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Northern Ireland’s blasphemy laws are ‘archaic and have no place in modern society’ confirms Justice Minister

Northern Ireland Justice Minister Naomi Long has repeated her call for the blasphemy laws to be repealed stating that they are ‘archaic and that they have no place in modern society.’ She had previously confirmed her support for repeal in March this year, alongside Finance Minister Conor Murphy, following a campaign by Northern Ireland Humanists.

Speaking during a ministerial question time at Stormont, she stated:

‘I believe that the common law offences of blasphemy and [blasphemous] libel are archaic and that they have no place in modern society. I am committed to freedom of, and freedom from religion and am sympathetic to removing such outdated and unused offences from the law. My intention was to remove these common law offences during this mandate. However, I did not get the full support needed to legislate.’

She continued in response to a follow up question by Ulster Unionist MLA, John Stewart:

‘However, it would be my desire to see it done. I believe there is significant benefit from doing so. I also believe that before that happens there will be a public consultation. I did make efforts to do so as part of the overall miscellaneous provisions bill preparations, unfortunately that wasn’t possible because we ended up with a bill that is much narrower in scope. I believe it is important because it sends out an important message to other jurisdictions where their blasphemy laws are not unused.’

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 blasphemy 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 more than 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 year, 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: ‘We are pleased that Naomi Long has publicly restated her commitment to repealing these laws and we will continue to work closely with her and other MLAs to bring this forward in legislation.

‘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.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, media should contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at boyd@humanists.uk or phone 07918 975795.

Read more about work 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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