From top: A cartoon by Wendy Shea which was the subject of Ireland’s only blasphemy case ever taken, cartoonist Wendy Shea; writer and chair of Atheist Ireland, Michael Nugent; and Eamon de Valera kissing the ring of then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid
Last night on Prime Time, RTÉ’s political correspondent for the current affairs department, Katie Hannon, recalled how, 19 years ago, a cartoon by Wendy Shea was the source of the only blasphemy case ever taken in Ireland.
Her illustration – of the then three Government party leaders, Prionsias De Rossa, of Democratic Left; Ruairi Quinn, of Labour; and John Bruton, of Fine Gael, waving goodbye to a priest who appears to be giving out communion – accompanied an article in the Sunday Independent about the divorce referendum.
A carpenter from Harold’s Cross in Dublin sued the Sunday Independent for blasphemous libel and the case went to the Supreme Court.
During Prime Time, Mr Nugent told Ms Hannon:
“In 1937, the new constitution made blasphemy an offence that’s in accordance with law and that punishment was put in place by Charles Haughey in 1961 in the Defamation Act, which made blasphemy an offence for which you could be jailed, in fact. During that, he refused to define what blasphemy was and he was challenged to say, well what does the offence consist of. And he said ‘blasphemy is what everyone knows that it is’. But that turned out to be the flaw in the law because the only time that it was tested in court, the courts found that it was unenforceable precisely because there was no definition of the offence.”
In 2009, former Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, then defined blasphemy in the Defamation Act 2009, thus making it enforceable.
Mr Nugent continued:
“There hasn’t been a case taken but there has been what’s called the chilling effect of self-censorship that media outlets will be concerned about, possibly running into a €25,000 fine which they can’t afford. I know that I’ve been told, before several live interviews, ‘make sure you don’t say anything blasphemous’. I know several comedy writers who have had sketches dropped from shows. Ireland is the only state to have passed a new blasphemy law in the 21s century and the Islamic states of the United Nations, in trying to spread their blasphemy laws and anti-[inaudible] laws throughout the world have cited the wording of the Irish law as best practice for what they want implemented internationally.”
The Constitutional Convention has recommended the removal of blasphemy from the constitution and the Government has announced that a referendum should take place. However, a Justice Department spokesperson told Ms Hannon:
“The referendum will take place at an appropriate date to be decided by Government after the necessary further consultations have been completed and the required legislation has been prepared.”
Watch back in full here from 16.04