Blasphemy (Abolition of Offences and Related Matters) Bill 2019 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Deputy James Lawless was in possession when debate was adjourned. There are ten minutes remaining in his slot. We might be able to accommodate him if he comes in. I call Deputy Brian Stanley.

Sinn Féin fully supports the Bill. We supported the "Yes" vote in the referendum on this issue last October. The inclusion of blasphemy in the Constitution has become outdated. It was an undue restriction on freedom of speech. It is outdated that blasphemy be an offence which is punishable by law. Freedom of speech is a central tenet of republicanism and is valued by all. The imposition of partition on the island unfortunately created two reactionary states in this country, and those circumstances created the context and climate for the inclusion of the crime of blasphemy in the Constitution. It belongs in the past, like the banning of books and censoring of films and theatre that went on in decades gone by. The concept of blasphemy suits that kind of controlling, stifling attitude and philosophy. Making a person with a criticism of any particular religion potentially liable for a criminal conviction is repressive and bad for democracy. In spite of the lack of convictions, the fact that complaints of blasphemy could be made had a potentially chilling effect on freedom of speech. Changing this is a step towards the recognition of a new Ireland, one that is culturally, spiritually, and religiously diverse, and one that is accepting of all within it from all faiths and none.

It is also a move towards a united Ireland, given that in a united Ireland, or in any republic, no religious faith could be privileged over another. As republicans, we want to build a modern secular republican state that respects people of all religions and none. We want a republic as envisaged by Wolfe Tone which is for Protestants, Catholics, dissenters, and the various people of other faiths who live on this island. That is not to question the right of any citizen to hold any particular religious belief. If we are going to have an inclusive Ireland, we must recognise the entitlement of everyone's right to his or her beliefs. The right to religious freedom must be protected and must be held sacrosanct at all times. However, such beliefs cannot define the laws of the State and an offence such of blasphemy does that. The next step in defining a new and better relationship between church and State is the further decoupling of the State and church in areas such as health, education, and other public services. We must also develop systems that represent modern Ireland as a whole in all its parts and provide services and institutions that are inclusive and pluralistic.

This Bill implements the referendum result by removing statutory references to the offence of blasphemy. The Labour Party supports the Bill. The sentence in paragraph 5 of Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution originally read: "The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law." As amended, the sentence now reads: "The publication or utterance of seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law." We are now tidying up the Statute Book in order to take account of the removal of blasphemy from the Constitution. In the case of Corway v. Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd in 1999, the Supreme Court pointed out the difficulty in prosecuting blasphemy, given that neither the Constitution nor any other legislation had provided a definition setting out the ingredients of the offence. Mr. Justice Donal Barrington gave the lead judgment, which stated:

In this state of the law, and in the absence of any legislative definition of the constitutional offence of blasphemy, it is impossible to say of what the offence of blasphemy consists ... The task of defining the crime is one for the legislature, not for the courts.

While it is not as interesting, we can make exactly the same criticism about at least one of the two offences left in this Article of the Constitution. There is no clear or comprehensive definition of the offences of indecent publication or sedition. What was the thinking behind the decision to keep some of the offences in Article 40 while deleting this one, given that all three give rise to the same difficulties?

I refer to the Fianna Fáil contribution to this debate from last night. The following was said in relation to the views of the former Minister, Dermot Ahern:

When the debate took place at that time, the economic climate was such that spending on a referendum might not have been prudent or even financially feasible, so the Defamation Act 1961 was updated instead because there was a lacuna in which there was an offence defined in the Constitution ... yet it did not have a place on the Statute Book.

The Government of the day should have had the moral courage to hold a referendum on this issue. Instead of doing so, the Government introduced an Act which arguably made matters worse. By removing a formal link between Judeo-Christianity and blasphemy, it became a matter for each religious group to define for itself what matters were sacred. There was no free speech provision in subsection 3 of the 2009 Act. An example of the effect of that was that Salman Rushdie's guilt or innocence depended on a court's finding that his book, The Satanic Verses, had genuine literary value. Under section 36(2)(a), individual sects or religions would be left free to police what was considered blasphemous. It did not address a lacuna, as was stated last night, but in effect made matters worse.

Fáiltím roimh an deis páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo. Tá mé 100% taobh thiar den Bhille agus tugaim mo thacaíocht dó. Gabhaim comhghairdeas leis an Rialtas as ucht teacht os comhair na Dála chun an mhír seo a bhaint amach. I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. I am fully supportive of this Bill and congratulate the Government on bringing it forward.

