All the major political parties have come out in favour of repealing Northern Ireland’s blasphemy laws – except for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
In response to a Northern Ireland Humanists campaign, Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Alliance Party, the Green Party, and the People Before Profit Alliance have all come out in support of repealing the laws. The Ulster Unionist Party does not appear to have a position on the matter, but Northern Ireland Humanists understands those who have replied stating a view have suggested they support repeal, with previous leader Mike Nesbitt announcing his intention to turn the matter into party policy.
However, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Arlene Foster, has stated that it opposes repealing the law. This is in spite of England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland abolishing these offenses in recent years, and Scotland committed to doing the same, over concerns they violate the right to freedom of speech and are used to justify human rights abuses abroad. It is also in spite of the party’s campaigning work against blasphemy laws globally – where such laws are often used to persecute Christians.
In a letter to a constituent, Ms Foster stated ‘[the DUP] are skeptical of the argument that our laws provide any justification for violent oppression of religious minorities in other countries’, adding that ‘the removal of a specific protection for Christianity should not be considered in isolation.’ She also expressed concerns that hate crime and equality laws are insufficient to protect Christians, citing the entirely unrelated ‘gay cake’ case as evidence of this.
DUP legislators frequently campaign against blasphemy laws in other countries. For example, Jim Shannon MP is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, and has repeatedly spoken out against such laws. In 2017 the Group published a report, to which he wrote the foreword, that says,
‘FoRB [freedom of religion or belief] does not provide protection from someone’s religion or belief being subject to adverse comments or insults. This is an important point to note whenever arguments are given in support of concepts such as ‘defamation of religion’, or laws prohibiting blasphemy (speaking ‘offensively’ about God)… The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has noted that forbidding actions which disrespect a religion or belief system, including blasphemy laws, are almost always incompatible with essential human rights and freedoms, including FoRB and the right to freedom of expression.’
Commenting on the parties' responses, Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator said: ‘We are delighted to see all bar one of the major parties come out in favour of repealing our blasphemy laws, but we have been let down by the DUP. It is amazing that the DUP leader will oppose removing the blasphemy laws from the statue books. Sadly, the reasons the DUP leader has given for this position demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of these laws and the wider consequences of maintaining them.
‘The existence of blasphemy laws in European countries is used by brutal regimes to justify persecution of religious minorities, including Christians. In 2009, Pakistan proposed a motion to the Human Rights Council within the UN General Assembly seeking to enact global sanctions for blasphemy, the wording of which was taken verbatim from the now-repealed blasphemy legislation in the Republic of Ireland. So it cannot be claimed that our laws exist in isolation from the international context.
‘Further, it is fundamentally wrong to suggest that the repeal of these laws would result in any disadvantage to Christians. We already have laws that protect all of us, whether Christian or not, from abuse and illegal discrimination. All blasphemy laws do is protect ideas from proper scrutiny and debate. The DUP should urgently think again.’
What the different parties have said on blasphemy laws
Since launching its campaign to repeal the blasphemy laws in March, Northern Ireland Humanists supporters have been writing to their MLAs asking them to set out their views on the matter. Here’s what the parties and MLAs have said:
DUP's Arlene Foster's response
'First, we must make the point that no action can be taken on any legislative issue while Sinn Fein continues to block the formation of an Executive for Northern Ireland without which no proposals can be subject to ministerial, committee scrutiny and civil debate. Second, the absence of working devolution has created a backlog of decisions and legislation that should be the first priority of the legislative time of a new Assembly and Executive e.g. the Domestic Violence Bill.
Third, we are sceptical of the argument that our laws provide any justification for violent oppression of religious minorities in other countries. Sadly brutal regimes will always find excuses for their sadistic punishments regardless of our laws.
Fourth, it is difficult to sustain the argument that it presents any real impediment to free speech through its lack of application by prosecuting authorities and courts. In addition, there is a practical protection through the Human Rights Act 1998 which requires court interpretation of the law to be compatible with the European Convention of Human Rights.
Fifth, legislative protections have developed for religious communities and expressions of their faiths primarily through ‘hate’ crime and equality protections. However, the relationship with these laws for the Christian community has been problematic with the legislation often serving to limit rather than protect them. For example, they have been used to interfere in public preaching (freedom of speech) and in Northern Ireland, the public institution charged with delivering equality unsuccessfully targeted a company trying to work within the Christian values of its owners. Thus the removal of a specific protection for Christianity should not be considered in isolation but within broader discussion about how we address the complex interaction of faith, freedom, rights and protections.
