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'The most vague, nebulous piece of legislation that we've ever seen'
Ben Scallan of Gript.ie talks about Ireland's Hate Speech Bill and the major free-speech conference taking place in Dublin on Saturday that he's helping to organise.
This coming Saturday afternoon, Irish online news magazine Gript.ie along with Free Speech Ireland and US magazine Public is hosting a major conference, ‘Ireland Uncensored’ at Dublin’s RDS.
In the run-up to the event, I talked to writer, commentator and presenter Ben Scallan of Gript.ie about the event and alarming rise of censorship in Ireland.
Thanks for speaking to us, Ben. This looks a brilliant event and is certainly creating a huge amount of interest in Ireland and beyond. Could you tell us about the thinking behind it.
The event is just meant to discuss the trend towards ever greater censorship that we're seeing in Ireland and across most of the Western world. It's going to be attended by Michael Shellenberger from the US and he's going to be speaking about the more global picture, because we're seeing very similar legislation being rolled out in Canada and America and Australia and even in the UK.
Here in Ireland, the legislation takes on a variety of forms. For example, we have a Hate Speech Bill which claims it's going to deal with the most extreme kinds of hateful rhetoric. But it's been phrased in such a vague manner that we fear that it will catch very ordinary speech in the dragnet of government censorship - unintentionally or intentionally, depending on your perspective.
So, for example, it's a Hate Speech Bill that doesn't define the word ‘hate’. When you look at the legislation, it says that hate is hate against people on the basis of X, Y and Z, which is a circular definition. It’s almost impossible to see how a court could enforce that.
Similarly, it lists a group of protected characteristics, and one of them is it says it protects 'genders other than that of male or female'. But when I asked the Irish taoiseach, our equivalent of a prime minister, Leo Varadkar, to enumerate how many genders there actually are, he said that the government has no official position on that. The leader of the Irish Seanad, our senate, Regina Doherty was speaking at the Scottish Parliament last year and said that there are ‘about’ nine genders. It could be eight, that could be 10. It's somewhere in that ballpark so far as she's concerned.
So, the government has no official position on this, which means that if you were to try and enforce a law like this, you could potentially be convicted of expressing hatred against a gender that the government can't even define it and they don't even know what hatred means. It’s the most vague, nebulous piece of legislation that we've ever seen. The standard of legislative scrutiny is incredibly poor. There are many people in Ireland who are deeply concerned about it. So, we're having an event primarily to discuss this bill and its potential ramifications for society.
And I think I'm right in saying that one of the key things about this piece of legislation is that you don't even have to say anything in order to be able to get caught within its powers, because you can just be in possession of something sitting on your computer or your phone. Really?
Yeah. It gives the police the authority to enter your home and seize your devices, like your phone or your computer or any other kinds of materials you might have in your possession. And if they find what they believe to be hate materials, they have the authority to accuse you of intending to distribute them, and you are presumed guilty unless you can prove your own innocence. So, the usual burden of proof has been reversed. Now you have to somehow show ‘No, officer. I didn't intend to hand out these leaflets or I didn't intend to share this meme with a friend.’ And I don't even know how you would do that, frankly. I mean, is this supposed to be a paper trail of you saying to your friend, ‘Oh, by the way, I'm not going to hand out that that brochure later on’? You know, it's sort of an absurdity. This is the sort of legislation that the government is considering and there's really no appetite for it whatsoever within the country. And they just don't seem to be bothered by that. They seem to be absolutely determined to go ahead regardless of how unpopular it makes them.
Ireland likes to portray itself as a very tolerant place these. So, it's interesting that this legislation is going through now.
You know, I find it very interesting that just earlier this year, the Irish government published a piece of commissioned research, which found that Irish people are overwhelmingly tolerant of other people's races, religions, sexual orientations, genders, etc - any other equality group you want to name. And they said this around the time that they were trying to bolster the case for their liberal immigration policies. So, at the exact same time they're telling us how we need hate-speech laws because Ireland is becoming such a horrible, racist hellhole, they're also telling us, ‘But of course, Irish people would support mass immigration because Irish people are so tolerant, don't you know?’
