I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak about this legislation. I appreciate the committee making time today not only for the Supplementary Estimates, but also for this Bill. I acknowledge that this meeting falls in the middle of a busy week, and indeed, that any time is a busy time for this committee. I very much welcome this opportunity.
I am joined by my senior officials: Ms Madeline Reid, Ms Noreen Walsh, and Mr. Terence O'Hagan. The Bill gives further effect to the thirty-seventh amendment to the Constitution by removing the statutory provisions that define an offence of blasphemy. Members will recall that the Thirty-Seventh Amendment of the Constitution, which was approved by the people in last year’s referendum, removed the requirement that publishing or uttering blasphemous matter shall be considered a criminal offence under Article 40.6.1(i). Notwithstanding that referendum, the offence of blasphemy remains on the Statute Book, by virtue of sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009. These sections were included in the 2009 Act by the then Government in an attempt to define an offence of blasphemy that would be consistent with the Supreme Court judgment in Corway v. Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd. This Bill proposes to repeal those sections, thus abolishing the statutory offence of blasphemy.
Section 1 is an avoidance of doubt provision, which aims to make it absolutely clear that the old common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel no longer exist. Sections 2 and 3 remove the references to “blasphemous” in section 7 of the Censorship of Films Act 1923 and section 3(2) of the Censorship of Films (Amendment) Act 1925, which relate to civil matters. While these amendments are not technically necessary to give effect to the referendum on the constitutional amendment, they are within the spirit of it. Section 4 repeals sections 36 and 37 of the 2009 Act, thus abolishing the statutory offence of blasphemy and a related provision. Section 5 is a standard citation and commencement provision.