It is just over a year since we had a referendum on this subject on 26 October 2018. It should have been held back in 2009, and as the previous speakers said, the Government at the time failed to grasp the nettle on this issue. Why did it fail to do so? I pay tribute to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for putting together a Bills Digest on this legislation. It shows that from 1991 onwards, the Law Reform Commission recommended that the reference to blasphemy should be deleted and further advised that religious adherents could be protected by the incitement to hatred legislation instead. It is extremely important that they be protected. That was recommended by the Law Reform Commission back in 1991. In 1995, the Constitutional Review Group recommended something similar and in 2006, the report of the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief stated the same thing, though I will not go into it. In 2007 a report was published by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution.

That was two years before the then Minister, Dermot Ahern, felt there was a lacuna. In 2007 the committee endorsed the view of the Constitution review group which recommended that Article 40.6.1o be deleted. The legislation was introduced in 2009, a point to which I will return.

Subsequent to 2009, we received reports from the Venice commission, the UN Human Rights Committee and the Convention on the Constitution. There was also a paper by Mr. Justice Peter Charleton, whom we have revered in this Chamber, rightly so, for the Charleton report. In 2017 he concluded that, from a constitutional perspective, laws on blasphemy were not a necessity, despite it being mentioned specifically in the Constitution. He compared it to the references to felony crimes which, although mentioned in the Constitution, no longer existed in Ireland. There was a long lead-in period to 2009 when, as a country, we decided that we were not mature enough to take it out of the Constitution.

I thought about that and asked what had happened in 2009 and 1999 when the case which set this process in train, namely, the Independent Newspapers case, came before the Supreme Court. It stated there was no definition of blasphemy and that it could not deal with the matter. It took a further ten years for the Government to look at the issue and when it did, it failed to act and instead introduced legislation which was never going to work.

In 1999 the then Taoiseach apologised for abuse. In 2009, when the Dáil was concerned with introducing legislation in order that we would not insult the Christian God, the Ryan report which made specific conclusions and recommendations came out. I cannot read all of them, but it is important to say there were 21 recommendations and 43 conclusions made, all of which stand out. The report found that sexual abuse was endemic in boys' institutions. The recidivist nature of the abusers was known to the religious authorities, but they did not do anything about it. In a surprising sentence the Ryan report stated it was startled by the level of emotional and physical abuse and so on. The report refers to the lessons that should be learned from the past. It stated the congregations needed to examine how their ideals had become debased by systemic abuse. It went on to state they must ask themselves how they had become to tolerate breaches of their own rules and, when sexual and physical abuse was discovered, how they had responded to it and those who had perpetrated it. It also stated they must examine their attitude to neglect and emotional abuse and, more generally, how the interests of the institutions and congregations came to be placed ahead of those children who were in their care. The report further stated that acceptance and understanding by the State and the congregations represented an acknowledgement of the fact that the system had failed children, not just that children had been abused because occasional individual lapses had occurred.

Deputies may ask me what this has to do with the debate on blasphemy. I ask them to reflect on with what Governments were caught up when the report was released and the apology given. In 1999 the then Taoiseach's apology was in parallel to the Supreme Court case on blasphemy. In 2009 we introduced legislation which would not work at the same time as the Ryan report told us about abuse.

The Comptroller and Auditor General has outlined the costs, which are startling. The estimated cost of the redress scheme was €250 million, but the actual cost is €1.25 billion and rising. The child abuse inquiry and the redress scheme cost a total of €1.4 billion in 2015. The reason for the underestimation was, of course, the negotiation and consultation with the religious orders in which the nature and extent of the abuse were clearly underestimated, something the Government was happy to accept. I wish to outline the extent of the abuse. Offers from the redress board which dealt with 139 scheduled institutions were accepted by 15,562 people. Almost half of those cases involved ten institutions. It makes for difficult reading, but it is important to highlight it because in 2009 the debate was limited to whether we would insult God - a particular God - and ignore all of what was done in God's name. It is time to reflect on whether we have moved on. We have not moved very much if we look at the experience in Caranua. It was a misnamed organisation. The name means "new friend", but it was anything but.

