Blasphemy and Blasphemy Libel

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 23rd November 2021.

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Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP 2:15 pm, 23rd November 2021

7. Mr Stewart asked the Minister of Justice what steps have been taken to review blasphemy and blasphemy libel as common law offences in Northern Ireland. (AQO 2787/17-22)

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemy libel are archaic and have no place in a 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 I am committed to freedom of and freedom from religion, and am sympathetic to removing such outdated and unused offences from the law.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 those common-law offences during this mandate. However, as Members will be aware, I did not get the full support needed to legislate in that respect as part of a miscellaneous provisions Bill.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

I thank the Minister for her answer and her responses to me on the matter over the past year or so. Before the laws on blasphemy, which are, in reality, dead letters, were removed in England and Wales, there was public consultation. Key stakeholders, such as the Church of England, were in favour of deletion. Why has similar preparatory work not taken place here? Will the Minister commit to seeking the views of church groups and other interested parties in a formal public consultation?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The reason that consultation has not taken place is that we have not developed policy in this area because there is not sufficient support for us to do so. My Department, like every other, has limited resource. Given that we are trying to legislate on five pieces of substantive legislation, and all the other work that the Justice Department is engaged in, we do not have the capacity to develop policy in an area that is not listed for legislation to be taken forward on. However, as I have said, it is my desire to see that done. There is a significant benefit to doing so. Before that happens, there will, of course, be a public consultation.

Photo of Ciara Ferguson Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

You will be aware that the blasphemy laws have been repealed in the South, and likewise in England and Wales and Scotland. Would you agree, as you have previously, that, although the laws are still on the statute here, they are outdated, do not represent the modern Ireland that we live in today, and should be removed as soon as possible?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I agree that the laws are both archaic and, more importantly, unused. Therefore, it makes sense to abolish them. My Department is competent to legislate in this area. Members are aware that I made efforts to do that as part of the overall miscellaneous provisions Bill preparations. Unfortunately, that was not possible because we ended up with a Bill that was much narrower in scope and that would not allow us to bring later amendments that might have addressed the issue. However, it is important, not only because they are archaic and unused, but because their removal would send out an important message to other jurisdictions where blasphemy laws are not unused and where they lead to people of a different faith to the majority persuasion being persecuted and, in some cases, sentenced to death. It is very difficult to go with any degree of credibility to those countries and demand the repeal of their blasphemy laws while our laws remain on the books.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Minister has touched on this, but I will ask the question. I am aware of the Minister's long-standing commitment to freedom of and freedom from religion. Does she share my frustration that we do not have a legislative vehicle to repeal those offences and that that should now be a priority?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I agree that it is frustrating that we do not have a vehicle. I have to say that it will not be our priority in my Department over coming months simply because of the pressure of other work that we desire to finish by March of next year. However, we hope to bring forward a miscellaneous provisions Bill in the next mandate and that the blasphemy laws will fit comfortably into that. It is not particularly complex legislation to repeal. As other Members have suggested, we will, of course, want to give people the opportunity to respond to any public consultation on that. However, it will not dramatically change the view that having archaic legislation on the books that is not in use is not particularly helpful to anyone.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

We have about 60 seconds left. There is just time for Mrs Barton to ask her question and get an answer.