Speech in Poland – Review of the Campaign Against the Irish Blasphemy Law

Michael Nugent gave this speech today, Friday 29 March 2019, at the Days of Atheism Conference in Warsaw, Poland.

When Atheist Ireland was founded ten years ago, our first task was simply to normalise the use of the words atheism and secularism in public debate.

We have come a long way since then. The Catholic Church no longer controls the Irish people. Our task now is getting the State to catch up with that reality.

That is a slow process. The Church still runs 90 per cent of our State-funded primary schools. But campaigns by civil society groups have succeeded in removing our laws against same-sex marriage and abortion.

I am pleased to say that, since I spoke to you here last year, we have also removed the medieval crime of blasphemy from our Constitution.

In a referendum last October, two-thirds of Irish voters decided that freedom of expression was more important than protecting religious ideas from criticism.

The ban against blasphemy had been in our Constitution since 1937, which made it an offence that was punishable in accordance with law.

But the Courts found that the law was not working, so in 2009 the Irish Government passed a new law to make the offence punishable.

Since then Atheist Ireland led a ten-year campaign to have a referendum called to remove the offence from the Constitution, and last year we led the successful campaign to have the referendum passed when it was called.

We did not win this alone. Irish public opinion was becoming more liberal, and there were other Irish campaigners on the issue. We also had support from atheist and secular groups around the world, including from people in this room.

Each part of the campaign posed different challenges.

At first we had to highlight both how ridiculous the new law was, and also how dangerous it was.

To show how ridiculous the new law was, on the day that it came into force, Atheist Ireland published 25 blasphemous quotes on our website. We were confident that the Government did not really want to be seen to enforce such a ridiculous law.

Unfortunately, the danger of the new law soon became clear. Almost immediately, the Islamic States at the United Nations cited wording from our law as what they wanted enforced around the world to end what they called defamation of Islam.

They were delighted to have an example of what they could describe as Western hypocrisy, with a Western democratic State passing a new blasphemy law, in the 21st century, while the West condemned such laws in Islamic States.

Back in Ireland, when I did live radio and television interviews, producers warned me not to say anything blasphemous.

The Department of Justice at first mocked our campaign by saying that the Minister does not have to respond to a crackpot in an attic somewhere.

But we persisted with our campaign. We repeatedly lobbied all of the political parties, both before and between elections. We made sure that all politicians were aware of the facts.

We held two tours of public meetings around the country, one soon after the law was announced, and another three years later with Sanal Edamaraku as our guest speaker.

We highlighted the issue at an International Atheist Conference that we held in Dublin, at which some of the people in this room spoke.

We made written submissions to, and we attended meetings of, the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, the Council of Europe, and the OSCE here in Warsaw.

Back in Ireland, we used the recommendations of these human rights bodies to highlight that Ireland was breaching our international human rights obligations.

We highlighted that States that execute people for blasphemy were citing the Irish law at the United Nations, to justify their repression of religious minorities.

In particular, we highlighted the case of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman who was then facing execution in Pakistan for allegedly blaspheming against Mohammad.

The Irish Government eventually put the issue before a Constitutional Convention, at which we spoke along with Professor David Nash of the UK, an expert in the history of blasphemy laws who also helped to remove the blasphemy laws in Britain.

After the Government had committed to holding a referendum on the issue, our law got further attention around the world when the police investigated Stephen Fry for allegedly blaspheming on an RTE television programme.

Finally, last year, the referendum was called. Unfortunately, it was on the same day as our Presidential election, and the media and political parties focused more on that than they did on the blasphemy campaign.

So we had to again raise awareness of the issue. As well as doing mainstream media interviews and online promotion, we held another tour of public meetings around the country.

Atheist Ireland is a member of Humanists International, which organised a joint letter to the people of Ireland from atheists around the world who were persecuted by blasphemy laws.

Once the referendum was called, people who opposed the blasphemy law would already vote to remove it.

Our biggest challenge now was to convince middle ground voters that removing the law would not cause any harm.

Those who wanted to keep the law made two main arguments.

Firstly, they claimed that it was not enforced in practice. We responded that this was because the media was self-censoring itself, in order to avoid being prosecuted.

Secondly, they argued that the law protected religious minorities, and particularly Muslims, from being offended, and that it prevented people from engaging in hate speech.

We responded by highlighting the difference between protecting people from harm, which is what laws are for, and protecting ideas from criticism, which the law should allow.

We pointed out that the law actually encouraged outrage, because the first test of blasphemy in the law was whether it caused outrage.

We continued to highlight the international impact of the Irish law emboldening Islamic States to persecute religious minorities.

Finally, last October, the people of Ireland voted to remove this medieval crime from our Constitution.

The Attorney General’s office is now drafting a law to formally remove it from the statute books.

Our laws will now be able to protect people from harm, not protect ideas from criticism. Our media outlets will no longer have to self censor themselves.

We will no longer be breaching our international human rights obligations.

States that execute people for blasphemy will no longer be able to cite the Irish law at the United Nations, to justify their repression of religious minorities.

I would like to end by thanking everybody in atheist and secular groups around the world, and particularly those who are in this room, for helping us in this campaign.

Atheist Ireland