For these reasons the DUP respectfully disagrees.'
Sinn Fein's response
'Sinn Féin supported removing blasphemy from the constitution and we actively campaigned for its removal throughout the 2018 referendum in the south.
As a 32 county organisation the position we took on the referendum in the south is reflective of our party's position in the north.
The laws are outdated and not representative of the Ireland we live in today.
The UUP has not seen a consistent response across MLAs, but all seem sympathetic to repeal, and previous party leader Mike Nesbitt has told a constituent, ‘I agree with you so will ask the party leadership to consider supporting change.’
The SDLP's response
'The SDLP agrees with your view that maintaining these laws here, even if they aren’t routinely used as the basis of prosecutions, provides tacit support to other nations which use similar laws to violently oppress minorities. How can we oppose those regimes which imprison, torture and murder individuals on the basis of faith if we aren’t prepared to look at our own laws?
The SDLP has previously supported attempts to amend our libel laws to remove offences related to blasphemy. In the absence of an Executive or an Assembly, it’s not currently possible to affect change in this area. When power sharing is restored, the SDLP will continue to support efforts to amend the law in this area.'
The Alliance Party has seen different responses from different MLAs, all supporting repeal. For example, their leader Naomi Long said:
'I support the repeal of Northern Ireland's blasphemy laws. As a liberal, I believe in the right to both freedom of speech and freedom of religion and belief, and believe blasphemy laws are contrary to both.
During my time in Westminster, I was vice-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion and Belief and, in my campaigning work, saw first hand how blasphemy laws are used in many countries to suppress, often brutally, both minority religious views, including those of other faiths and none, and also justified criticism or challenge of a state religion.
My colleagues and I have not only actively campaigned for freedom of thought, religion and belief at home and abroad, but have also sought to ensure that those subject to persecution on this basis are treated seriously when seeking asylum or refugee status in the UK.
I believe firmly that the role of the state in matters of faith and belief is simply to uphold as fully as possible the fundamental rights and freedoms set out in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, namely: the right to hold a belief; to worship freely; to associate with others who share that belief; to share your belief with others; to live according to your beliefs and to change or reject your religion or beliefs at any time. It also includes the right to live free of the imposition of religious observance and belief, and the right to theistic, non theistic and atheistic beliefs.
No state or government should seek to impose a faith on its people or disadvantage those who dissent from a majority view, but should seek to protect freedom insofar as it is compatible with good order.
There are other laws in Northern Ireland, particularly those regarding incitement to hatred and hate speech, which I believe are better able to protect members of our community from abuse or illegal discrimination, whether direct or indirect, (eg. Islamophobia, anti-semitism) than blasphemy laws, which are designed not to protect people but rather deities and tenets of faith from criticism or ridicule.
As you rightly state, other parts of these islands have either repealed or are in the process of repealing their blasphemy laws and I believe that Northern Ireland should do likewise. I would be happy to advance this at such times as we return to devolution at the Assembly.'
The Green Party's response
'The Green Party Northern Ireland is fully supportive of abolishing existing blasphemy laws.
As you will be aware, there is currently no sitting Assembly nor has Direct Rule been implemented therefore there is currently no vehicle through which to deliver this change. However, should the Assembly return I would be behind proposals to remove these laws.'
People Before Profit’s MLA Gerry Carroll's response
‘I can confirm that People Before Profit do indeed support the call for ending of the Blasphemy laws. They are a relic of the past and need to be rescinded.’
Northern Ireland Humanists is yet to see a response from Traditional Unionist Voice’s Jim Allister or independent unionist Claire Sugden. Independent unionist Jim Wells has said he opposes repealing the blasphemy law.'
Blasphemy law repeals around the world
In October 2018, citizens in the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to repeal the country’s blasphemy laws. In England and Wales, these same laws were repealed in 2008. Last year, the Scottish National Party came out in support of the same move in Scotland, and Humanists UK’s sister charity Humanist Society Scotland is campaigning to see that happen.
Since 2015, five further European countries and Canada have also abolished their blasphemy laws, and in March, New Zealand became the latest country to do likewise.
Humanists UK is a founding member of the End Blasphemy Laws coalition and this year made several interventions at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva calling on states to abolish blasphemy laws.
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0207 324 3065.
Visit our Northern Ireland blasphemy campaign here: https://humanism.org.uk/what-you-can-do-to-help/ni-blasphemy-repeal/
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