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The Meaning of Life

Simon Harris says Ireland's blasphemy laws are 'silly' and 'embarrassing'

It’s been suggested by experts that our current blasphemy laws are ‘unenforceable’.

Simon Harris Wont Run For Taoiseach Sam Boal / Minister For Health Simon Harris Sam Boal / /

Updated at 2.50pm

MINISTER FOR HEALTH Simon Harris has called Ireland’s blasphemy law “silly” and said he’d like a referendum on the issue in the near future.

It comes after reports that gardaí are investigating comments made by TV personality Stephen Fry on RTÉ.

During an interview with Gay Byrne on The Meaning of Life in 2015, Fry said that if God exists, he’s “quite clearly an utter maniac, totally selfish” – among other comments – which prompted a complaint that this was illegal under the Defamation Act.

Harris told reporters today: “It’s silly, it’s a little embarrassing, it needs to be changed. I’m very pleased that the government wishes to see a referendum in relation to this issue, it obviously does require constitutional change and I think the Department of Justice have clarified they are at the preparatory stage in relation to a referendum.

“We’ve committed to a number of referenda during the course of this government, I expect that to be one, I’d hope to see it sooner rather than later.

This is a democracy, people have the right to express whatever view they do, and Stephen Fry, regardless of your views and your own religious views, clearly was making a number of points that he felt very strongly (about) in his usual witty way, and I think we do need a referendum in that regard.

Harris made the comments at the launch of the HSE’s Organ Donation and Transplant Ireland’s new offices in Dublin city centre.

Earlier today, the former justice minister who amended Ireland’s blasphemy law in 2009 says that it was constructed in a way that would make prosecutions difficult.

Dermot Ahern, former Minister for Justice who drafted the amendment to the Defamation Act in 2009, told Today with Sean O’Rourke that they were restricted on their options.

“It wasn’t on my highest priority when I became minister because I was confronted with gangland crime. After about a year, I decided I’d have to do something and bring forward the Defamation Bill.”

Lord Snowdon Service of Thanksgiving PA Wire / PA Images Fry has yet to comment on reports that he's being investigated by gardaí for his commentary on God. PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

The bill was mainly about slander, defamation, and court case awards.

I sat down with the Attorney General we went through the whole thing and at the very end of it, he said ‘By the way, you have to put in something about blasphemy’.

He was told that in the Constitution there’s a mandatory obligation to have a law on blasphemy.

“So he gave me a choice: either we hold a referendum to delete a law on blasphemy, or we renew the crime of blasphemy, and that’s the choice we took.”

He said that he couldn’t justify or recommend bringing a single referendum forward when the country was as cash-strapped as it was.

Ahern said that the definition of blasphemy, which was introduced in his amendment, was done in such a way that it would be difficult to enforce.

Dr Neville Cox [professor at Trinity College] subsequently said that the legislation ‘fulfilled the institutional obligation to have a crime of blasphemy’, but ‘skillfully rendered the law completely unenforceable’.

Ahern admitted that ‘to a certain extent’ it was constructed like that on purpose.

The Attorney General wouldn’t forgive me for saying it but, we put in so many hurdles in order to ground a prosecution that we believed we’d never see a prosecution.



The 2009 amendment to the Defamation Act 2009 states:

A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €25,000.

However, it also states:

It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.

Last year, there was some speculation that Louis Theroux’s documentary My Scientology Movie wouldn’t be shown in Ireland because of blasphemy laws.

With reporting by Órla Ryan

Read: Gardaí ‘not commenting’ on complaint of blasphemy against Stephen Fry

Read: Ireland’s blasphemy laws unlikely to prevent Louis Theroux’s Scientology film from being released here

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