Fianna Fail Senator Jim Walsh has become the first Irish Government politician to publicly defend the new blasphemy law since it became operational on 1 January (a spokesperson for the Minister for Justice did tell the Sunday Times that I was “some crackpot sitting in an attic somewhere”, but that did not really constitute a reasoned defence of the law). So, without further ado, here are the words of wisdom that Senator Jim Walsh conveyed to the Sunday Sequence Show on BBC Radio Ulster on 10 January:
“It’s probably somewhat different in Ireland, in that we have a Constitutional requirement, which means that, you know, blasphemy, is an offence under our laws, and as a consequence, it has to have penalties which will be commensurate with that, and respect our Constitutional position, but, having said that, I think, over the period that it’s been there, as far as I can understand, there has been very few, perhaps one, case ever taken, which I think may have been unsuccessful, so it’s not a major issue, I think, for the vast majority of, sane, sensible people… In Ireland the laws that we have, based on the Constitutional position, would, in fact, you know, cover all religions, and indeed, we’ve seen where, you know, remarks passed have caused serious offence to people in other religions, and that has its own reactions, and its own ramifications, and I think in any society, I know there’s, you know, freedom of expression is very important, I mean it’s fundamental to democracy, and to be able to express your viewpoint is a fundamental, and in fact, can I just say, and this would be different than in Britain, in fact, it is a Constitutional requirement here to have freedom of speech, but I think most people, again, recognise that freedom of speech is not an absolute, it has to be done in a measured, responsible way, and, indeed, there, it can be, you can infringe, if you like, that entitlement by Incitement to Hatred Acts, which we have here, which has been contravened, and indeed there are other countries, you know, in Europe, like Germany, Austria and that, where, for example, you know, denial of the Holocaust is an offence punishable by imprisonment.”
All of these arguments have been addressed by Atheist Ireland, both in articles on this website and in submissions made to the Justice Minister, the Justice Committee and the Council of State while this Act was making its way through Parliament.
It was not Constitutionally necessary to pass this particular law. Indeed, it may have been unconstitutional to pass this particular law. It may not have been Constitutionally necessary to pass any blasphemy law. And the Constitution could have been amended in conjunction with the Lisbon II Referendum that was being held around the same time as the law was being passed.
The new Irish law does not protect the fundamental beliefs of all religions. It arbitrarily excludes what it describes as “cults” whose primary aim is to make profit or who employ oppressive psychological techniques. And it does not protect the fundamental beliefs of atheist citizens, merely those of citizens whose fundamental beliefs are religious.
Nobody is suggesting that the right to freedom of expression is absolute, merely that blasphemy is not a justifiable reason to qualify it. Incitement to Hatred laws criminalise harm to individuals, while blasphemy laws criminalise harm to ideas. The existence of Holocaust Denial laws in specific countries do not justify a blasphemy law in another country.
Senator Walsh’s arguments merely strengthen the case for the immediate repeal of this anachronistic law, and for the development of a modern secular Irish Constitution.