“We Believed That We Would Never See A Prosecution For It”

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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

Gardaí launch blasphemy probe into Stephen Fry comments on ‘The Meaning of Life’ (Irish Independent)

Related:  I’m not just embarrassed my country invited Stephen Fry on TV then investigated him for blasphemy – I’m angry (Emer O’Toole, Independent UK)

Listen back in full here

77 thoughts on ““We Believed That We Would Never See A Prosecution For It”

      1. Janet, I ate my avatar

        ah but I’d say your mentality has evolved with the passage of time
        you don’t look a day over 40

  1. Junkface

    Ha ha…its a Farce! It shows that Ireland is still stuck in the past. It sounds like something from the 1850’s!
    Who the F*** else has blasphemy laws??

    Pakistan, Afghanistan?

    Embarrassing

      1. Turgenev

        Not completely honest, as many of those are laws against hate speech, which include a prohibition against inciting hatred against someone because of race, ethnicity or religion. Not at all the same as an anti-blasphemy law, which is an abomination.

  2. rotide

    Well, if this is the case then Dermot Aherne did absolutely the right thing. Fair play to him.

    1. LW

      I’d be inclined to agree. Surprised this version of events got no traction at the time

      1. ahjayzis

        It did. But the point remained doing *anything* about it cast Ireland in a poor light and, as was warned, the situation was later used as precedent by Pakistan et al. for more draconian blasphemy laws.

      1. Daisy Chainsaw

        Imagine the godbothering wingnuts who’d kick up if the blasphemy bit of the constitution was just left out without bothering us for a vote? They should have stuck it in with the Presidential age referendum.

        1. rotide

          Can’t argue with that, they should have added it to one of the other referendums, but that’s not Aherne’s fault. He gets a mental +1 for this issue.

    2. Toe Up

      There have been a number of referendums and elections held since this law was passed. Any of those could have been used to put this amendment before the people to make their own decision, without incurring the costs of a standalone referendum.

  3. Mary Jane

    Of course, the complaint was made by a journalist to ‘create a story’.

    That said, a dumb offence if there ever was one.

  4. Starina

    isn’t offended but think it violates law. there’s one of the more insidiously dangerous members of society – a mindlessly obedient rule-follower.

    1. Daisy Chainsaw

      And as a result, our archaic laws are being put under a global spotlight and Fianna Fail are being made to look like the slimy, obsequious, Bishopric ring kissers they are.

      Win/Win!

      Will Brexit Britain acknowlege a Europol arrest warrant, or will they have to go full on Interpol and have Fry extradited? Oh such fun!

      1. Nigel

        That’s all very well but poor Stephen Fry has been turned into a bit of a pawn. He might be well up for it or he might not but it doesn’t sound as if he was given a choice.

          1. Nigel

            The only thing worse than being investigated by the Gardai for blasphemy is not being investigated by the Gardai for blasphemy.

        1. know man is an island

          The poor dear. Isn’t he the thinking lentil eating snowflake’s lucid luvvie of choice?

        2. Johnny Keenan

          I’d say Fry will relish the opportunity to stand in the doc and argue his case. Anything to emulate his Wilde side. And why not!

    1. Janet, I ate my avatar

      it’s time
      there is absolutely no reason why the two should have anything to do with each other
      shake off the tyranny !

  5. Sheik Yahbouti

    I would be obliged if Mr Ahern or one of his fans could let us know which article of the Constitution stipulates that we ‘must’ have a law against ‘blasphemy’.

    1. Starina

      Here you go, from Wikipedia:

      Subject to “public order and morality”, a qualified right of freedom of speech is guaranteed by Article 40.6.1°. However, “the State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion” (such as the news media) “shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State”. Furthermore, “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter” is specifically stated to be a criminal offence. In Corway v. Independent Newspapers (1999), the Supreme Court dismissed an attempt to bring a prosecution for blasphemy on the basis that, amongst other things, no coherent definition of the offence was provided by law. Such a definition is now provided by the Defamation Act 2009 which defines it as the publication of matter “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby [intentionally] causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion”.

      1. Sheik Yahbouti

        Much obliged Starina, what a blot on the Constitution of any state. This matter must be dobbed in for our next referendum – to keep Our Dear Leader for life – and thence through the male line :-D

      2. Fact Checker

        Ahern has a point, kind of.

        It could have played out that he called a referendum to delete the word ‘blasphemous’ and it got voted through.

        Or he could have been encouraged to insert some kind of OTHER wording about respecting all religions which would have had unintended consequences down the line.

        Or he could have called a referendum and lost it, which would have been worse than the status quo ante.

        1. Daisy Chainsaw

          As far as I’m concerned, religions can go shoight. You want to believe in Made Up Invisible Vengeful Santa, that’s your business. If your omnipotent deity can’t handle a bit of flack then he’s not that “all powerful”.

          The non existent has no place in law.

          1. joak joke jik

            ‘The non existent has no place in law.’
            – which is a nice idea, but it actually does literally have a place in law, ie. in the constitution

          2. Owen C

            God also makes an appearance in the 1916 Proclamation. Twice. Think people are being a bit naive about the importance of religion for Irish people up until about a generation or so ago, at least at a very high level, even if they weren’t necessarily all bible bashers.

          3. Janet, I ate my avatar

            It’s true that things have changed very quickly, from important/ ambivalent, but the series of sordid revelations has definitely speed up an inevitable process
            I’d go with more 2 generations ago
            However it’s outdated now and surly time to bring things up to speed

          4. Janet, I ate my avatar

            sticks out bottom lip
            stamps foot
            prays for grasp of the heathen English language to be returned to me

        2. Fact Checker

          Of course.

