Villagers - Letters to the Editor 2006-02-16

Publishing the cartoons - Legislating for blasphemy bizarre and unworkable

I agree with your contention in last week's editorial that there is no absolute right to freedom of speech. I also believe that we need to look again at the issue of blasphemy. I don't believe the State should legislate on any religion in any way, especially blasphemy. Provision, in law, against blasphemy in a multi-religious state is not only bizarre but also unworkable.

For example, one of the central tenets of Christianity is that Jesus Christ is the son of God and thus Divine. My understanding (although I am not an expert) is that in Islam Jesus Christ is regarded as an important prophet, but not the son of God and thus not divine. Surely this theological difference allows ample opportunity for fundamentalists from either faith to claim blasphemy against the other. Along the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious thread, it is not difficult to find multiple other example of basic doctrines which conflict and thus lead to offence.

I believe that the State should stay far away from legislating on any primarily religious issue, such as blasphemy, as this can lead to individuals (of any religion) using it to promote distorted world views. As WB Yeats was reported as saying on the adoption of the Constitution in 1937, "Once you attempt legislation upon religious grounds, you open the way for every kind of intolerance and religious persecution."

Matthew Sadlier, North Circular Road, Limerick

Clash of civilisations debate

In the midst of all the commentary and coverage of the Danish cartoon controversy, a certain theme has, not unexpectedly, raised its head. I refer, of course, to the "Clash of Civilisations" debate, which is being offered up in some quarters as an explanation for the anger that has erupted. According to this theory, the Arab/Muslim world is in the grip of religious fervour and hence finds itself at odds with the "western, liberal, secular tradition" or whatever adjectives you choose to insert.

Western Europe (and by extension the Americas) is regarded as having societies where freedom of expression is absolute and paramount to the democratic functioning of the state. The adverse consequences of this can only be addressed through vigorous public debate, right of criticism and vigilance. This state of affairs is considered to have evolved out of centuries of struggle against the forces of blind (one might even say "religious") obscurantism. From the Renaissance and Galileo through to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, all these events have left their mark on our intellectual and cultural tradition. Fair enough, but do we in the West really merit such a pat on the back?

If an outsider was to evaluate Irish society solely by reference to the fundamental law of the land as laid down in our Constitution, such a person might well come to unflattering conclusions. There is no such thing as an absolute right to freedom of conscience or the free profession and practice of religion according to Bunreacht na hÉireann, because Article 44.2.1 makes this "subject to public order and morality".

If Ireland was a mainly Muslim country, or even a country in which Islam constituted a significant minority (and who is to say this will not be the case at some point in the future?) a case could quite easily be brought under Irish law for the banning of offensive material such as the Danish cartoons. I should state here I haven't seen them but can only assume that they offend against "public order and morality" for some at least.

Article 40.6.1(i) of Bunreacht na hÉireann even specifies that "the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law". The Irish Times in its edition of 4 February 2006 points out that "while the Constitution and the law in Ireland prohibit blasphemy, the only attempt to mount such a prosecution in the State's history ended in failure". Why do we have these laws on our statute books in the first case?

I would suggest the reason is that, invariably, laws are the last thing to change as a society and a people change. Legislators are constantly locked in a battle to keep up with changes in public opinion.

If we really wish to address ourselves to our Muslim brothers and sisters from the standpoint of 21st century intellectual enlightenment, and not just as a bunch of condescending chauvinists, then we really should start to clear out the skeletons in our own cupboards. As Ireland moves into a new era of multi-culturalism (and one could raise here the point as to when were we ever mono-cultural?) there is a lot that a lot of us would like to leave behind.

Oscar Ó Dúgáin, Fionnghlaise, Baile Átha Cliath 11

Publish the cartoons

I think Village has a responsibility to publish the cartoons. I know that this issue has been hijacked by extremists, but the fact that Muslim clerics and leaders will not unconditionally condemn the behaviour is appalling.

Since when was violence a justified response to a cartoon? It is not the cartoons that perpetuate the perception that Islamic culture and Muslim extremism are inherently linked, it is the acts by certain individuals in the name of the Qu'ran and Allah, etc and the refusal of their cultural and religious leaders to castigate them and their doctrines.

The current response is a perfect example of how Islamic society is condemning itself. This is not the West painting unfair and xenophobic portraits of an ethnic or religious group based on unfounded prejudices. It is the refusal of that group to take responsibility for the actions of a minority in the name of their mutual religious principles. Why must the US and UK stand up and condemn the cartoons? Jordan and Egypt and the rest won't stand up and condemn the behaviour of people acting in the name of their shared religion.

If a man blew up a bus in the name of Christianity, leaders the world over would shout out against it. If he burnt an embassy because of a cartoon depicting Jesus unfavourably we would commit him for insanity.