I happily support the Bill. I wish we did not have to support it, that legislation had not been introduced in 2009 and that we, as a country, had had the courage to hold the referendum then. We finally found the courage to hold it last year, but it happened on the back of a tremendous amount of suffering. Just last week I attended the showing of "Land Without God", Mannix Flynn's film. I ask all Deputies to see it. His opening sentence is, "I was the child in the children's court found guilty and condemned at six years and taken away in handcuffs." It is a film which took over ten years to make. More significantly, it has taken a lifetime for his extended family to begin to speak about their experience in institutions. I pay tribute to Mannix Flynn, Maedhbh McMahon and Lotta Petronella for the film. I might not agree with all four of the words used by Fintan O'Toole to describe it, but I certainly agree that it is haunting and devastating. He also described it as poetic and moving. It was the first time some members of the family were ready to speak, yet this country was caught up with defamation and taking God's name in vain, as opposed to looking at what was being done in the name of God.

I am happy to make some remarks about the Bill. When the Thirty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution (Repeal of offence of publication or utterance of blasphemous matter) Bill 2018 was debated on Second Stage in September last year, I began by acknowledging that the issue of removing the offence of blasphemy was a source of deep concern for a significant proportion of the population. I shared the view that respect for authentically held religious values had been on the decline for decades. Anti-Catholic rhetoric, in particular, is rampant. Some have even described such views as the last acceptable public prejudice. That said, I supported the Government's Bill to repeal the blasphemy clause from the Constitution.

As Our Lord said, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's." While many of us have wished matters to be different, it has been clear ever since the 1996 Constitution review group report that the contents of the offence of blasphemy are totally unclear and potentially at variance with the guarantee of free speech and freedom of conscience in a pluralistic society and that the end has been coming for this clause in Article 40.6.1o for some time.

The issue also received substantial and detailed analysis in the sixth report of the Constitutional Convention, which was established by the then Government in 2012. As I understand it, the convention voted in favour of including a new constitutional provision against religious hatred with 53% of members in favour, 38% against and 9% undecided.

Many people saw the position I adopted as some kind of concession to those who want to remove even the mention of God or the sacred from our culture and society. That is emphatically not the case. I simply hold the view that it is not tenable for the State to involve itself in the making of theological judgements, much less enforce specific theological and philosophical judgements by any one particular creed or church. I believe in the separation of church and State. I do not believe, however, that the separation should become a division. Some people would like to see a big division. The church has a vital role to play in our society and it works effectively in a spirit of collaboration with the State on so many issues. That role needs to be respected and protected. It is not appropriate for the State to act as the guard dog of any particular church. Such a position harms both church and State - an outcome that is in nobody's interests at any time.

In the broader international context, we know that one of the arguments put forward for the abolition of the offence of blasphemy was that it gave encouragement to other regimes where the penalty for such an offence was death or some other awful physical punishment. There is merit in that view but it is not the entire truth. I am conscious that perhaps we should have investigated that claim in a bit more detail because while we wanted to give the impression that we are now an enlightened people, the record of the State when it comes to protecting those who suffer religious persecution for their beliefs is very mixed, to put it mildly. In November of last year, I asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he had made representations to the government of Pakistan or its ambassador regarding the high-profile imprisonment of Asia Bibi, a Christian, for blasphemy. I also asked him if requests had been made to his Department to offer asylum to the individual in question and her family following public disturbances and disorder after her release. The Tánaiste assured me that under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and that Ireland works within and alongside the EU and UN to address the persecution of religious minorities wherever it occurs. Those words are fine and dandy but we do not do so. Deputy Grealish, Senator Mullen and I visited Lebanon some years ago, a country that is a pretty difficult topic at the moment with regard to refugees and asylum seekers. We met Syrian refugees in the refugee camps in the mountains. Thankfully, we were there for a few days and met them. They gave us a fíorfáilte - a wonderful welcome. We saw young children and very old grandmothers in many cases. They told us about the savage persecution they endured and about how all the men had to flee. They only got 24 hours to leave, otherwise they would have been slain.

We were pretty chastened by what we heard and saw and returned to this Parliament determined to get a debate on it. However, there was no debate about the persecution of Christians and many other minorities, including minority Muslim groups. It is not just Christians who are being slaughtered. I am sad to say that we found out that under Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gadaffi and other dictators, people were free to practise their faith. They had full freedom to do so. The US-British coalition then went in, blew the hell out of the place and caused massive destruction. Now there is slaughter. We saw how minorities suffered genocide of the worst order but there was no meaningful debate here. We tried and tried but the Government kept paying lip service and there was no debate because we did not want to offend the Americans or British. Yet it was rather poignant that when four of us looked for and were granted a Topical Issue debate, it fell on Holy Thursday evening - the evening of the Last Supper. That was the only debate we had. Four Members got together. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving us a chance to have a debate on the atrocities in the Middle East. We are paying lip service.

