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Society 12/05/2017

The Passion of Stephen Fry (or why Ireland badly needs a new constitution)

Ireland – a country lately undergoing a thoroughgoing, much-needed update in the eyes of the world – has headlines for an investigation Stephen Fry for the eminently modern crime of blasphemy.  

Fry, whose previous visits to Ireland include a good-spirited turn as an English tourist in the Irish-language soap Ros na Rún, made a 2015 appearance on RTÉ's religion programme The Meaning of Life. Fry, we might have noticed, tends to speak his mind, and on this occasion, his mind was that God is “capricious, mean-spirited, stupid” for creating “a world that is so full of injustice and pain”. (Quick readers will notice this is the problem of theodicy, a commonplace of theology classrooms but which apparently is not to be raised in the Irish Republic.)

And in the last few days, after receiving a complaint, Ireland's police, the Gardaí, have been investigating Fry for blasphemy. The investigation was subsequently dropped, because, the Gardaí said, they couldn’t find enough people who were offended by Fry’s views.

The UK abolished the common law offence of blasphemy in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, though it was effectively dead from 1917, when in Bowman v Secular Society, Lord Sumner pointedly quoted the Emperor Tiberius, deorum injuriae diis curae “offences to the gods are dealt with by the gods.”

But Ireland's 1937 Constitution – a strange document deeply in need of updating – requires the state to have a blasphemy law, and so obediently, Section 36 of the Defamation Act 2009 defines a new indictable offence of “Publication or utterance of blasphemous matter.”

2009. This isn't the mediaeval period, or even the bad old days of De Valera's 1950s.

This was a year after Bertie and Ian Paisley jointly opened a visitor centre on the site of the Battle of the Boyne; three weeks after the Blasphemy Act passed into law, Mary Robinson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama. New Ireland, in a sudden fit of absence of mind, reverted to old habits and went mediaeval.

In 2009, the drafters congratulate themselves that they'd widened blasphemy so that offences against religions other than Christianity could also be illegal. In their minds, I'm sure, they'd moved Ireland forward by miles.

Ireland's in cosy company - with Pakistan, say, where after Zia's 1986 Islamicisation of the penal code, § 295C proscribes the interesting sentence of “mandatory death and fine” for defiling the name of the Prophet of Islam.

But Fry joins a very illustrious lineage, of people accused of blasphemy in Ireland. Usually it was a handy way of offing political opponents – this was the case with Adam Dubh Ó Tuathail, from a Gaelic landowning family in the Wicklow mountains, whom the leaders of the nearby Anglo-Norman Pale found annoying. (It didn't end well for Adam, who was burned at the stake in 1328.)

The scholarly and splendidly named Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, whose book collection still continues as Marsh's Library, attempted to begin a private prosecution against a Mr Fleming, a Presbyterian minister in Drogheda, for being a Presbyterian. Even by 17th century standards this was reckoned a bit embarrassing, and the Dublin Castle administration discreetly managed to drop it.

Dean Swift’s retort to Marsh was characteristically savage. Swift – perhaps the 17th century Fry, just better – said of Marsh “He is the first of human race, that with great advantages of learning, piety, and station ever escaped being a great man.”

In 1852, in Mayo a Franciscan monk named John Syngean Bridgman actually managed to get himself convicted under the common law offence of blasphemy for burning a Bible. It was the translation he objected to – it wasn't Douay-Rheims, you see.

Then ensued a spate of prosecutions, all somehow involving the burning of Bibles, generally by monks. Vladimir Petcherine, a Redemptorist, in 1855 managed to burn a Bible by mistake in a bonfire of irreligious books. It happens. (He was acquitted.)

Generally from poor Adam on it was always about politics (this also is the case in modern-day Pakistan, whose blasphemy prosecutions usually result from local score-settling) – religion only getting into it by chance. And so you wonder, for the unknown complainant who toddled down to their local Garda station to register a blasphemy complaint - surely the fact Stephen Fry is English wasn't part of it at all.

More important from the perspective of Ireland's 1937 constitution, it's becoming clearer and clearer that instead of piecemeal revision, it's time for a rewrite.

A constitution isn't fit for purpose if it requires the state to have a blasphemy law, declares society to be based on the institution of marriage, prohibits abortion against the wishes of 75 per cent of the population, and includes curious anachronisms like “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.”

If it's the impetus for Ireland motivating itself to write the much-needed 2020 Constitution, then some good might come of the persecution of Stephen Fry.  Which is how the religiously minded explain the problem of evil, anyway.

Pádraig Belton is a journalist based in Dublin, and contributor to the BBC, Spectator, Prospect, and New Statesman. He is completing a doctorate in politics at Oxford.

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