Blasphemy laws are a violation of the right to freedom of speech and expression, and are used around the world as a means of harassing, victimising, and discriminating against religion and belief minorities, and therefore impede the right to freedom of religion or belief.
Blasphemy and blasphemous libel remain criminal offences in Northern Ireland, both as a common-law offence and underpinned in legislation by four different Acts, which also used to apply in England and Wales but were repealed in 2008. We are actively campaigning to see these offences abolished. In 2019 we succeeded in getting Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Alliance Party, the Green Party, and the People Before Profit Alliance to commit to repeal, with the UUP still developing policy on the matter, and only the DUP opposed.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, has recommended the repeal of blasphemy laws globally, because maintaining such laws is a violation of human rights and legitimises the violent persecution of religious minorities and the non-religious in totalitarian regimes. In 13 such regimes, blasphemy or apostasy is punishable by death and in a further 47 a person can be imprisoned. The 13 countries which maintain the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy are Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Therefore, even if a law has not recently been used to prosecute an individual, its maintenance on statute books has negative consequences for human rights around the world.
In recognition of the harm that blasphemy laws cause around the world, the UK Government repealed these laws in England and Wales in 2008; Humanists UK was instrumental in securing strong protections on free expression as part of the bill. In Scotland, our sister charity Humanist Society Scotland successfully campaigned against the common law offence of blasphemy, which were repealed in 2021 when the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act comes into force.
In 2015, Humanists International founded the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, of which we are an active member. Since then, the campaign has succeeded in persuading Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Republic of Ireland, Malta, France, New Zealand, Canada, Greece, and Scotland to all repeal their blasphemy laws, with Spain committing to doing the same.
Blasphemy or blasphemous libel in Northern Ireland is a criminal offence under the common law of Ireland, and is also underpinned in legislation by the Criminal Libel Act 1819, the Libel Act 1843, the Newspaper Libel and Registration Act 1881, and the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888, which remain in force today. These would need to be amended to omit references to ‘blasphemy’ to remove these crimes from the statute books.
What we are doing
- Northern Ireland Humanists has been working with Justice and Finance Ministers Naomi Long and Conor Murphy to secure repeal. In 2021, the Department of Justice had hoped to bring about repeal through a forthcoming bill. However, in order for the Bill to go ahead with enough time to be considered by the Assembly, the focus had to be narrowed to reform of sexual offences and trafficking victims only. This meant that blasphemy was no longer within the scope of the Bill. Therefore it is unlikely that repeal of the blasphemy laws will be debated until after the Assembly elections due to happen May 2022.
- In 2019, we launched a campaign to repeal Northern Ireland’s blasphemy laws, encouraging members to contact their Members of the Legislative Assembly asking them to support the campaign. Almost 1,000 emails were sent. As a result, Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Alliance Party, the Green Party, and the People Before Profit Alliance to commit to repeal, with the UUP still developing policy on the matter, and only the DUP opposed.
If you are a resident of Northern Ireland, please write to your MLA and ask them to support repeal of the blasphemy laws.
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