Recently I sent a letter to the office of Dermot Ahern TD, expressing my concerns regarding the new Defamation Act and the articles contained referring to blasphemy. You can see the letter I sent here
After quite a long wait, apparently due to some email routing problems, I received a reply from Conor R. Savage, Private Secretary to the minister, who writes that….
The Minister has asked me to thank you for your message conveying your
views on the issue of blasphemous libel, which is currently under
consideration in the context of the proposed reform of our defamation
He then enclosed a transcript of a speech made by the minister on the topic which he hopes will make clear the ministers position, especially with regard to his “constitutional obligation”.
The minister begins with something that grabbed my attention straight away,
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.
So far so good, the next line is promising too,
As a Republican, my personal position is that Church and State should be separate.
The minster highlights that the problem here is with the Irish Constitution, that he does not have the luxury of ignoring the provisions it lays out. He lists his two choices in the matter, referendum or reform.
The new defamation act, under which the legislation regarding blasphemy is included, is a reform of an older defamation act, that of 1963, which states,
“Every person who composes, prints or publishes any blasphemous…libel shall, on conviction…be liable to a fine not exceeding five hundred pounds or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both fine and imprisonment or to penal servitude for a term not exceeding seven years”
Bringing in the new defamation act without some provision for blasphemy, would leave a gap in legislation. Legislation which the Supreme Court has called to be reformed after the case of Corway vs. Independent Newspapers where Mr. Corway compained about a cartoon which he found to be offensive to the catholic faith.
The Supreme Court concluded that
“In this state of the law and in the absence of any legislative definition of the constitutional offence of blasphemy, it is impossible to say of what the offence of blasphemy consists,”
Ok then, there are reasons why blasphemy has had to be looked at in Ireland, it’s in the constitution, and has been legislated insufficiently for. So we need a change.
The choices were, to either have a referendum, or reform the laws, basically change the constitution or change the law. The minister has taken the easy way out by choosing to change the law.
Why not change the constitution, why not hold a referendum to write God out of the Irish constitution? The problem here is not really with the legislation, the problem is with the Irish constitution. Several bodies have recommended changing the constitution with regard to blasphemy, including the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution.
The campaign so far has centred around combating the defamation bill in particular, but it is only a symptom of the underlying problem, that the Irish Constitution is flawed in this regard, since the defamation bill has been signed into law, we should now focus on campaigning to change the relevant parts of the constitution. This would then make the blasphemy law unconstitutional, and you will have killed two birds with one stone.
I do understand the ministers position, he feels that he is bound by the constitution to enforce the laws it provides for, however it is possible to change these laws, to modernise the document to fit with the world as it currently exists. The defamation act may have been signed into law, but the battle for free speech in Ireland is far from over.