Last week we, the electorate, were asked to delete a single word from the constitution on the grounds that it is dangerous, that it gives reason to imprison and kill dissenters in Islamic countries and that the deletion will, in some manner, make us modern.
That was as much as we’ve had in debate for the proposal to delete “blasphemous” from the material covered by article 40.6.1of the constitution and not only is this not a debate, it is the exact opposite, it is the negation, the avoidance, the hiding-in-terror from anything that might resemble debate.
We are not allowed a debate in Ireland on any topic where the government notices the sinister bony hand of the Catholic Church reaching down from the past or the Palace to thwart the great project of the People’s Secular Revolution. The Government Commissars have, of course, the support of journalists and publishers in the great work. After the Abortion Referendum it was Irish journalists (journalists!) who called for the future suppression of dissent, of civic opposition to the Governments agenda. The Matt Coopers and Una Mulallies don’t want debate, they want progress, movement towards the utopia. Debate delays the revolution.
Some revolution. There has never been a prosecution or arrest under this constitution for blasphemy. Ever. The last prosecution in Ireland was in 1855, 163 years ago. Different laws. A different state. Yet the word is so dangerous that we must rush a referendum to remove its toxic influence from a constitution that now explicitly permits the Oireachtas to legislate for the killing of a class of humans.
This referendum is cosmetic, a puerile nonsense thought up by a group of immature cabinet ministers attempting a permanent revolution of distraction. Look, look, lovely referendum scourging bad Church, no don’t look at the housing crisis or the health service or just how useless every single cabinet minister is at their brief. We are given a permanent Revolution of Distraction because those in government have no idea how to solve complex, multi-faceted problems. Ministers are mining the 1937 Constitution for referendumable phrases as good news stories.
We should be wary of politicians bearing Reform banners particularly those who profess incomprehension that the laws or practices they wish to reform exist. Debate on reform issues should be rabbinical, if the reformer cannot state the reason for the law we should not let them enter the fray to have it removed. Chesterton put it beautifully in his catch on reformers. “There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
Blasphemy is an old-fashioned crime, like heresy, an attempt by the state to prevent rifts, dissents and fractures on issues so deep that those breaks could endanger the state itself and to protect all the citizens from the danger of a God angered by human outrage. That is no longer the God in which the agents of the state don’t believe. Those of us who still believe do not necessarily do so in a God so small he needs protection from human utterances. Wisely the Catholic hierarchy have made a statement to this point, refusing the temptation to give Varadkar boogeymen to fight.
There are conservative Christians, (Conservative Christians believe in God, Minister…) for whom the removal of blasphemy from the constitution is the evidence that the government wishes to remove God from the constitution, law and the public sphere and who are battling the referendum to preserve what they see as a last protection but they are very wrong on both counts.
The government doesn’t want to remove God, it wants to replace him. For Varadkar’s cabinet the Christian Christ is dead, he is being replaced with a figment of Josepha Madigan’s and Catherine Zappone’s tortured imaginations, and with the very state itself. Christ is merely to be the son of the state, endorsing the government in its compassion. With the horsemen banished compassion is the sales point of choice. As to protection, Piss Christ* is a work of art, Piss Mohammed a death warrant but the constitution and the 2009 legislation don’t matter to either.
Blasphemy should be removed from the constitution but not this way, not this now. Article 40.6.1 gives the government the basis for sweeping powers over all media and speech, power that no government, especially this group of infantile chancers, should have. Free speech should be robustly enshrined in the constitution, to prevent nonsensical attacks on it masquerading as protection for the vulnerable. There is a grave danger that this government will advance Hate Speech Legislation, secular blasphemy, with far more likelihood of prosecutions than one 163 years ago. Peter Casey would have been arrested and prosecuted under such a law and his words will be used to advance the case for the bill. With no opposition in the Dáil this will pass at high speed. On its passing we can expect the members of the Dáil will rise and give themselves a standing ovation, as has become their habit.
We don’t need a blasphemy referendum, we need an American style First Amendment, unequivocally defending our right to offend God and man should we in any way chose. That the ECHR has, in the case of an Austrian lecturer, judged that describing Mohammed as a paedophile does not come under the ambit of free speech for the purposes of the European Convention of Human rights makes such constitutional protection a matter of urgency.
This referendum was a wasted opportunity to defend free speech, but it still gave voters a chance to send the Government back to do just that.
*Reference is to a 1987 award winning work by artist Andres Serrano in which a small crucifix was immersed in the artists urine and photographed. Serrano is, of course, a Catholic.