The Tánaiste told me that under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and that Ireland works within and alongside the EU and UN to address the persecution of religious minorities wherever it occurs. They do not address it. We are shamefully lacking as a country when it comes to this. We have a proud record of peacekeeping all over the world but as far as this subject is concerned, it is just a nod and a wink. We might raise it here and there but we do nothing publicly. Nothing is said and no proper calls or demands are made by Ireland as a sovereign neutral country that this not be carried out in our name and that we will not allow Shannon Airport to be used to transport arms and planeloads of soldiers going to and from the Middle East. What is happening in the Middle East is unbelievable. The fact that I went and saw for myself what is happening there was one of the best experiences of my life. We have had no debate on it here when we have had debates on everything. We have Members going to the courts today to get a debate on money messages. You name it, we have debates on it yet we have had nothing when it comes to our international role in the protection of human rights. We looked for help here when we were being persecuted ourselves but of course, we have citizens here who are now being persecuted by the banks and the system and we do not look after them either.

The Tánaiste was not correct when he said that Ireland works within and alongside the EU and the UN to address persecution because we do not. Our voice is shamefully and abysmally absent. Our voice is silent, which is pitiful and shameful for a modern free country. The case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani woman convicted in 2010 of blasphemy and sentenced to death, does make that very commitment clear. Following an appeal, the supreme court of Pakistan, thankfully, overturned her conviction. In fact, we commended the judges of the Pakistani supreme court for doing so and for upholding the rule of law in a very difficult situation. Thankfully, her life was spared. The Tánaiste went on to say that Ireland attaches great importance to the fundamental human rights of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief but, again, how credible is that when we see doctors being threatened with removal from their jobs if they display a conscientious objection to abortion? It is pretty hollow. How credible is it when we see medical doctors and nurses being threatened with removal from their jobs by the Minister for Health if they display a conscientious objection to abortion - to the taking of a human life? It is shocking for someone to be so threatened as if we did not have enough of a scarcity of doctors and nurses. I salute the courageous ones who have refused to have any hand, act or part in that savagery.

I supported the Government last year during the blasphemy referendum and not because I wanted to see respect for God or the sacred diminished in any way. I did so primarily because it has been clear for years that our courts and legal system have found no meaningful way to prosecute an offence under the previous blasphemy law system. There is little point in having a law on the Statute Book if we cannot enforce it.

There are many laws that are barely enforceable, some that are not enforceable and some where there has never been an attempt to enforce them. It is very odd that while arguments are being made that this Bill will increase and protect freedom of speech, that the reality points in another direction entirely, namely, the polar opposite direction. In fact, we appear to be getting ready to put in place a kind of secular blasphemy law where it will be a criminal offence to say almost anything deemed offensive by the great and good who constitute the new elite in our society. We are going down the road where we will not be allowed to have a contrary view, and it is a slippery slope.

Parishioners and people in small rural communities want to be welcoming and engaging. They are full of generosity, just witness the money given to hospices and missions. If those people have a contrary view, however, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, threatens them and tells them to back off. We need to have debate and discourse. This is not a dictatorship, although we might think that at times. A community cannot express reservations about disproportionate immigration because that is now deemed, or soon will be deemed, hate speech. That is ridiculous. I am referring to the best of communities that have every voluntary organisation possible, from tidy towns committees to community alerts schemes, meals on wheels, St. Vincent de Paul societies and hospices. They are welcoming and engaging communities.

All they want is to be treated with some modicum of respect by the Government. That is a Government that has taken everything away from them, every last vestige of that to which they should be entitled. These communities only want to be allowed to live in peace and not have the heavy hand of the law down on top of them when they want to have reasonable consultation and proper services put in place for people who come here by way of immigration. I refer to people fleeing from what we saw in Syria and Lebanon. We can see the powder keg Lebanon is at the moment. The people in those communities need to be listened to, engaged with and not talked down to and dictated to by a Minister telling them to put up or shut up and stating that communities are lucky to be getting what they are getting. I blame the officials in the Department of Justice and Equality as well for not having a template at this stage.

Borrisokane in Tipperary can be used as a template, even if they do not perhaps wish to be used in that fashion. The same kind of shoddy, underhand work happened in that community. The people there found out about it, however, and had a public meeting. I salute Councillor Joe Hannigan, the other four members and the public for coming together. They had a proper discussion. When unwanted visitors came in shouting hate speech at the meeting, they were told where to go. Things have now been worked out, Syrian refugees are being welcomed and there are more families to come. That has been done with understanding and acceptance and those people are stepping up to the plate and doing their bit for our less lucky neighbours from yonder in Syria and elsewhere. That is what happens when it is handled that way. I mentioned Ballaghaderreen the other night, where there was disquiet when something similar happened. The local foróige group got involved with the younger children and teenagers. I salute all those people for doing that. That is what I saw, women and young children and I have no problem at all with them coming and being welcomed.