The image of Mohammed wearing a bomb for a turban tells a deeper story than mere ridicule of a religious icon or deity, or simple racism, it tells the story of a cultural clash based on misperceptions, which, it has to be said, are largely created and maintained by the actions/lack of action/lack of self-awareness of one side.

Eoghan Murphy, Geneva

Cartoon coverage - The Irish Times and 'The clash of civilisations'

An editorial in Saturday's Irish Times, 4 February 2006, marks a dramatic change in "the old woman of D'Olier street" thinking. Gone is the long held Irish Times opinion that "the only way the relatively small number of al-Qaedaists can succeed is if the rest of the world acts as though Islam is to blame. The most important thing it (the West) must do is not to fall into the trap of playing their game. There is no clash of civilisations." (Irish Times editorial, 13 July 2005.)

That was before a handful of radical Imans tried to whip up a media storm after some stupid cartoons were printed last September in a newspaper in Denmark. The Imans failed and decided to take the 12 cartoons on tour (along with three unexplained extras, which showed Muhammad with the face of a pig; a dog sodomising a praying Muslim; and Muhammad as a paedophile) on tour. The Danish newspaper had apologised and the cartoons got scant attention until, on 10 January, a Christian publication in Norway reprinted them. A number of right-wing European newspapers followed suit, which led to angry protests around the Muslim world.

The radical Imans, aided and abetted by right-wing media, had managed to manufacture their storm.

"The Clash of Civilisations", one of the basic tenets of neo-conservativism, is based on Samuel P Huntington's famous (or notorious) 1993 essay. The essay argued that, with the end of the cold war, "the clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilisations." Islam versus the West.

Weighing in with neo-conservatives, the Irish Times editorial (4 February 2006) made what it called "uncomfortable choices". "Islam, and our attempts to accommodate it within our multicultural societies, is forcing the acknowledgement of an uncomfortable reality. There is in truth, a clash of civilisations in the modern world."

This new editorial policy was evident on the same edition's front page, where a screaming headline declared, "Images Of Muhammad on display in Chester Beatty", further fanning the flames. With no irony, the article quoted a spokesman from the Chester Beatty saying "when they are on display we don't shout about it. We try to be discreet". A spokeswoman for the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh is quoted as saying "We would just ignore those images if we went to the library". So why the headline?

The Irish Times 13 July 2005 was of the opinion that "the al-Qaedaists need a clash of civilisations. They can never achieve their aims on their own". The neo-conservatives have provided them with by far their best recruiting tool to date, "Operation Iraqi Freedom". But this is but the first of many steps on the road to their "Project for a New American Century".

It seems that the Irish Times has decided to help them.

Pat Fitzgerald, Sandymount, Dublin 4

Road safety - Problematic slow drivers

The new penalty points will criminalise road courtesy. We will no longer be clicking our hazards to thank some considerate trucker who kindly moved into the hard shoulder to allow faster traffic pass-by. This courtesy has been an Irish solution to an Irish problem and, quite frankly, is the only common sense approach for slow and fast vehicles to safely negotiate the single lane national road network. Before it's too late I wish to thank truckers and tractors for their unfailing courtesy to car drivers. Their road sense can often be the difference between arriving at a destination safe and sane or two hours late, frustrated and full of rage.

Much blame for accidents has been laid at the foot of the faster driver. In my experience it is the slower drivers who are the cause of most near misses I've witnessed. The slow driver will drive under the speed limit, they will not have the skill, confidence or courtesy to allow the mounting traffic to pass and after 20 or 30 miles of this situation drivers at the rear of the convoy get impatient and start taking risks. We have all witnessed slow drivers who purposely thwart all efforts at being passed. Why not penalise the inconsiderate driver and make the truckers' road courtesy mandatory.

If Martin Cullen approves penalty points for illegal overtaking we will all have to drive at the pace of the slowest drivers whether they drive at two or 20 km per hour.

Rossa Ó Snodaigh, SCR, Dublin 8

Finance Bill - Government's lack of social vision exposed

The Government's absence of social vision is so serious as to call into question its commitment to even the most minimal form of citizenship. There is nothing in the Finance Bill that will encourage or facilitate inclusion or participation.

Over the years, different governments have suggested that the absence of funds was responsible for their inability to authorise much-needed capital expenditure in the areas of housing, education, transport and environment etc. The present Government has record historic surpluses in revenue, yet is has not released such funding as would meet the basic needs in all of these areas – needs that should properly be constituted as rights.

Of the 81,000 housing finishes in the current year, about 6,000 were in social housing: less than a quarter of what we were building in the 1970s for a much smaller population. The Government's taxation incentives have been such as to encourage limitless multiple house ownership by speculators.

