Campaign launched to repeal ancient blasphemy laws in Northern Ireland

By agency reporter
March 29, 2019

Northern Ireland Humanists has launched a new campaign to get rid of Northern Ireland’s ancient blasphemy laws which make criticising a religion a crime.

Northern Ireland Humanists, which is part of the charity Humanists UK, has launched the campaign urging Northern Ireland to play its part in the global fight against blasphemy by removing it as a crime under common law, the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888, and the Criminal Libel Act 1819, which remain in force in Northern Ireland today.

The campaign says that retaining blasphemy laws like those in Northern Ireland, even if they are not often used, legitimises their use in countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia where people face the death penalty. The abolition of these laws, on the other hand, can be a striking declaration to the world that free speech should not be a crime. Recent abolitions in New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and elsewhere have had this beneficial effect.

Even in countries where prosecutions are not common, these laws have still been a source of injustice, as was seen in the Republic of Ireland in 2017 when Humanists UK patron Stephen Fry was investigated for blasphemy.

As part of its campaign, Northern Ireland Humanists is asking the public to write to their MLAs, calling on them to follow in the footsteps of other countries which have abolished their blasphemy laws.

Northern Ireland Humanists Chair Iain Deboys said: "It is appalling that we still have blasphemy laws in Northern Ireland – these laws are used by some of the world’s most horrific regimes to justify the killings of people for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression.

"The vast majority of people would surely agree that these archaic laws are damaging and have no place in a democratic society like ours that values both freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression. It is crucial that we uphold our rights to legitimate criticism of religious beliefs when necessary and that we are protected by the law in doing so. We urge the public to add their voice to our campaign and bring Northern Ireland into line with other progressive countries which have repealed their blasphemy laws."

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 In England and Wales, these same laws were repealed in 2008.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 earlier this month, 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.

* End Blasphemy Laws coalition https://end-blasphemy-laws.org/

* Humanists UK https://humanism.org.uk/

[Ekk/6]

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