A NEW crime of blasphemous libel is to be proposed by the Minister for Justice in an amendment to the Defamation Bill, which will be discussed by the Oireachtas committee on justice today.
At the moment there is no crime of blasphemy on the statute books, though it is prohibited by the Constitution.
Article 40 of the Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of speech, qualifies it by stating: “The State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.
“The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent material is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
Last year the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, under the chairmanship of Fianna Fáil TD Seán Ardagh, recommended amending this Article to remove all references to sedition and blasphemy, and redrafting the Article along the lines of article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which deals with freedom of expression.
The prohibition on blasphemy dates back to English law aimed at protecting the established church, the Church of England, from attack. It has been used relatively recently to prosecute satirical publications in the UK.
In the only Irish case taken under this article, Corway -v- Independent Newspapers, in 1999, the Supreme Court concluded that it was impossible to say “of what the offence of blasphemy consists”.
It also stated that a special protection for Christianity was incompatible with the religious equality provisions of Article 44.
Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern proposes to insert a new section into the Defamation Bill, stating: “A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000.”
“Blasphemous matter” is defined as matter “that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”
Where a person is convicted of an offence under this section, the court may issue a warrant authorising the Garda Síochána to enter, if necessary using reasonable force, a premises where the member of the force has reasonable grounds for believing there are copies of the blasphemous statements in order to seize them.
Labour spokesman on justice Pat Rabbitte is proposing an amendment to this section which would reduce the maximum fine to €1,000 and exclude from the definition of blasphemy any matter that had any literary, artistic, social or academic merit.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times