          Politics is the art of the possible though. Blasphemy is also not really about any particular religion though, but about all of them.

          So I am ambivalent as to whether Ahern did the right thing. But he did avoid some unintended consequences.

          I am 100% certain Stephen Fry will not be charged for this. Somebody, somewhere has successfully generated a lot of media attention though…..

  6. bisted

    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.”

    …I’ve heard Ahern spin this ‘intended insult’ defence before. A few weeks ago when you invited suggestions for the upcoming Broadsheet on Telly broadcast which would start a few minutes before the beginning of the christian good friday, I suggested that some of the panel might have a bacon sandwich. This would have been an intended insult, not just to christian belief but also to islam and judaism…thereby in breach of the blasphemy law.

    This didn’t happen nor was my suggestion even acknowledged. It may be that I was just ignored or it may be that I was deliberately ignored so as not to ‘give offence’. If this is the case then the blasphemy law has worked…Broadsheet has been gagged…

    1. sǝɯǝɯʇɐpɐq

      That’s only the third time I read about these bacon sandwiches that didn’t magically appear like they were supposed to.
      (I might have skipped past one or two mentions… whatever.)

      Broadsheet has been gagged…

      1. bisted

        …glad someone has been paying attention…hate to think I was just ranting away to myself…

  7. ollie

    it didn’t need to be legislated for, what would happen if it wasn’t? Nothing.
    Ahern is a snake.
    Paul Gallagher was the AG at the time. He was part of the bank guarantee implementation, acted as legal rep for Anglo and is part of the Bilderberg club.
    The kind of man who would welcome blasphemy legislation?

    1. Medium Sized C

      The government would be in dereliction of their constitutional obligations.

      1. ReproBertie

        Yeah, I get what you’re saying but I don’t buy it. The 7th Amendment was signed into law in August 1979 and has yet to be acted on

    2. Sheik Yahbouti

      Ollie, Ahern is being disingenuous. This was an unnecessary, deliberate act. Snakes, the lot of them.

      1. joak joke jik

        so it was a deliberate act to what end? what was he trying to achieve? it certainly won him no favours

        1. f_lawless

          Could be wrong, but I always assumed it was part of the drive back then to give Ireland a competitive advantage when trying to secure Foreign Direct Investment from Middle Eastern countries. According to an IDA Ireland report from 2008, its senior representitives had visited the Middle East “with a view to establishing a presence there”. http://www.idaireland.com/docs/annual-reports/2008/Accessibile/overview.html
          What do principles matter when there’s money to be made?

    3. delacaravanio

      My thoughts exactly. Plenty of parts of the constitution that are largely forgotten about, yet Ahern gets fixated on this particular provision.

      Never forget that this is the same government who, as part of the Charities Act 2009, also outlawed the sale of mass cards not signed by a priest who was accredited by the “Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church”. Apparently the boys in Maynooth were concerned that they were losing money on mass cards, so wanted the competition outlawed.

      The government obliged, not only by criminalising the sale of mass cards, but making it an offence that carries a jail term of up to ten years. They also reversed the burden of proof, meaning you’re guilty until you prove you’re innocent.

      Blasphemy wasn’t a priority. And yet they found time to do all of this in the middle of a recession? Bollocks.

      1. rotide

        If you read the article, the bill wasn’t done for blasphemy reason, it was a defamation bill.

  8. know man is an island

    Have to say the whole thing just shows yet again what a backward pig intestines swallowing bunch of inbreds we truly are.

    1. Janet, I ate my avatar

      maybe you should emigrate
      meet a nice/naughty foreigner
      mix up the gene pool
      move back with good teeth and bright new ideas

      1. know man is an island

        How do you know I haven’t already got that here at home? I’m staying here to fight it out with the pig farmers Mano a Mano. It’s all very well for yous over there swanning around on your Boulevards Haussmanns giving out like gossiping oul wans

  9. newsjustin

    The only people exercised by all this are sad idealogues who don’t/won’t live in the real world. The constitution required a law, the minister in charge did a nice work around so that we could safely ignore the issue.

    A crank makes a complaint and sad people on the Internet rant that they’re “so embarresed to be Irish”. Lots of countries have odd, out of date laws. It’s OK.

    As for the Stephen Fry thing originally, it really highlights what some atheists are all about (not Fry). The big deal for most people was “look, look at how upset/sour Gay Byrnes face is! LOL!”
    Some atheists can only be happy in the atheism if they’re being atheist “at” someone.

    1. MoyestWithExcitement

      “The only people exercised by all this are sad idealogues who don’t/won’t live in the real world.”

      Like David Quinn and other religious idealogues such as yourself?

      1. newsjustin

        People who are exercised by this kerfuffle. Whether they are somehow upset by what Fry said, love what he said, or think that a non-working blasphemy law is a threat.

        Saddos all.

        1. MoyestWithExcitement

          So the idealogues who have opinions you don’t like are saddos but idealogues like Davey Quinn are alright? I’m just surprised that you’re using the word idealogue in the pejorative considering you yourself are an out of touch idealogue as are all evangelical Christians.

      1. Sheik Yahbouti

        Yet again confounded by the BS system! My post was to newsjustin, not Clampers

  10. scottser

    the puss on byrner is just hilarious. there’s a certain craic in offending people, in fairness.

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