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Ministers back Northern Ireland Humanists’ campaign to repeal blasphemy laws

Northern Ireland’s Justice and Finance Ministers Naomi Long and Conor Murphy have confirmed that they support repealing both the blasphemy laws following a campaign by Northern Ireland Humanists. The two ministers are responsible for the relevant laws, so the news marks a very welcome development in the campaign for repeal.

In discussion with Northern Ireland Humanists, both ministers have stated their support for repeal and have committed to working closely with them to find a legislative path to do so at the earliest possible opportunity. In response to a written question, Naomi Long also commented,

‘I am committed to freedom of and from religion and so support the removal of archaic and unused common-law offences such as blasphemy and blasphemy libel from the law.’

Northern Ireland Humanists is campaigning to repeal the blasphemy laws because retaining them, even though they are not often used, legitimises such laws’ use in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where non-religious people, Christians, Muslims, and others regularly face the death penalty for blaspheming or apostasy. Such countries frequently accuse western states of hypocrisy in calling for repeal, by pointing to the laws still on the statute books here. And even in countries where prosecutions are not common, they can be revived, as was seen in the Republic of Ireland in 2017 when Humanists UK patron Stephen Fry was investigated for blasphemy, and in Denmark in 2015 when a man was charged with the same. The abolition of these laws, on the other hand, can be a striking declaration to the world that free expression should not be a crime.

Northern Ireland Humanists launched its campaign in 2019, initially encouraging its members and supporters to write and meet with their MLAs. The quick result was all the major political parties in Northern Ireland, except the DUP, coming out in favour of repeal. Building on that, over the last year, since the resumption of power-sharing, Northern Ireland Humanists has met with 15 MLAs about the campaign, garnering support from those in all the major parties, including from some within the DUP, and with both Naomi Long and then-Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín.

Since Scotland voted to repeal its blasphemy law earlier this month, Northern Ireland has been the last part of the UK, Ireland, and crown dependencies to have blasphemy laws. England and Wales repealed theirs in 2008, and the Republic of Ireland did so in 2020, following on from a referendum showing two-thirds support. Since 2015, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Malta, France, New Zealand, Canada, and Greece have all also repealed their blasphemy laws, with Spain committing to doing the same.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented,

‘Blasphemy laws are used around the world to oppress and brutalise religious and non-religious minorities. With Scotland’s blasphemy law now to be repealed, Northern Ireland will stand alone in these islands in having such archaic yet harmful laws. We are therefore pleased to have built up considerable support for repealing them, and look forward to continuing to work with the ministers involved to make it happen.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at boyd@humanists.uk or phone 02890 029946.

Read more about our work on repealing blasphemy laws.

Northern Ireland Humanists is part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland. Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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