Letters on the proposed blasphemy law in today’s Irish Times.
Considering that every judge in the Irish judicial system has taken a religious oath asking God to “direct and sustain” them in their work, how can any atheist accused of blasphemy ever be offered a fair trial?
The Irish Government’s proposal to make blasphemy punishable by law seems curious to those British parliamentarians, like myself, who fought successfully to bury this relic of the Star Chamber.
The archaic common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in the UK just a year ago, in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.
With all-party support, we relied not only on the advice of the Law Commission, but on the wise judgment of the Irish Supreme Court in the Corway case.We had the support not only of English PEN and writers and artists, but also of the British clergy.
There was wide recognition of the chilling effect of these offences on the right to freedom of expression, and of the divisive nature and effects of retaining the offences in our modern plural society where one person’s religion is another person’s blasphemy, and where British Muslims were campaigning to extend blasphemy offences to protect Islam (a move rejected by our court in the Satanic Verses case in which I acted for the publisher of Salman Rushdie’s novel).
Parliament has also enacted a narrow offence in the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 of incitement to religious hatred. This applies only to threatening (as distinct from abusive or insulting) words or behaviour, and places the burden on the prosecution to prove specific criminal intent.
I drafted and Parliament approved section 29J (the so-called “English PEN clause”) which provides as follows: “Protection of freedom of expression:
“Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.”
To those of us who admire Ireland’s constitutional and legal system, it would be bizarre and perverse if the Irish Government and legislature were now to resurrect the Star Chamber offences and make them punishable by law.
It would also provide an unfortunate example to the rest of the free world at a time when many Arab and African states are pressing for a new international crime of religious defamation.
(Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC),
Liberal Democrat Peer,