The politics of distraction

Today a Government think tank has issued a report forecasting that Irish GDP will decline by 9% in 2009 and by 14% in the period 2008-2010. New figures show that unemployment has doubled in the last 12 months, and tripled in the past 2 years to 11%, and will rise to 17% next year.  New car purchases are down 64% and the value of share transactions on the Irish Stock Exchange is down 75% on last year. The general Government deficit will be 12 per cent of GDP this year and next - not counting the cost to the State of buying toxic assets from the banks by way of the National Asset Management Agency. (This transaction will add a substantial but as yet unknown amount to Government debt and to the State’s annual interest bill).

So obviously the main focus of today’s radio talk shows is a Government Bill to bring in a new crime of blasphemy.  Yes, books like The Satanic Verses and the Da Vinci code, cartoons depicting Mohammed and irreverent comedians like Tommy Tiernan could be the ruination of the country. What we really need is a Charter for religious fundamentalists to make sure the rest of us keep our mouths shut.

I kid you not…

Crime of blasphemous libel proposed for Defamation Bill - The Irish Times - Wed, Apr 29, 2009

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.”

Now there are certain things I hold pretty sacred, and which cause me to be very outraged when they are satirised by others.  What I need to do now is organise a religion around these beliefs so that I can criminalise all who would beg to differ.  The key test of whether a criminal offence has been committed is the degree of outrage true believers can attest to.

Can you be outraged too?  Because another test appears to be that the outrage has to be caused to a “substantial number”.  So we can insult small minority religions as much as we like, apparently. (That pretty much writes off the small 3% Protestant minority in the republic, and the even smaller Jewish and Islamic communities).

So I wonder which religion this new crime of blasphemy is supposed to protect.  Could it be the Catholic Church which has been so blasphemed by allegations of child abuse?  Could you now argue that a history of sexual repression and celibacy could lead to institutionalised abuse without causing outrage and being criminalised as a result?

And if similar laws were enacted in an Islamic country which prevent one noting that Mohammed seemed to have a predilection for very young sexual partners, something that might be termed paedophilia nowadays, and if one were criminalised as a result, would the “enlightened West” not be outraged?

The most charitable interpretation I can put on today’s events is to assume that it is all a ruse to distract people from the truly awful and exponentially terrible economic news which dominate so much of the airways these days.

But I have a nagging suspicion there might be more to it than that.  Don’t non-religious people have a right to be outraged?  Who is to define what is sacred and what is not?  This could be the most pernicious piece of covert legislation to protect an almost defunct religious establishment since a previous Fianna Fail Minister, Michael Woods, concluded an agreement with the Catholic Church which made the state liable for over 90% of the costs arising from sexual abuse of children in Roman Catholic run institutions, a figure now well in excess of €1 Billion.

Why do recessions always seem to bring out the truly revanchist, sectarian, and reactionary elements in a society? Why are we even talking about this crap? We have an unprecedented economic crisis and Local and European Elections in the offing. Could it be that the Government is trying to distract us from these more immediate concerns? Certainly there has been very little sign of the Government’s European Election Campaign moving into a higher gear.  What is the status of Blasphemy laws in other Euroepan Countries?  Do such religious controversies only occur in Ireland?  I would be really interested to know.

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6 Responses to “The politics of distraction”

  1. Eurocentric says:

    “…and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”

    If the courts are very strict and demanding on proving intention, then some damage could be mitigated.

    But you’re right, it’s a backwards step - and a very strange one at a time when the country is becoming more secular.

    I’ve just commented on another post that I think that the UK needs a constitution. Perhaps we tend to over-constitutionalise things?

  2. Hi Eurocentric. I’ve responded to your constitutional comment elsewhere. There are cases where the law might apply in quite a harsh way: see http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2009/0430/1224245681506.html

  3. Eurocentric says:

    It’s good to see that there’s been a big reaction against it. This letter in the Irish Times is a good one:

    With regard to the Minister for Justice’s proposal to legislate for the offence of blasphemy (April 29th), it is curious that the Minister for Justice of a democratic European state should find itself at odds with international standards.

    The four special rapporteurs of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the UN, the Organisation of American States and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights issued a joint statement in December, 2008. They make the point that: “The concept of ‘defamations of religions’ does not accord with international standards regarding defamation, which refer to the protection of reputation of individuals, while religions, like all beliefs, cannot be said to have a reputation of their own.” They also make the point that restrictions on freedom of expression should be limited and “should never be used to protect particular institutions, or abstract notions, concepts of beliefs, including religious ones”. We seem to be heading in the wrong direction. Again. – Yours, etc,

    KENNETH HOUSTON

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