Blasphemy lawWritten in a way that ‘skilfully renders the law unenforceable.’

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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Ever since it emerged late last week that actor and comedian, Stephen Fry, is being investigated over alleged blasphemous comments he made during an interview with Gay Byrne in 2015, theories have abounded on social media as to who might have made the complaint.

Is the complainant a deeply religious individual who was truly offended by Stephen Fry’s referral to “a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

Or, on the other hand, is the complainant a slightly mischievous secularist, lodging a complaint to gardai simply to highlight the absurdity of Ireland’s blasphemy law, introduced back in 2009?

Perhaps we will never know. But speaking and Today with Sean O’Rourke, the absurdity of the legislation was confirmed, in a sense, by the man who introduced it. Former Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern.

‘It was done in such a way that, as one of the experts in this area said, a man called Neville Cox, he basically said that the legislation fulfils a constitutional obligation to have a crime of blasphemy… But then, he said, skilfully renders the law unenforceable.’

According to Dermot Ahern, blasphemy legislation certainly wasn’t a top priority of his, when he served as Justice Minister at that time. However, as he was updating a 1961 act on defamation, he was told there was a constitutional imperative to include and define the offence of blasphemy. The only way to avoid the inclusion of blasphemy in the updated legislation, Mr Ahern said, would have been to hold a referendum. And given the state of the country at the time, such a referendum would have been out of the question.

And so, and our statue books, it seems we have a law deliberately constructed to be unenforceable.

‘Was that your intention?’ asked Sean.

‘To a certain extent it was. The Attorney General wouldn’t forgive me for saying it. But we put in place so many hurdles in order to ground a prosecution, that we felt we would never see a prosecution.’

Whether or not that view turns out to be wishful thinking, we will see in the coming months, as gardai continue their enquiries into whether Stephen Fry’s comments on The Meaning of Life, with Gay Byrne, constitute blasphemy under the 2009 law. If you’ve seen the clip, you might well make up your own mind. Take a look at the relevant section from the blasphemy legislation, and see what you think. The law prohibits the…

“publishing or uttering [of] matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion”.

The demonstration of intent, according to Dermot Ahern, would be a major hurdle. On top of that, the defendant could legitimately claim that they were engaged in a work of genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value.

Honestly, if you’re in any way familiar with Stephen Fry, it’s hard to imagine him engage in work of any other kind.

To listen to the full interview with former minister, Dermot Ahern, click here.

Photo credit: Justin Tallis – WPA Pool /Getty Images

© The Listener 2017

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