Time is right to end blasphemy laws, NSS tells NI justice minister

Posted: Fri, 28th Jun 2024

NSS calls for action to remove blasphemy laws as pro-free speech parties dominate NI Assembly.

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The National Secular Society has told Northern Ireland's justice minister that proposals to abolish the country's 'blasphemy' laws could now secure the support of the NI Assembly.

In a letter to Naomi Long MLA this month, the NSS encouraged the Department of Justice to bring forward a consultation on repealing the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel "at the earliest opportunity".

Alternatively, NI could repeal the blasphemy laws via their proposed hate crime legislation, as Scotland did in 2021, the NSS said.

Campaigning by the NSS and human rights groups succeeded in the repeal of blasphemy laws in England and Wales in 2008. Northern Ireland is now the only country in the UK with blasphemy laws.

The Republic of Ireland repealed its blasphemy laws in 2020.

The NSS highlighted that the Alliance Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and Sinn Féin are all understood to endorse the repeal of blasphemy laws.

These three parties command 51 votes in the Assembly, while only 45 are needed for a majority.

The NSS's letter follows previous correspondence Long in May, in which Long said that while she supports repealing the blasphemy laws, the matter previously failed to secure the support of the Northern Ireland Executive.

She said that a public consultation would be needed as part of the process to abolish the offences due to "the sensitivities around this issue".

Long said recommendations in Judge Desmond Marrinan's 2020 Review of Hate Crime Legislation in Northern Ireland "continue to inform deliberations", but acknowledged further policy development was necessary to ensure the right balance is struck between protecting hate crime victims from harm, and the need to safeguard free expression.

The NSS had previously warned the recommendations failed to achieve such a balance.

Marrinan's review said there should be "no express defences for freedom of expression in relation to religion" or any other protected characteristics. In 2021 he implied 'abusing religion' should not be legal.

The NSS said any new offences relating to 'stirring up hatred' in NI's proposed hate crimes "must be accompanied by a robust and explicit protection of freedom of expression" which makes clear that citizens "are free to discuss, criticise and ridicule religion in the strongest terms". Such protections exist in England, Scotland and Wales.

NSS: Executive must take "take the initiative and abolish these laws"

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: "With parties in favour of free speech commanding a majority in the Assembly, the time couldn't be better to abolish Northern Ireland's illiberal and anachronistic blasphemy laws.

"We urge the Executive to take the initiative and abolish these laws.

"We also warn against inadvertently re-introducing a 'back door' offence of blasphemy via the proposed hate crime legislation. It is crucial that any new legislation protects people from harm without robbing them of their right to robustly criticise or ridicule religion."

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Tags: Free speech