Holy Orders

Posted on January 2, 2010, under evoting, general.

So, yesterday marked the day that the new Blasphemy law came into force in Ireland. It also marked the day when Atheist Ireland published 25 “blasphemous” quotes, in a supposed act of defiance.

Atheist Ireland have gone about it in a very strange way; the url in their blog post is not a hyperlink, and the quotes aren’t simply in their post or on their front page. That’s their prerogative, of course, but I do wonder if it’s a sign of overt caution. Either way, the circus seems to have worked, and CNN and the BBC have both picked it up, among many more.

As a press-stunt, it’s genius. Getting the attention of the international media like that is not easy, and through careful choice of celebrities to quote, and the right tone, Atheist Ireland have pulled off a well-executed PR coup.

But as an act of online advocacy, and of affecting political change, frankly it’s stupid. And I think that Atheist Ireland will have approximately zero success. Such is the magnitude of their “not getting it” that they are probably forever doomed to an existence of committeeism and tokenism in near-equal measure.

Firstly, the action itself is ineffective, it does not – in my opinion – constitute any kind of an offence. Let’s go to the source, the 2009 Defamation Act;

(2) For the purposes of this section, a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if—

(a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and

(b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.

(3) It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.

Clearly there is political, scientific and academic value in Atheist Ireland’s statements. If they really wanted to engage in civil disobedience, it would take something akin to cartoons of the prophet, getting it on in a threesome with Buddha and Jesus while being bitten by some vampire Jehova’s Witnesses. That’s what the law was designed to impede. To be clear, I don’t agree with that law, I think freedom of speech is more important than a bizarre right not to be offended, but the law simply isn’t of the nature that Atheist Ireland and others imply.

I’m not sure if it’s willful misrepresentation, but by conveying the impression that the new law is designed to outlaw such trivial, and relatively innocuous, statements of the sort that Atheist Ireland quotes it is only serving to undermine Atheist Ireland’s own credibility. In light of the actual facts, it’s hard to take them seriously on the issue. Sacrificing integrity and accuracy for punchy-PR is never a great idea, long term.

To be fair to Atheist Ireland, they don’t actually claim that their statements are prosecutable, and are making the broader (but again, tokenistic) point that the law is simply silly and unworkable. Great, that’s an important point – but what use is making so much noise about it? This actually entrenches politicians and makes them less and less likely to respond favourably. It’s ironic that this the kind of reactionary “we must be listened to” tokenism that led to the law in the first place.

PR-led advocacy groups, which are really pressure groups almost never work in Ireland. There simply isn’t any political incentive to respond to pressure on these kind of issues. Across all of Ireland there are maybe 200 swing votes on the Blasphemy issue, thinly spread across the constituencies. Elected politicians, rightly, place it very low on the agenda. Going to 2 funerals, fixing some lamps, and changing a speed limit or two will get you as many votes – and in one parish.

Real, successful, advocacy groups don’t look like this. Instead there are small, targeted and strategic efforts. It’s lots of small meetings, tactically-directed briefs and letters and relationship building. The effective groups work somewhat within the system, more quietly, and get a lot more done. Groups like Barnardos get more mileage from lobbying the Department of Finance behind the scenes than they do out of a hundred press releases.

When we were running our campaigns against E-voting, I’m convinced we made ten times as much progress by working quietly behind the scenes than we ever did through PR-based activity. In order to run a successful effort, I think it’s important to keep some basics in mind;

  • Think in terms of the people you are trying to influence, and how they perceive it. How do you make your cause be in their interest? What can you do for them?

  • If it’s a political change you need, how do you frame the issue in terms of jobs, money or core political ideology (ideally patriotism)? If you need to influence a small number of politicians, how do you make the issue about their legacy?

  • If you plan to take your case to the courts, how do you influence the context in which judges rule? How do you develop and frame legal theory, how do you make it such that “your side” seems like the obviously equitable one, to judges and their peer-group. An article in a legal journal espousing your side will go a long way.

  • When you do make a press-release or PR effort, consider very carefully the question “How will this actually progress our cause? what are we aiming to achieve here”. Inciting rage, generating “pressure” and elevating one’s personal profile should be non-goals, they aren’t effective. A lot of progress can me made by suppressing your ego and not taking credit; ghost-writing political speeches and news editorials is incredibly common, for example. Have those been considered first?

