Serious Ireland WTF?

Like many North Americans of Irish descent I quite often like to play up that aspect of my heritage–although in my case it runs more to quoting Yeats, listening to songs about killing the English1, and drinking Guinness than to wearing KISS ME I’M IRISH shirts or drinking blechh green beers.

From time to time though, there are certainly things about the mother country that just embarrass the hell out of me. These often center around religious ridiculousness.

And this week’s certainly taken the cake in that department.

If you read Thursday’s story in the Independent, you’d think it was no big deal, just a bit of legislative business as usual:

MAJOR new legislation reforming the State’s libel laws and enabling judges to advise juries on the size of damages was passed in the Dáil yesterday.

The Defamation Bill, which also introduces a new crime of blasphemous libel, will come into operation after it is passed by the Seanad later this week and signed into law by President Mary McAleese.

Reading Friday’s story in the Irish Times though, starts to give a very different view, with some discussion of the bill not just as a change in the libel rules, but referencing the issue of a “crime of blasphemy”.

That’s enough to make me go read the wording of the bill. Let’s just ignore the libel bits and focus on the section about blasphemy. Prepare to be shocked:

36. Publication or utterance of blasphemous matter.

(1) 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. [Amended to €25,000]

(2) For the purposes of this section, a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if (a) he or she publishes or utters 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 (b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.

(3) It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.

37. Seizure of copies of blasphemous statements.

(1) Where a person is convicted of an offence under section 36, the court may issue a warrant (a) authorising any member of the Garda Siochana to enter (if necessary by the use of reasonable force) at all reasonable times any premises (including a dwelling) at which he or she has reasonable grounds for believing that copies of the statement to which the offence related are to be found, and to search those premises and seize and remove all copies of the statement found therein, (b) directing the seizure and removal by any member of the Garda Siochana of all copies of the statement to which the offence related that are in the possession of any person, © specifying the manner in which copies so seized and removed shall be detained and stored by the Garda Siochana.

(2) A member of the Garda Siochana may (a) enter and search any premises, (b) seize, remove and detain any copy of a statement to which an offence under section 36 relates found therein or in the possession of any person, in accordance with a warrant under subsection (1).

(3) Upon final judgment being given in proceedings for an offence under section 36, anything seized and removed under subsection (2) shall be disposed of in accordance with such directions as the court may give upon an application by a member of the Garda Siochana in that behalf.

Unless I have lost the ability to read English, that bill pretty much makes illegal a whole ton of things I would normally consider inviolate free speech, and gives the cops the ability to do warrantless2 search and seizure of anything “blasphemous” based only on the “reasonable suspicion” standard. I’m fairly certain there’s a number of books on my shelves that would qualify, not to mention the fact that the contents this blog alone probably would have me facing, many, many 25,000 pound fines. I could theoretically mount a merit defense, for each one, but one raises ones eyebrow generally at those reverse onus laws, where the crime is assumed to be committed and the accused had to prove it wasn’t–especially when such proof is based on a subjective criterion.

Also, besides all the other reasons why this is ridiculous on its face, note that this encodes in law the notion that the crime is committed not based on the intent of the speaker, but based on whether or not someone feels outraged by what the speaker says. Talk about encoding the “thinnest skin” (or in this case “least rational”) principle in law. Yarg.

Today I’m thinking I’ll not be playing up my heritage, that’s for sure–not with Ireland essentially legislating the return of the Dark Ages.

Oh yeah, and I looked at the Globe & Mail, the CBC, The NY Times, and CNN, and there’s no coverage of this at all at any of them to date. It is making some news in the UK albeit in opinion pieces.

  1. Face it, the rebels had better music.(back)
  2. Yeah, they court will issue a warrant, but it’s based on a pretty weak standard.(back)

  4 comments for “Serious Ireland WTF?

  1. Lachlan O'Dea
    July 12, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    It’s strange and disturbing how blasphemy laws are back on the agenda these days, and it’s likely to stay that way. The Organization of the Islamic Conference never misses an opportunity to put up U.N. resolutions to prohibit blasphemy (or “defamation of religion”, as it is usually phrased). On the positive side, in 2008 the U.K. abolished the ancient common law prohibiting blasphemy. The U.K. law was particularly silly as it only criminalised blasphemy against Anglican Christianity. Too bad they haven’t yet escaped the ludicrous anachronism of having a State Religion in the first place.

    You are probably aware that there is a Canadian law prohibiting blasphemy, although it is probably harmless: But just having the law on the books weakens your case when criticising other countries when they mete out harsh punishments for blasphemy.

    And I could never miss an opportunity to link to my favourite rhetorical defence of free speech. This is Christopher Hitchens in a debate, arguing for the motion that Canadian hate speech laws should be repealed:

  2. Lachlan O'Dea
    July 12, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    Sorry, what I meant to type was “But just having the law on the books weakens Canada’s case when criticising other countries when they mete out harsh punishments for blasphemy.”

  3. July 13, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    Don’t worry, I didn’t think you were coming after me personally–I like to think I’ll know when you come out swinging 🙂

    I’m the first to admit that Canada is has a lot of silly things in our legal code–I’m not a fan of any kind of thought-crime legislation, for example, and I prefer to deal with things like hate speech through a concerted program of education and mockery of the bigots. I would certainly favour a repeal of the particular law you reference. (Hell, I’d like to rewrite the preamble to the Canadian constitution to replace “Whereas Canada is founded upon the principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law” with something that is completely a-religious.)

    Until 2001 I was a pretty big fan of Hitchens, and while I’ve lost some respect for him because of his foreign policy opinions (you can put Hitchens in the search box up there to see what that’s about, but I can tell you now we’ll disagree because we have different views on the US invasion of Iraq) there’s certainly nothing in the Hart House speech that I disagree with, except in a matter of degree. I’m a cocky atheist, although usually not one quite so boozily snarky as Hitchens, and I’m all about freedom of unpopular speech, and about checking what you think you know from time to time. Unlike Hitchens I think I tend to view the quietly, non-proselytizing religious as harmless, and reserve my venting of spleen for people who attempt to push their beliefs onto others to their detriment, but as I say it’s principally a difference of degree, not of kind.

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This work by Chris McLaren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada.