Victory for Freedom of Expression in Ireland

Ireland has voted to repeal an outdated law on blasphemy. However, the country has a long way to go to with free speech. It now urgently needs to enact legislation on hate crime, which is a major problem in Ireland.

Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

These are the now infamous words of comedian Stephen Fry, which reignited the debate about the Constitutional offence of blasphemy in Ireland in 2015. They were uttered without apology on national TV, causing a complaint to be made under the Defamation Act, which provides for criminal sentences for blasphemous statements. Police investigated the comments but in 2017 decided not to prosecute, having been unable to find a critical mass of victims.

Irish public votes to remove blasphemy from statutes

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties warmly welcomed last week’s landslide vote to remove blasphemy as a constitutional offence. We also welcome the vote as a further step on the route to the modernisation for our formerly staunchly Catholic country. This is the second time this year we have voted ourselves free of Catholic orthodoxy, having voted in May to repeal the 8th amendment prohibiting abortion. And it is the third time in three years such an important vote has passed; we voted for marriage equality in 2015.

During our referendum campaign, however, we were surprised to find ourselves in a position we had never been in before: in complete agreement with all the main churches. Their call for a yes vote was based in a position of solidarity with people such as Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan. We also found ourselves aligned with groups such as Atheist Ireland and Separate Church and State, whose position was based in a secularist ideology.

These is still no hate crime legislation in Ireland

Our own position came from a fundamental belief in the importance of free speech. This has been our position on blasphemy for many years. We have always argued that ideas and institutions should be open to question, and indeed ridicule. However, we also argued that people should be protected from speech which incited hatred against them and, during our campaign, we also called for the introduction of hate crime legislation, currently a glaring lacuna in Irish law.

The government is now expected to repeal sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009 which define the criminal offence of blasphemy. However, we are continuing to call on our leaders to go further and enact hate crime legislation, in accordance with recommendations made by a Constitutional Convention of citizens in 2014.

Ireland has one of the highest rates of hate crime in the EU

During 2018, we have published a comparative report on hate crime across five EU member states: the Czech Republic, England and Wales, Ireland, Latvia, and Sweden. This report shows that Ireland had one of the highest rates of hate crime in the EU, particularly against transgender people and people of African backgrounds, and yet there is no legislation to address it. In practice this means that, between the time a person reports a hate crime and the point of sentencing, the hate element of the crime is filtered out of the process.

The repercussions of this are many and grave. There is no way of recording hate crime so there are no reliable statistics available. Nor is there any way of recording serial offenders. Police are not adequately trained to deal with victims of hate crime. All of this adds up. The intended message of the crime has its impact in entire communities.

Ireland must come into line with EU framework on hate crime

When people become victims of hate crime in Ireland, they feel unsupported, targeted and hated.

Ireland is obliged by European and international human rights law to have a robust framework in place to respond to and prevent hate crime. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties is calling on the Government to take immediate action to coordinate state bodies’ responses to hate crime and to bring forward legislation to protect from hate crime.

The Life Cycle of a Hate Crime report is here: https://www.iccl.ie/hatecrime/

You can support the Irish Council for Civil Liberties here: iccl.ie/donate