    An effective goals would be “increasing awareness, and converting this into membership and resources”. A clueful organisation ends their campaign with a notice to donate money, rather than to sign a petition. It’s an important dictinction, the money can help make real change, most petitions are ignored.

Bottom line; always judge an advocacy group by the amount of actual progress they make on their issues, not column inches. And if you are an advocacy group, ask at every stage – for every action – “what is the sequence of events I hope to trigger that will actually cause the change I desire?”.

Now, to be more constructive. What would I do? Firstly, I think the priority should be to convert all of the PR into money, and to use that money to fund legal research. Small, but targeted academic briefs – aiming for 3 or more papers a year establishing the jurisprudence of the blasphemy law. The aim would be to establish a credible context in which it showed that the law is out of place, that it doesn’t fit with many of our international treaty commitments and is comparatively regressive.

Next priority would be to start to frame the issue as anti-republican. Ireland is at a very important cross-roads, in the wake of the Ryan and Murphy reports there are calls for more church-state separation. The way to capitalise on this is to make the case for a newly invigorated Republicanism, one of the great Irish political ideals. Republics are supposed to be by and for the people, relatively free of church interference. Our proclamation says;

The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.

It’s not that hard to frame the blasphemy law as anti-republican.

With a few short years of that kind of hard work, it would be possible to create a context in which an Irish politician could see it as in their interest, and in the betterment of their legacy, that they bravely spear-head a new Republican ideal.

Backed by research and briefs which will help them not look stupid to their peer-group, or in the face of opposition questions, we can give them the confidence to propose it in the first place. This is what achieving real change looks like; careful groundwork. The system simply isn’t going to respond whining from a marginalised minority group.

The good news is that it’s doable. It took us a long time to get it finished, but a relatively small group of e-voting campaigners finally managed to get a key government policy 100% reversed. And this was in spite of far more political (and real economic) capital having been invested than in the new blasphemy law. There were many many small meetings, letters, briefing documents, ghost-written speeches and editorials, researched papers, legal strategies and only about 2 press releases per year on average – with a cluster around 2004 during the run up to the elections.

To me, based on experience with ICTE and other lobby groups, that’s a lot more like what this kind of successful advocacy looks like. I do hope Atheist Ireland, or another secular-interest group, can find the time and experience to develop these issues properly, but for now it doesn’t seem promising.

Update: Throwing caution to the wind, Atheist Ireland have now made the url I mentioned a hyperlink and published the quotes on their front page. Also, there’s some lively discussion in the comments to this post.

24 Replies to "Holy Orders"


Pádraig Brady  on January 2, 2010

I noticed their god damned DB crashed thus missing the large wave of visitors.


Jason S  on January 3, 2010

An interesting article that makes some good points. One point to note though, the Humanists (HAI) have tried the working quietly in the background approach for a number of years and haven’t met with much success e.g. on the question of legal recognition of Humanist weddings.


Gerard Cunningham  on January 3, 2010

At an Atheist Ireland meeting last summer, I proposed the deliberate desecration of a communion wafer, a la PZ Myers. The offer was declined. Watch this space…


Grania S  on January 3, 2010

What makes you so certain that they are not doing things behind the scenes?


colmmacc  on January 3, 2010

@Grania I’m certain of nothing. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem likely, the campaign has the hallmarks of ego-driven tokenism. It’s finger-wagging. How does it result in change?

My biggest gripe is the mis-impression that AI are creating. The 25 quotes simply are not what the law is written against, nowhere to AI make the real facts of the law plain. If AI can’t be trusted as authoritative on their own core issue, I can’t see them getting very far. Being right is step one of successful advocacy.

Secondly, if AI were working hard behind the scenes, this PR would be contrary to those efforts. Right now, Dermot Ahern is the minister, and we have the government we have. Mocking them may make us feel better about ourselves, but it isn’t likely to get them to change their minds. It’s not effective relationship building. More likely Ahern is being commended by his cabinet colleagues for the excellent distraction he has managed in rough political times.


Kevin lyda  on January 3, 2010

While there are some good points there are some basic flaws in the above.

Your comments about evoting are not as applicable as you think. Evoting directly affected politicians. I can’t recall her name, but a well known politician lost in one of the evoting constituencies and the reaction to that loss across all parties was very negative. It was clear to me on that day that evoting wasn’t going to happen in Ireland.

Secondly, the evoting machines lingered for years. Cynically one could view them as a way to funnel state funds to supporters rather than a continuation of evoting policy. But that was a huge waste of money that no one managed to prevent. I’d hardly view that as a success.

The blasphemy law is not of the above nature. It does not directly affect politicians. I think it a hugely corrosive type of law in that there is wide discression in how it’s applied and it is very subjective.

Assuming AI plays its cards right, this is a point it can make regardless of prosecution. If they are prosecuted it will fly in the face of what should be done in a modern secular society. If not, they can point out the corrosive capriciouness of the law.

Either way legal defenses will be created. Either AI gets to try out the defence described or others who are prosecuted can point to the lack of prosecution in AIs case.

There are those who support this law – something I think you overlook. Some will want AI prosecuted. And they will be asking why no prosecutions are forthcoming if none appear. Flushing out your opponents is also useful.

Lastly you assume only one tactic at a time can be used. I think PR groups and policywonk groups each play their part. Neither is as successful on their own as they can be together.


colmmacc  on January 3, 2010

@Kevin, I think you’re thinking of Nora Owen – and it didn’t seem to make a blind bit of difference to the rollout. It was nearly 2 years after her loss that the government bought 7,000 machines and authorised the accelerated national rollout.

There were some changes made to the system of delivering results, and the new plan was that they would be revealed round by round, over a number of minutes – to ease the shock. But I don’t think Nora Owen’s reaction in Citywest had much of an effect on the political plans.

As for lingering for years, it took 5 years to get from abandonment of the machines to an official policy change. I don’t think this was a conspiracy to channel funds though, quite a small amount of money (mainly on centralising storage) was expended in that time and we were successful in avoiding further wastes of money. (The Department of the Environment wanted to create a well-paid “high profile” consultant position to act as an internal E-voting tsar, for example, which was sidelined).

Now, on to the blasphemy law. Ahern and others, following the hoopla raised, introduced the statutory defence amendment to make the law “practically impossible to prosecute” . In other words; they admitted the law was about tokenism, wrote that in, but kept the original text too to save face. Change had already happened.

In very real terms, the law is practically unprosecuteable – even the Danish cartoons could claim the literary defence.

What’s going on now is a relatively abstract and meaningless culture war, without any real concrete consequences back in the real world. Fine, if AI want to engage in a culture war, and to “flush out” biggots and idiots, this will probably work – but what real effect is there?

As for your last point, see my response to Grania. More than one tactic at a time can be used, but it requires coordination and care.


steve white  on January 3, 2010

its you who went on and on and missed the point, they made submissions to the committee and presidents council , then they highlighted the that implementation the law, what more could they do. especially if you say the law is unprosecutable, why did ahern include a law the state have ignored for decades?


colmmacc  on January 3, 2010


Ok, making a submission to the president’s council convinces me that AI really don’t get the Irish political system. The act is most certainly constitutional, and that’s the only grounds on which the president could have made an Article 25 reference.

I don’t know Ahern’s motivations, but my best guess would be that his personal values lead him to genuinely believe that its appropriate. He may have wanted to create a political distraction too, but that’s harder to say for sure. Either way, it’s his own little baby in the culture war.

Once there was uproar though, retaining the language was all about saving political face – it’s just good old fashioned stubbornness.

As for what more could they do; I’ve made concrete suggestions.


steve white  on January 3, 2010

*shakes head* my point about the submission to the justice committee and the presidents was council was to show that, AI are going through officials channels as well as trying to highlight the law in the papers. i didn’t say they would make much difference to intransigent establishment. you mostly raised questions rather then provided answers, who are we supposed to get to write these briefs? the difference with evoting was that it was am meaty technical issue, its very hard to thee campaign against empheral things, traditions that are already implemented and that the gov wants to ignore as if there no problem, like the other issues, AI wants to campaign on, like education, separation of church and state and secular constitution.


colmmacc  on January 3, 2010

@Steve See my point in the post though “what is the sequence of events I hope to trigger that will actually cause the change I desire?” – how on earth would a submission to the president help? It was wasted effort. If AI want to succeed at making a change, it’s time to get serious and focused.

Funding briefs and research is not hard, practically every university will bite your fingers off! If it were me, I’d go to a library and index the last few years of papers published by Irish academics – find any in a relevant area and open up a correspondence with them. That’s how you get the most bang for your buck. The easier way still, but costs more, is to ask a law firm to prepare such research and briefs. Any of the big ones will do it, it’s their line of work.

I only use e-voting because I am more free to talk about it, but I’m an active lobbyist for other organisations and on other issues – including ethereal abstractions like privacy and civil liberties.

The government can ignore the issue as if there was no problem because there is no problem, for them. Politicians are very good at gauging the aggregate of public opinion and they’re incentivised to respond to that. Like I said; 200 votes.

The solution is to change the context, change how the issue is framed, and to magnify its significance.


steve white  on January 3, 2010

oh jesus christ, what hell with with is wrong with putting in submission to the justice committee and the president council, its very much standard practice for lobbying you do everything officially and then if that doesn’t work use publicity, reports and whatever else you can think of. to say that not a proper way to handles thing your just being a petty know it all


colmmacc  on January 3, 2010

@steve I don’t think that lobbying the president is generally “standard practice”. In part this is because much legislation has become so-called enabling legislation, and not subject to effective review, but the other reason is because it is woefully ineffective and alienates the establishment.

Article 25 references are very dangerous things (the supreme court opinion is final, under tight time constraints), and the president and her advisors only make them in very very exceptional cases. They certainly wouldn’t do it without weighty constitutional opinion (e.g. multiple senior counsel). It has to get through the council of state after all, with multiple attorneys general at the table.

There’s nothing wrong with culture war symbolism except that it is ineffective at achieving change.


steve white  on January 3, 2010

which is why they made submission to the justice committee as well.


colmmacc  on January 3, 2010

I’ve taken no issue with their submission to the justice committee, though have not read it either.


steve white  on January 3, 2010

no you just accused them of publicity hungry idiots


colmmacc  on January 3, 2010

Dude, it’s hardly blasphemy.


Simon McGarr  on January 3, 2010

Strategy is more useful than tactics.

The current tactic is to provoke a prosecution (I think).

That’s a reasonable tactic, provided there is a strategic significance to its success.

Currently, I don’t know what that would be.


John McGuirk  on January 3, 2010

On a tangential point, I don’t think it’s a particularly genius PR stunt. I think the fact that it’s been covered so widely has more to do with the attitudes of journalists than it does the newsworthiness of the action taken. Otherwise, I agree entirely.


Digest – Jan 3 2010 – The Story  on January 3, 2010

[...] Interesting piece on the possible non-illegalities and potential failures of the Athiest Ireland cam… of purposeful blasphemy by Colm MacCárthaigh. [...]


steve white  on January 4, 2010

there are numerous government reports already saying blasphemy should be gone, we don’t need a another one, we may need a wider report on constitution, education to express AI position, I have already done a little looking around at academics, if you lend me the cash I’ll hire somebody to do it.

Other then that AI did as much as they needed to yesterday.


The Irish Blasphemy Law at Zoomtard  on January 4, 2010

[...] Colmmacc, as usual, has a fascinating take on affairs, including a sensible and mature suspicion of the grand-standing of Atheists Ireland. But may I propose that the actual way to get this law overturned won’t involve rude sayings posted on the internet but an alliance the atheists are unlikely to consider… for dogmatic reasons. [...]


Dave  on January 4, 2010

@steve white:

The difference between what Colm is suggesting and what is done is the difference between “motion” and “action”.



steve white  on January 7, 2010

people saw organised atheists and thought ha, ill attack that, AI were were aware of consequences re president council, i can’t put enough qualifiers in these message for you not to find another another thing for you pick me up wrong on.

AI doesn’t have the money to do what you say so you decide to immediately call them idiots.

your free advice colm is very bloody expensive

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