I have problems with the figures and the Taoiseach referred to them at the weekend. Massive numbers of people here from Albania and Georgia, 99% and 97%, respectively, have been refused entry. That is because they are not refugees and are not fleeing any war or persecution. They are clearly coming here as economic migrants. I have the figures on deportation, I just do not have them with me. I refer, however, to some 99% and 97% being refused by our system. I salute the people working in the system and issuing deportation orders. Less than 70% or 80% of the people issued with those orders have left, however. Where are they? We cannot afford that kind of money, some €50 million and €60 million. We are a small country and people will want to come here because we are, thankfully, reasonably wealthy and prosperous.

Parents cannot express difficulties and challenges concerning our school ethos and faith matters because that is now being seen as non-inclusive and disrespectful to those who have no faith. It is shocking. Deputy Connolly and many others here demonise the Catholic Church day in, day out. Without it, however, many of us would not be educated. The matrons and the nuns ran the hospitals as well and did so much work. We should respect that. There are bad apples and that happens in every barrel. There is a rush now to destroy our ethos that has stood us in good stead in times past. There is now a rush to throw it out. I have no problem with Educate Together and people like that but they should not be dictating what should be done in a hospital and what religious artefacts can be displayed here and there. It is not the Muslim people. We have many Muslim doctors, whom we support and welcome. They have no issue with the crucifixes and everything else. These so-called liberals and atheists have a big problem with everything like that and they want to banish all of it.

We had mass here this morning, thankfully, and it was celebrated by a wonderful priest. It was in the Ceann Comhairle's dining room and there was a good turn out. It was a holy mass for our former Members, but we did not have that from 2009 to about 2013. We could not have it because the media would not like it. We are kowtowing to the media and the liberals and we are going to end up with nothing. We will see how this Bill works out in the courts and how Bills concerning free speech and so-called hate speech work themselves out. My feeling is that they will just become the new sacred idols and anything or anyone who challenges them will be guilty of secular blasphemy. We have to remember too that the Constitution, as it stands, provides that:

The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.

How can we get that balance right? Do we even care about that part of the Constitution anymore? We are very selective of the parts that we want to promote and those parts that we want to tread on. Attempts to remove that section will not be as easily supported by me for one. The preamble to the Constitution states:

In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,

We, the people of Éire,

Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial,

Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation,

And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations,

Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.

To my mind that preamble speaks to much more than respect for God. It speaks to issues surrounding how and where laws get their legitimacy. Are our laws just about majorities or must they reflect a moral law written into the hearts of men and women? That is why any attempt to remove that preamble will not be supported. Blasphemy laws in our State were a dead letter for decades. It was not possible to bring an effective prosecution, so something had to happen to remedy that. I just hope that the Minister can ensure religious people of all persuasions can have their views protected from deliberate attempts to ridicule or attack them.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank all the Members of the House present, and those who were present last night, for their considered contributions and views on this Bill. The Minister acknowledges the broad welcome given to the Bill by all Members of the House. I also welcome the level of consensus on the Bill, which is apparent from the contributions of Deputies last night and this evening. That echoes the very high level of support which, as many people have, is already visible from the people's vote we had on this issue in the referendum last October.

I also believe that the intention of the Minister for Justice and Equality, assuming the Bill is accorded passage through the remaining Stages, is to commence the Bill as quickly as possible.

I note a few comments from Deputy Mattie McGrath, as he is in the House. What the Deputy referenced happening in the Middle East is something that I have a particular interest in as well. When I was Chairman of the then Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, I met all the minorities and interest groups. I am sure the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, under the current Chairman, Deputy Brendan Smith, is doing that as well. Deputy Mattie McGrath could note that the joint committee works hard in that area.

In response to the Deputy's comments, the Minister for Justice and Equality in presenting the Bill expressed the Government's abhorrence at the use of reference to the contribution of blasphemy as a criminal offence in Ireland to justify the prosecution of religious minorities in certain countries such as the case mentioned by him.

I note his reference to the Preamble and Article 44.1 of the Constitution. The Bill does not propose any changes relevant to those constitutional provisions.

I thank all Deputies for their contributions to the debate and I hope that we can achieve a speedy passage of the Bill through the House so that it can be enacted.

Question put and agreed to.
The Dáil adjourned at 7.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 7 November 2019.