From top: Former Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern; Stephen Fry on The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne in January 2015
You may recall on Saturday how the Irish Independent’s Cathal McMahon reported that gardaí were investigating a complaint made by a member of the public who claimed English writer, actor, comedian and presenter Stephen Fry made blasphemous comments on RTÉ One television in January 2015.
It was reported that, after the comments were made on Gay Byrne’s The Meaning of Life, the complainant made the complaint in Ennis Garda Station.
The Irish Independent reported:
“In late 2016 I wrote to the Garda Commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan asking if the crime I reported was being followed up – a few weeks later I got a standard ‘we have received your letter’ from her secretary.” [the complainant said].
A number of weeks ago the complainant was called by a detective from Donnybrook garda station to say they were looking into the report he made about blasphemy on RTÉ.
“He said he might have to meet me to take a new more detailed statement.”
The viewer insisted that he wasn’t offended by the remarks but stressed that he believed Mr Fry’s comments qualified as blasphemy under the law.
A garda source said the matter is being investigated.
Further to this…
The former Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern, of Fianna Fáil, spoke to Seán O’Rourke this morning in relation to Ireland’s blasphemy law which he updated in 2009 instead of having a referendum to get rid of it.
From their discussion…
Seán O’Rourke: “You were the Minister for Justice and Law Reform when the law was changed in, was it 2009? To introduce a particular provision on blasphemy. What happened then, remind us?”
Dermot Ahern: “Well I wanted to introduce a particular provision, it was already in the 1962 act, defamation. I became minister in 2008 and the defamation bill, which was mainly about defamation and slander and court actions in that respect and the high awards being given out in the courts and, your own organ and many other media outlets had lobbied very strongly for that particular piece of legislation. It wasn’t on my highest priority when I became minister because I was confronted with gangland crime and I, in order to get space in the Dáil, I concentrated on that. But, after about the year, I decided I’d have to do something and pass, bring forward the defamation bill at the time which I think had been initiated by my predecessor Michael McDowell. And we, I sat down with the Attorney General [Paul Gallagher], went through the whole thing and, at the very end of it, he said, by the way, he said ‘you have to put in something about blasphemy’. And I said, ‘what’s that, what’s it about?’. And he said, ‘well, in the Constitution it says that there’s a mandatory obligation on the Dáil and Seanad to have a law on blasphemy. So he gave me a choice: either we have a referendum to delete blasphemy or we, in effect, renew the crime of blasphemy, against blasphemy and that’s the choice we took, rather than go for a referendum.”
O’Rourke: “And this all happened a full 15 years or more, in fact, after the Law Reform Commission, recommended, in 1991, that there was no place in society that respected free speech for this kind of provision. And the Law Reform Commission recommended that it be deleted.”
Ahern: “They said it wasn’t appropriate but I think what they suggested was that it should, having a referendum on its own would be a waste of time I think they said, and an expensive exercise. I decided that there was no way that I was going to recommend to the Cabinet, in the economic climate that we had in 2009, when the Government were cutting people’s wages, where people were losing their jobs, where we were going to have an expensive referendum solely on the issue of blasphemy. I’d be laughed out of court…”
O’Rourke: “Why didn’t you just…”
Ahern: “What I did say, what I did say in the parliament, in the committee stage, was that the Government would consider having a referendum in conjunction with a number of other issues on the one day. And I obviously indicated that we would be willing to do that. In fact, I think it was in our Programme for Government at the time, that we’d do it. But I wasn’t going to recommend to Government that we would have a referendum seemingly about blasphemy.”
O’Rourke: “Yeah, I think what happened was the 1961 act, which you were updating on, defamation, it prescribed penalties but didn’t define the offence of blasphemy and what you did then was have that definition introduced.”
Ahern: “Yes, and it was done in such a way, that as one of the experts in this area, a man called Neville Cox, said that in fact he said subsequently that the legislation, and I’m quoting from him, he basically said that the legislation fulfilled a constitutional obligation to have a crime of blasphemy but then he said, I’m only quoting what he said, ‘skilfully rendered the law completely unenforceable’.”
O’Rourke: “Was that your intention?”
Ahern: “To a certain extent it was, I can’t really…the Attorney General wouldn’t forgive me for saying it but we put in so many hurdles within, in order to ground the prosecution that we believed that we would never see a prosecution for it.”
O’Rourke: “Yeah, because I think…”
Ahern: “That was only to fulfil, again, I said in the committee stage in the parliament, that we can’t do nothing, we had to do something. We either have a referendum which, as I said, I made a judgement and I think the Government would have agreed with me. That it was absolutely ludicrous to have a referendum in 2009 in those circumstances when, you know, the country was in severe difficulty and that here we were asking for people to go out and vote on blasphemy – you’d bring every headbanger in the country from either side of the argument solely on blasphemy.”
O’Rourke: “Yeah, I think the definition, the definition that you put in there, it related to uttering material that would be grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion. But then a defence would be that there was a work of genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value…”
Ahern: “And that was all put in, and it was also put in I think that we would have to show that the person intended insult, which is a very difficult thing to prove. Obviously.”
O’Rourke: “And what about the fact though, that you kept in very hefty fines, was it what, up to €25,000?”
Ahern: “Well that was the recommendation from the Attorney General. I think it was based on what would be the updating of the original fine in the law.”
O’Rourke: “Yeah, and then this matter was referred to, the previous Citizens’ Assembly, looked at all manner of subjects. Sorry, I’m going to rephrase that question. And then this matter was one of many which was looked at by the previous Citizens’ Assembly [the Constitutional Convention], the one whose work led to the marriage equality referendum and also the referendum on lowering the age for eligibility the age for the presidency and then I think there’s a current, there’s a commitment in the current programme for government, to hold this referendum. Do you think it should go ahead?”
Ahern: “Oh absolutely yes, and I, you know, I would be of my view that it should be done not on a single issue, that they should tack it on to some other referendum. There are those commitments and the Citizens’ Assembly have agreed, or suggested that it be deleted. I would have deleted it at the time, if I could, but I couldn’t other than have a referendum. And I was quite astounded by the subsequent reaction against it. Making me and the Government out to be extremely reactionary, etc, etc and also the suggestion that we were bringing in a new blasphemy law, when in fact we weren’t, it was an existing blasphemy law, 1961. All we did was dramatically dilute it in order to fulfil the mandatory obligation in the Constitution that there should be a law against blasphemy.”
Previously: Oh God
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