And this is the same government using this sort of cognitive dissidence. I think it's very interesting that they can't seem to get their story straight. I don't see any evidence that Ireland has seen an increase in hatred or, you know, the government hasn't provided any credible evidence to back that up. They've pointed to 'non-crime hate incidents' which are totally vague and nebulous. They really are grasping at straws as they try to justify this thing and stand it up.
Turning to the conference, who's involved and how has it come about?
So it was announced earlier this year, and it's being organised by my publication, Gript.ie along with Free Speech Ireland, which is a group which, as you can imagine from their name, have campaigned for on free speech issues here in Ireland. And they do terrific work there. Michael Shellenberger in the US, and his publication called Public, they're also involved.
We've all come together in Dublin at the RDS to discuss this critically important issue, because I think that Ireland is a unique country, if I do say so myself, that, you know, there's lots of countries where there's censorship happening and it's important everywhere. But I think that Ireland's historical legacy as a country that in the Middle Ages and before that preserved much of Western civilisation by protecting books is something that we should specifically be very proud of.
I'm not sure how many people are familiar with this, but back during the Dark Ages, after the fall of Rome, when Europe was being savaged by barbarian tribes, it was Irish monks who were going into danger to retrieve books and great works of literature to bring them back to remote islands like Skellig Michael and Inishmore. And they would copy the manuscripts in their monasteries and preserve them for the benefit of future generations.
So far as I'm concerned, Irish people are people who have always protected words and ideas, and I think it will be a real unique crying shame for this country of all countries to turn our backs on that legacy and to become like the barbaric tribes that we once stood against.
It’s also quite important for today as well, because there’s so many tech and social media companies who have headquarters for their European operations in Ireland. So, it’s important in terms of setting down a marker of opposition in that respect as well?
Yes, absolutely. I think that Ireland is sort of like the Silicon Valley of Europe and the fact that so many of the hi-tech companies have their headquarters here, because of our famously low corporate tax rate, means that this has implications for everybody across the European Union. Anybody who uses social-media companies like Facebook and so on will be impacted by what happens here to a greater or lesser extent.
So, I think that the world's eyes are on Ireland as regards this issue for good reason, and I don't think our politicians have helped themselves or covered themselves in glory when we've seen clips go viral of one Irish government senator who explicitly said that the bill is about restricting freedom for the common good - those were her exact words! And this went internationally viral. Foreign news outlets picked it up because it's just such an outrageous statement. I think people are certainly paying attention to what's happening in the Emerald Isle, which I think most people probably wouldn't ever have expected something like that to happen here.
Give us a few other names of people that are speaking on Saturday.
So we have Helen Joyce, the Irish journalist who has been doing terrific work as regards discussing gender issues. Also, the Irish psychotherapist Stella O'Malley and Kevin Sharkey, who's a world-renowned artist and he was a TV presenter in Ireland. We have John McGuirk, the editor of my publication. I'll be speaking as well.
Niall Boylan, who is an award-winning radio presenter here in Ireland, is very popular. He's one of the few dissenting voices that we have in radio who is not woke and doesn't toe the line on all of the major issues. And then also the very outspoken independent senator Sharon Keoghan, who similarly is one of our kind of saner voices in the Irish Senate who weighs in on these kinds of issues. A very, very impressive line-up. And I think people are going to enjoy it quite a bit.
There's going to be speeches, panel discussions, and plenty of opportunity audience members to weigh in with their questions. So, all of that together should make for a very interesting and dynamic event.
Sounds excellent. Good luck!
Ireland Uncensored takes place on Saturday 16 September from 12.30pm to 5pm. Tickets cost €14.99. Although the event is sold out, there is a waiting list available to take advantage of ticket returns. Find out more here.
Free speech will also be a major theme of the Battle of Ideas festival in London on Saturday 28 & Sunday 29 October at Church House, Westminster, including the session Online censorship: an international clampdown? For more information and tickets, visit the Battle of Ideas festival website. Early-bird discounts are available until Monday 25 September.