They say you can't libel the dead. But how does this work with the everlasting? Last week, President Mary McAleese signed Dermot Ahern's Defamation Bill into law. There has been a lot of hoo-ha about the new blasphemy law. Blasphemy was always prohibited by the constitution – what the government has done now is define the crime, even if the minister for justice remains particularly vague on the actual definition of blasphemy itself.
But Dermot Ahern says it's going to be almost impossible to actually get done for blasphemy. Why make it a crime then, says you. Because introducing a bill to define the crime of blasphemy is cheaper than holding a referendum on the retention or removal of that blasphemy sentence in our constitution.
What's blasphemous? At the moment, this has turned into something of a sport on the internet, with people trying to be as blasphemous as they can, just to show up what they see as the stupidity of this law. Let's say I wrote: Jesus was a big gay in a newspaper, or The Virgin Mary was a whore.
You're assuming that saying Jesus was a big gay is blasphemous, which I'm sure gay activists would have a problem with because there's nothing wrong with being gay.
Also, the evidence is there: he was a 'confirmed bachelor', his best mates were 12 blokes and one fag hag, torturous relationship with (Almighty) father, often absent (earth-dwelling) father, exceptionally close to his mother, kissed men in gardens, good dancer. Okay, so I made up the dancer bit. But who's to know? The Virgin Mary being a whore bit is equally dicey, even apart from the obvious oxymoron in the statement. Jesus's friend Mary Magdalene was also a whore. So maybe there's nothing wrong or blasphemous about that either.
Maybe The Virgin Mary is a tree stump would be more appropriate these days. Is it blasphemous to suggest that the Virgin Mary would waste her time appearing on a tree stump in Rathkeale? Hmm.
Also, you can't get done for blasphemy if it's of artistic or cultural merit. Now, I'm not saying this column is either of those things, but then again, Amy Huberman's debut novel just qualified for a tax exemption based upon its artistic merit so I suppose anything could happen.
So, let's play 'how do you get done for blasphemy?' If I were to say, for example, 'Dermot Ahern is God' and you were outraged by this, it would be deemed blasphemous even if Dermot Ahern agreed with the statement. You would report me, and I would be prosecuted if a large enough number of people were outraged. Following my prosecution in the High Court and possible €25,000 fine and/or imprisonment, I would appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court would be annoyed because they don't like dealing with high-profile constitutional issues that are not clear-cut and will put their decision under huge scrutiny.
Anyway, the Supreme Court would hear my case, and I would say that my freedom of speech and expression was being infringed upon. I would cite a couple of cases in my defence – the 1999 Supreme Court decision over The Sunday Independent cartoon case that set the blasphemy law ball rolling, the Jerry Springer – the Opera blasphemy case in Britain, where the charges were thrown out.
In conclusion, I would also probably say that the ridiculousness of convicting me on a blasphemy charge outweighs the ridiculousness of what I said in the first place. Chances are, because the bill is unconstitutional in the eyes of entire flocks of legal eagles, I would win.
If, say, the judges decided to send me down, I would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
In Europe, I would definitely win by citing the freedom of speech and expression provisions in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Europe has different ideas about the modern interpretations of blasphemy. They say that it's not enough to just outrage people – you have to cause civil disorder. There's quite the gap between causing outrage and causing civil disorder, the difference in reaction to a hypothetical blasphemous statement being either, "I am outraged and I'm going to write a letter to The Irish Times" and "I am outraged and I'm going to take to the streets, burn copies of the Sunday Tribune and throw a brick through the window of Supermacs." The latter would get you done in Europe, the former wouldn't.
Sounds like a lot of work, right? As any incompetent bank boss or corrupt developer will tell you, it's damn hard to get arrested in this town. I can but try, so help me God.