News that actor, writer and comedian Stephen Fry is being investigated for possibly breaching Ireland’s blasphemy law, went viral at the weekend and has attracted condemnation from many quarters.
Professor David Nash, above, an international expert on the history and contemporary status of blasphemy laws throughout Europe and beyond, told Atheist Ireland:
This incident really points up the utter folly of still maintaining a blasphemy law on the statute books of a modern democracy and the Irish government has been warned about these dangers.
History has shown us that even benign governments can think a blasphemy law will never be used and is there as a deterrent and a reflection of the country’s religious culture. No matter how unworkable governments and civil servants think the law is this incident indicates the power of the individual in finding offence and acting upon this.
Nash, of Oxford Brookes University, added:
Accepting the maintenance of this law is to accept the chilling effect of censorship in daily life – past and present. It is time for the State to itself act responsibly and repeal this law.
The investigation was prompted by an anonymous individual who demanded that Fry be prosecuted for describing God as “an utter maniac” in an RTE One interview with Gay Byrne in 2015
According to this report, a member of the public, who asked not to be identified, said he travelled to Ennis Gardaí station, Co Clare to report the alleged blasphemy.
I told the Gardaí I wanted to report Fry for uttering blasphemy and RTE for publishing/broadcasting it and that I believed these were criminal offences under the Defamation Act 2009.
The Gardaí then took a formal written statement from me in which I quoted Fry’s comments in detail. This written statement mentioned both Fry and RTÉ specifically.
He said he was asked by the Gardaí if he had been personally offended by the programme and if he wished to include this in the written statement.
I told the Gardaí that I did not want to include this as I had not personally been offended by Fry’s comments– I added that I simply believed that the comments made by Fry on RTÉ were criminal blasphemy and that I was doing my civic duty by reporting a crime.
A Gardaí source said the matter is being investigated.
A complaint has been received and it is currently being investigated. Detectives will speak to those involved if they are available and a file will be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
Atheist Ireland said it welcomed the Gardaí investigation into Mr Fry for blasphemy, saying:
It highlights a law that is silly, silencing, and dangerous. On 1 January 2010, the day the new Irish blasphemy law became operational, Atheist Ireland published a list of 25 blasphemous quotes in order to challenge the law.
Today, in solidarity with Stephen Fry, we are republishing those 25 blasphemous quotes, and adding in the quotation that has caused the Irish police to investigate Stephen Fry.
If we are prosecuted, we will challenge the constitutionality of the blasphemy law. If we are not prosecuted, it will again highlight the absurdity of this law, which should be repealed immediately. We again call on the Irish Government to honour its commitment to hold a referendum to remove the ban on blasphemy from our Constitution.
The publishing or uttering [of] matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion. There have been no publicised cases of blasphemy brought before Irish courts.
Labour Senator Ivana Bacik, a qualified barrister who campaigned against the introduction of the law in 2009, said this was a “most unusual” case.
She said then Justice Minister Dermot Ahern made a grave error introducing the blasphemy law in 2009 and while criminal prosecutions haven’t been pursued in Ireland the law has been used as a model by other less democratic states.
Pakistan and other repressive states pointed to our law as an example of a law they wished to pursue. It is being used as a model by these regimes and this is not what Ireland should aspire to.
Yesterday, the British Humanist Association entered the fray. It pointed out that Fry was a patron of the BHA, and branded that the garda investigation as “ridiculous”.
Ireland’s current blasphemy law was passed in 2009 and has never been used. However, that does not mean it never will be – just in February, for example, prosecutors in Denmark decided to use their blasphemy law to charge a man for the first time in 46 years. Blasphemy laws also remain in active use in Greece, Poland, Turkey, and Russia, all of which have seen prosecutions in recent years.
The BHA is part of the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, an international campaign aimed at eradicating such laws around the globe that has seen laws be abolished in Norway, Iceland, Malta, and France since it was launched two years ago.
In England and Wales, blasphemy laws were abolished in 2008. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, blasphemy laws still remain on the books – but neither have been used for some time.
BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson, above, commented:
It is ridiculous that Stephen Fry is being investigated for a possible breach of Ireland’s blasphemy laws. Not only are such laws detrimental to free speech here in Europe, but they also enable countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to justify their own laws, which in the case of 13 states come with a death sentence.
The current Irish Government is committed to holding a referendum on the abolition of Ireland’s blasphemy law. It is past time that referendum takes place.
Hat tip: Trevor Blake, BarrieJohn, Pasties, Andrew Milne.