The heart has been torn out of the economy by the housing issue, with government encouragement. The Government has sought to retreat from the provision of social housing in favour of what it calls affordable housing. The qualification, of course, for these two different forms of housing are entirely different.

In education, it has accepted hundreds of schools that are below the levels that would meet health and safety standards and it has put on the long finger the provision of new schools. In transport it regards as acceptable the payment of half a billion euro over the next decades to those who are holding motorists to ransom. It refuses to address the imbalance between public transport and the roads budget.

It is resuming the social partnership talks with broken promises in housing, health, environment and education. It is ideologically driving the sale of State assets, including its destructive proposals for the Great Southern Hotel Group. It refuses to address the prohibition on the union movement from representing atypical workers in collective bargaining.

This is a discredited Government that has squandered the best opportunity to redress the long-standing deep structural inequalities in our society.

MICHAEL D HIGGINS TD, Labour Party President and TD for Galway West

The full text of Michael D Higgins' speech on the second stage of the Finance Bill is available at

Matt Cooper - No evidence of danger of 'magic' mushrooms

Matt Cooper's column in your last issue stated that there is no doubt that "magic" mushrooms are dangerous to the health of whoever consumes them. The above statement would be true if the word "doubt" were replaced with the word "evidence". The body of scientific research shows that mushrooms are not harmful to the healthy adult user.

The most comprehensive study yet conducted into mushrooms was carried out by the Coordination Centre for the Assessment and Monitoring of New Drugs (CAM), a Dutch government body, which states that "the drug is not associated with physical or psychological dependency... The use of paddos (hallucinogenic mushrooms) does not, on balance, present any risk to the health of the individual."

Matt Cooper cites the well reported death last October to support his claim. However, it must be noted that this is based only on hearsay and media reportage of same. The inquest has not yet been held. The man's family has said that he vomited several times after ingesting the mushrooms, and approximately 25 minutes after consuming them, he jumped to his death. The typical onset time for mushroom intoxication is 45 minutes to one hour, and if a person vomits after consuming them, no intoxication is possible, as the substance has been expelled from the body. Therefore, it is far from certain that mushrooms played any role whatsoever in this tragic incident.

I would encourage Matt Cooper to carry out his own research in future, rather than making assumptions based on emotive tabloid reportage.

Brendan Hogan, Drogheda, Co Louth

Debate about 1916 - Revising history

Maurice O'Connell and Pierce Martin (Village 2-8 February) both seek to establish a singularly tenuous case: that events in Ireland between the years 1916 and 1921 were without cause, context or explanation, apart from standard Dublin Castle propaganda tropes. Those who know even a little about the history of the period have much to be grateful for that, as it demonstrates in the clearest and shrillest terms the intellectual bankruptcy and hollowness of revisionism: not to wish to echo Martin's fundamentalist rants, but such is the case.

Maurice O'Connell conveniently omits much of the actual fact surrounding the reason for the Volunteer split, indeed the reason that Irish participation in Britain's war had any support: namely, the promise of Home Rule, was definitively scuppered by British endorsement of the UVF rebellion. The decision by the British Government to give cabinet seats to an organisation formed for the purpose of violent resistance to British policy in Ireland was the main reason for the increasing unpopularity of Redmond.

It is disingenuous to cite statistics, as does O'Connell, in absolute terms, without relating them to the actual sequence of events that gives them meaning. Keith Jeffery in Ireland and the Great War (Cambridge, 2000) states that, as opposed to the period between August 1914 and February 1915, when 50,107 men enlisted in the British army, the figures dropped to 25,235 between February and August 1915, and fell again to 19,801 between August 1915 and February 1916.

The Home Rule Party may have won majority support on a "constitutional" platform, but Redmond's sheer political incompetence in actually delivering on his commitments and his warmongering for Britain even after the cause of Home Rule had failed, is quite enough to account for the rapid disappearance of his party. The Home Rule party's mandate expired in 1915, and the election which should have been held that year was suspended, and instead a war cabinet installed with two UVF members aboard.

Martin says: "In 1916 the path to constitutional politics was wide open to any party, or individual legally entitled to engage in politics [sic.] and advance an independence agenda." Yes, except that the UVF and the Home Rule crisis had put paid to this fantasy. Even though he admits the fact that the 1918 elections were legitimate, for some reason he cannot allow this legitimacy to extend to Ireland. He repeats the canard that "despite gaining 73 seats, Sinn Féin secured less than [?] 48 per cent of the vote".

