irish people have a love for ‘Father Ted’ and yet it could be considered extremely blasphemous, and if Ireland was a more fundamentalist Catholic country it would not be beyond the realm of possibility that the producers could be fined for every episode.

More recently, we had the controversy surrounding Stephen Fry’s comments on ‘The Meaning of Life’ on RTÉ with Gay Byrne, where Mr Fry, a confirmed atheist, was asked what he would say if he was confronted by God. Mr Fry’s answer was regarded as extremely frank and a little coarse for some people.

One person approached the gardaí to have a blasphemy charge brought out against Mr Fry. The gardaí were unable to find a significant number of people outraged by the comments, and the charges were dropped. It may have escaped most people, but this means that the gardaí regarded it as a blasphemous matter, which in and of itself is a dangerous precedent.

The law has a second element that requires a substantial number of adherents to be outraged by the publication or utterance.

While this may seem benign to most people, members of minority faiths may radically differ on this which can result in the law encouraging outrage. This could lead to outrage expressed in ways that we may not approve of as a society. In extreme cases, we have seen this result in the loss of life such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Ireland is a changing society in which we now have many competing ideologies and philosophies, in which we must allow for difference of opinion without restricting freedom of expression. This does not mean incitement to hatred but will facilitate more honest debate. Forcing the illusion of respect does not help dialogue or informed debate.

It is my opinion that laws like this and the position that it is unwise to talk about religion does a disservice to the religious as it prevents them from having a complete knowledge of the criticisms of their religion, whether valid or invalid. Knowledge of such criticisms will equip them to better represent their position.

Internationally, other states including Pakistan, are using the Irish law to justify their own draconian blasphemy laws which often include the death penalty. This is because Ireland is the only first-world nation to have introduced a modern blasphemy law in this century (this law was reintroduced by Dermot Ahern in 2009).

When human rights bodies criticize Pakistan for their draconian laws, the Pakistani authorities reportedly quote the Irish text to the human rights workers and ask if Ireland can have such a law why can’t they have it?

In this way, our laws are an obstacle to the defence of human rights. Pakistan is also lobbying for a UN resolution that would require all countries to introduce such a law. The repeal of this law would harm their efforts.

As we speak, Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian farm worker is awaiting a possible death sentence for alleged blasphemy. She was arrested in 2009 and she has been in prison since. If we don’t repeal this law, it may hasten her death, and it would encourage Pakistan and other repressive regimes further.

Such laws have no place in a modern society that values freedom of expression and open dialogue. Indeed after the Steven Fry incident, New Zealand realized that they also had a blasphemy law and quickly repealed it through an act of parliament.

But because this is in our Constitution, we require a referendum to remove it. This does not mean that one will be free to incite hatred, as this is covered by the same constitutional provision of which we are only removing one word – blasphemy.

It is worth pointing out that the Catholic church regards this clause as obsolete, the Church of Ireland has come out in favour of its removal and no religious group in Ireland opposes its removal.

Several human rights groups are in favour of its removal including Church in Chains which advocates for persecuted Christian minorities around the world.

To conclude, I am calling for a yes vote this Friday 26 to protect freedom of expression, dialogue, understanding and the protection of persecuted people.

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