Yesterday evening, Trinity’s Young Fine Gael and Dublin University Laurentians Society hosted a panel to discuss Ireland’s blasphemy law. With the wave of liberalisation in Ireland since the early 1990s Ireland’s retention of a blasphemy law has led to ongoing debate about whether it should be repealed. The law gained notoriety when it was cited to prohibit the distribution of a controversial edition of the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, which depicted Islam prophet Muhammad on its cover, in Ireland in 2015.
President of Trinity’s Young Fine Gael, Liam Byrne chaired the panel with three guests: Father Gavin Jennings, a well respected philosophy academic in the field of theology;Professor Neville Cox, Trinity Dean of Graduate Studies and a leading expert on issues of free speech and defamation; and Trinity alumnus and Fine Gael Councilor for Fingal, Ted Leddy.
With the room at full capacity, Byrne opened with his pre-prepared questions and all three panellists had the opportunity to give separate responses. The first question was what did the panellists perceive to be the positives and negatives of the law.
Councilor Leddy responded by alluding to an event that he had witnessed earlier that very day. He recalled a demonstration he saw consisting of “some 500 men and women carrying what looked like black flags with white Arabic lettering on them”. Leddy remarked that he anticipated phone calls from concerned constituents “There were many concerned voices with people believing Ireland had been invaded by the Islamic State”. Leddy clarified that he informed his constituents that this was simply Yom Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram, which commemorates the death of Muhammad’s grandson and an important annual event for Shia Muslims. Leddy argued that in this case, the blasphemy law would protect the rights of Muslim citizens in Ireland to have their cultural occasions respected.
Professor Cox drew a sharp distinction between inciting hatred and blasphemy with the latter being something that cannot be proven. In echoing Leddy’s response he reckoned that the symbolic nature of the law as a protection of sorts for those with deep religious convictions was its primary benefit. As a negative, he stated that the law was not only completely impractical since it is not enforced, but that it is not particularly relevant in contemporary Irish Society.
Father Jennings highlighted how the law was a vital protection in the early years of a devout Catholic country. The nature of the law, he argued, had also evolved to accommodate the growing Muslim community within Ireland. The exploitation of the law beyond its original purpose was a potential area of concern, according to Jennings, in being used as a tool to infringe upon the religious freedoms of non-Catholic religions within Ireland. Another negative, argued Jennings, was the potential of the law to stifle open debate on university campuses.
Byrne moved on to ask whether the blasphemy law represented an Ireland of the past and whether it had a place in modern Irish society. Jennings stressed that during the foundation of the Irish State it made sense for a country whose largely Catholic populace had been repressed under the British penal laws.
Cox pulled no punches in his answer, highlighting the pace of social change in Ireland as “remarkable” he argued that the law “has no place in modern Ireland” and that “blasphemy has no place in the constitutional grounding of the state”.
The final question for the panel was whether repealing the blasphemy law would make Ireland a more secular nation. “Ireland has been going this direction for several years now”, said Leddy, but that there are certain groups within Ireland “who would make a pariah of anyone with religious convictions”. Jennings echoed his earlier arguments that the law had evolved to accommodate other religions and had played a role in multicultural policies as “many Muslims welcome it”.
The panel was then asked questions from the floor. The first question addressed whether the law outweighed the freedom of expression. Cox said that according to the law “one doesn’t have the right to publish blasphemy, but one certainly has no right not to be offended”. Father Jennings added that “there are limits to freedom of speech, blasphemy is a reasonable limit as it prevents the insulting of someone’s religious convictions”.
The final question from the floor was whether the panel thought the average person cares about the existence of the law. Cox managed to get a few laughs out of the audience in his response “many people don’t know it even exists, the thing is that the media will always side with free speech and if it weren’t for them, even fewer people would be aware of its existence”. Cox lambasted the actions of certain groups for portraying the repeal of the law as something of the utmost urgency over other policy areas “it’s anachronistic that there are thousands of people homeless and that children go hungry in Ireland, not the existence of a blasphemy law.” Cox argued that the cause of the outrage for those wishing to repeal the law is that blasphemy is “not only essential to religious identity but also unprovable”. Cox added that this in turn “creates self-doubt for secularists and their response in not being able to prove it is to shout the loudest and insult those who believe in its existence”. Jennings countered by saying that people of religion are “very much aware” of the law and that those who deride it must also be conscious of their insulting something that is deeply foundational in people’s lives”.
Overall the event was well thought out and topical in the sense that Ireland has seen a radical liberalisation of its deeply Catholic-influenced constitution. The event was conducted in a way that allowed the audience to both learn and contribute to an area of Irish law that is deeply complex and misunderstood. Hosting a panel with viewpoints from legal, religious-philosophical and policy perspectives added greatly to evening.