Peter Beresford Ellis, in the 1989 Desmond Greaves Memorial Lecture, entitled "Revisionism and Irish Historical Writing: The New Anti-Nationalist School of Historians", points out that one only arrives at this figure by conveniently omitting the percentages accruing from the 26 constituencies where Sinn Féin candidates stood unopposed. But even if this figure were accurate, to take seriously Martin's criterion for democratic legitimacy would lead to some very odd results: for example, Tony Blair's Labour government, by Martin's standards, is not legitimate, as it was elected by only 37 per cent of the British electorate.

What Martin really wants to say, though, is that no Irish vote for independence from Britain was, is, or ever could be legitimate, and this is a different claim. It means that British strategic interests decide what is to count as "democratic". On this criterion, of course, any Irish man or woman who does anything but profess undying loyalty to Empire deserves to be put between two Crossley tenders and torn to pieces (a favourite pastime of Martin's folk heroes, the Black and Tans).

Martin, by questioning the legitimacy of the Irish Republic, an accomplished fact and one that is not negotiable, is attacking a democratic state, and is thus espousing the very "terror" and "fascist" tendencies he attributes to others. I note that in his litany of "slaughter", Verdun and the Somme stand as morally unproblematic, and this is quite consistent with his position as apologist.

Andrew McGrath, Dublin 7

STATEMENT - There are alternatives to neoliberalism

On Saturday 18 February international speakers will address a conference on Alternatives to Neoliberalism in Liberty Hall, Dublin (

The crisis in our public services (especially health and social care) and the impact of immigrants in Ireland have become everyday topics of debate. Both are a result of neoliberal politics: cuts in state spending; and letting the market dictate employment.

In the market for labour Ireland is a destination for East Europeans who can't find work at home. Irish Ferries highlighted what's happening: employers are using cheap migrant labour and where they can they pay the minimum wage. Restricting immigration to protect "Irish" jobs and wages has been suggested. Yet this ignores the reality that East Europeans are already victims of IMF and EU neoliberal policies: privatisation, closure of state enterprises and cuts in state spending – which have caused mass unemployment, poverty and wages of €3 an hour. The EU's solution – east and west – is competition.

Such competition is a race to the bottom, which the EU Services Directive would worsen. The "country of origin" principle would make it very difficult to regulate services, leading to more "Irish Ferries" situations. Promoting competition in public services would bring more privatisation, with profits as the priority rather than quality or access to services. This is the neoliberal agenda of the Irish and EU elites, contained also in the EU Constitution.

This conference will discuss Irish and Europe-wide alternatives: an end to de-regulating directives (services, postal, rail, energy, etc.); for proper funding of public services; an end to militarism; and policies where social and environmental needs come first.

Arguing for social justice and an alternative to EU neoliberalism will be Susan George, a leading figure in the French 'NON' campaign ( ). Contributors include Conall Ó Caoimh of Comhlamh and Andy Storey of AfrI. Catherine Murphy (Independent TD, North Kildare) will chair.

Presenting the case against EU militarism will be Frank Slijper ( Irish participation in EU battlegroups will be discussed and Richard Douthwaite will contribute on sustainability – with Senator David Norris in the chair.

Brian Denny (RMT rail union in Britain) will speak on the EU's role in the privatisation of public services. Contributors include Eddie Conlon of the TUI (personal capacity), Mick O'Reilly of the ATGWU, and representatives of CIE unions, with Jack O'Connor of SIPTU as chair.

Brendan Young, Campaign Against the EU Constitution. More: Phone: 087 230 8330/087 926 6764

STATEMENT - Kenya urgently needs food aid

The arid north of Kenya is suffering its second severe drought in only three years. A new UN assessment of need recommends that two thirds of the population should receive immediate food aid. Clean water and basic health care are also urgently needed. Yet an International Red Cross appeal for funds has so far received only 25 per cent of the sum requested. This suggests that it is highly unlikely this week's UN appeal to the international community for $230 million will be met in full, or anywhere near in full.

Meanwhile, three quarters of the nomadic people's cattle, upon which they depend, are dead. The market price for a cow has plummeted from $67 to $4. It's like being made redundant and having your bank account cleared out all at the same time.

At last September's UN Millennium Summit, a fund was proposed to provide urgent immediate relief when the situation demands it. Our government has offered to contribute €10 million, and a few other governments have also made offers. But the majority of rich countries have not. So, while people in Kenya are dying, UN officials scramble frantically with the begging bowl to find the money to buy and transport food supplies. What absurdity!

By their callous indifference, the rich country leaders are turning their backs on the desperate plight of millions of poor people on the brink of starvation. This is an affront to our civilisation and values – whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or whatever. Such obscene behaviour may represent the realpolitik response typical of big power politicians, but let us not forget that it is being done in the names of us, the citizens, who overwhelmingly support greater generosity. It seems our democracy doesn't always work! How then should the citizenry respond?

Brian Scott, Executive Director, Oxfam Ireland, 9 Burgh Quay, Dublin 2