Justice Minister Naomi Long says Northern Ireland’s blasphemy laws are archaic and should be repealed

Blasphemy laws in Northern Ireland are “archaic” and should be repealed, the Justice Minister has told MLAs.
Justice Minister Naomi LongJustice Minister Naomi Long
Justice Minister Naomi Long

Naomi Long said she had wanted to get rid of the laws during the current Stormont Assembly mandate, but was unable to get the support needed to legislate.

She said Northern Ireland had “no credibility” in asking countries where there is religious persecution to repeal their blasphemy laws, while the current legislation remains in statute.

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Northern Ireland’s blasphemy laws date back to the early 19th century. While they are unused, blasphemy and blasphemous libel remain offences. Blasphemy laws were abolished in England and Wales in 2008 and in Scotland this year.

Similar laws in the Republic of Ireland were repealed following a referendum in 2018. Comedian Stephen Fry had been investigated by police under the law following comments he made on Irish television in 2015, but was not charged with any offence.

Mrs Long was asked about the situation in Northern Ireland during ministerial question time at Stormont. She told MLAs: “I believe that the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemy 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“I am committed to freedom of, and freedom from religion and am sympathetic to removing such outdated and unused offences from the law.

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“My intention was to remove these common law offences during this mandate. However, I did not get the full support needed to legislate.”

Ulster Unionist MLA, John Stewart, asked: “Before the laws of blasphemy, which are in reality dead letters, were removed in England and Wales, there was a public consultation in which key stakeholders like the Church of England were in favour of deletion.

“Why has similar preparatory work not take place and will the minister seek the views of church groups and other interested parties in a formal public consultation?”

The minister responded: “The reason that the consultation has not taken place is because we have not developed policy in this area because there was not sufficient support for us to do so at this time.

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“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.”

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