Blasphemy (Abolition of Offences and Related Matters) Bill 2019
First Stage: 25 Sep 2019
Oireachtas Link: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/seanad/2019-09-25/12/?highlight%5B0%5D=second#spk_117
Second Stage: 25/09/2019
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, to the House. I am delighted to express my support and the support of the Labour Party Senators for this Bill.
I listened, not exactly with surprise, to the previous speaker. I was disappointed that so much of Senator Mullen's input was devoted to saying what a waste of time this all was. The waste of time was the introduction in 2009 by the then Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Mr. Dermot Ahern, of a new statutory offence of blasphemy.
That was the waste of time, which Senator Norris and I opposed when we argued that its introduction was pointless. We further argued at that point for the removal of the constitutional offence. The referendum was necessary to tidy up what is the foundational legal document of the State. As I think Senator Mullen will agree, the text of the Constitution matters. Having gone through all of the consultations, which Senator Ned O'Sullivan and others spoke about, it is very important that we move to hold the referendum. This legislation is now necessary to give effect to the desire of the people who voted by a majority of 64.85% to remove the offence of blasphemy. I was involved as one of the political representatives on the Constitutional Convention in 2013, which also recommended the removal of the offence of blasphemy. It should never have been in the Constitution and should certainly not have been enacted into statutory format in 2009. This is a long overdue measure to give effect to the will of the people on this issue.
I do not believe that any one in this House is anti-religion. I am certainly not anti-religion and I believe very strongly in the need to ensure freedom of religious belief. As with freedom of expression, this freedom is important in any modern pluralist state. I spoke recently on this at an event with Archbishop Eamon Martin. We had something of a disagreement on the role of religion in the public sphere in that the archbishop seemed to suggest that politicians should be beholden in some way to religious institutions in bringing forth political views. I spoke very strongly in support of the separation of church and state because that separation enshrines religious freedom for individuals. If we start to give a dominant position to one religion in our laws or foundational documents, that would clearly be at the expense of people of other religions and none. That is a very dangerous position to be in and one we see in theocracies around the world.
We may also ask what tangible effect the text of a constitutional document or the existence of a statutory of blasphemy has. I have come from an excellent symposium in Trinity College this morning on diversity and inclusion in the workplace which we ran with the law school of Trinity College in conjunction with Matheson lawyers. The symposium heard powerful and poignant testimony from individuals who have come out as LGBTQ, including one woman who was the first person in Ireland to make a workplace gender transition. We heard very poignant testimonies about the chilling effect that laws that were discriminatory against LGBTQ people had on them and on the conditions in their workplace and how proud they were of an Irish society that is now much more inclusive. One woman, a senior executive, spoke about how proud she is to live openly as a gay woman in Ireland but how fearful she was on a recent holiday to a country which did not enshrine the same freedoms in law for gay people. We have to remember the tangible effect that laws can have, even if no prosecutions are brought. The existence of laws on the Statute Book have a chilling effect.
On Culture Night, the Minister of State's Department in its offices on St. Stephen's Green organised an excellent exhibition on the history of censorship in Ireland and I was delighted to go into it. One might ask what impact censorship laws have. For a long time they had a very chilling effect on freedom of expression in this country not only for authors whose books were banned but for anyone who sought to speak about sexuality, women's sexual expression or reproductive rights in this country. Laws have a chilling effect. It does not need prosecutions or convictions to feel that chill. No one knows that better than my dear friend and colleague, Senator Norris, who was so brave for so long in standing up against laws that were discriminatory and that had that chilling effect. I wanted to put that on the record.
As I said previously about the referendum of 26 October last year, the continued presence of the offence of blasphemy in the Constitution was not tenable in a modern democratic state. Any one who reads the history of it will know it is a medieval crime. It has no place in the Constitution or on the Statute Book of a modern republic. The change, as others have said, was one that was recommended for a long time, by the Law Reform Commission back in 1991, by the expert Constitution Review Group in 1996, and by the Constitutional Convention in 2013. My only regret about the referendum is that we did not also delete the other similarly anachronistic offences referred to Article 40.6.1o.i of the Constitution relating to seditious or indecent matter. I put this on the record when we were debating the referendum Bill. My only quibble with the referendum is that we should have taken the opportunity to delete those other references which are also there in the article.
A constitution is no place - I speak as a criminal lawyer - to declare acts to be criminal offences. That is a matter for statute and for legislators. Those anachronisms should be deleted also. Again, text matters. They may not be in use nor prosecuted every day nor anything like that, but they should not be there in our Constitution, just as the references to women's place in the home should no longer be there. I know the Minister of State is aware of that also.
There are three crucial reasons to welcome this legislation. First, this is outdated, and I have explained that with respect to the origins of blasphemy. Anyone who looks at the history of the use of blasphemy offences will be aware of that, particularly when we have a Republic that is, as it should be, premised on the separation of church and State. We have a long and shameful history of collusion between church and State authorities that has manifested in the oppression of women and children from disadvantaged backgrounds, notably in industrial schools, Magdalen institutions and so forth. As we have seen in recent votes, not only in the blasphemy referendum but in the referenda on marriage equality and repeal of the eight amendment last year, we have, thankfully, moved or are moving out of that era, but we still see dominant position for religious instruction in our schooling system. Today, I was proud to support Education Equality which is seeking the moving of religious instruction to at least the end of the school day in our school system so that children of minority faiths or no faiths do not feel discriminated against within the school day. That is an ongoing issue where we see 90% of our primary schools still under the patronage of different religions and predominantly under Catholic patronage. We have not moved fully out of an era where we have undue breaches of the doctrine of the separation of church and State.
The second reason is that the blasphemy offence is not only outdated but also unnecessary. It is an undue encroachment on free speech. Others have spoken about the growing recognition that blasphemy is an obsolete offence across Europe. The third reason, which is important, and I will finish on this point, as others have trespassed on colleagues' time and I will not do that-----
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and am indebted to him. Blasphemy law is dangerous and others have spoken about this. The continued existence of not only a constitutional but a statutory offence since 2009 here has been used in other jurisdictions where we have seen people of minority faiths, especially those who are Christians, being oppressed, abused or suffering terrible physical danger as a result of the continued existence of blasphemy laws and regard being had to our legal system as a justification. Others have spoken about that. It was another key reason I spoke strongly against that change in 2009 by the then Minister, Dermot Ahern, and why I am so glad to see us finally repealing sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act in this important legislation and giving effect to the very important vote of the people by more than two thirds last October to delete this anachronistic, outdated, medieval and dangerous offence from our Constitution.