Irish author Paul Lynch won the Booker Prize on Sunday. His novel, Prophet Song, imagines an Ireland that has fallen under Right-wing totalitarian control, and begins with members of the new secret police rapping on the door of a union leader to interrogate him for “sowing discord and unrest” against the government.
Novelists are free to dream up all manner of fictional scenarios, however far-fetched. The irony is that this is the exact opposite of what is happening in Ireland right now. The government in Dublin is indeed introducing extraordinary new legislation to restrict freedom of speech. But it’s not horrid Right-wingers conspiring to suppress nice, decent liberals. It’s nice, decent liberals scrambling to stamp out the opinions of what they call the “far-Right”. And far from being alarmed by this assault on basic freedoms, the broad swathe of progressive opinion in Ireland is fully behind it, including most voices in the broadcast and print media, and every major party.
Since riots broke out in Dublin last Thursday, following the stabbing of three children, the cries for action have become ever louder. The government led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has now pledged to have the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill on the statute book “within a matter of weeks”.
The new law would surely have escaped international attention had those riots not happened, but Dublin’s eagerness to regulate hate speech has, as internet parlance puts it, “gone viral”. Now the whole world knows that Ireland is poised to pass one of the most draconian pieces of legislation in modern times, which will see Irish people facing potential jail sentences of up to two years for the possession of literature “likely to incite violence or hatred” against others on the grounds of certain protected characteristics, including race, gender and sexual orientation.
The police and courts will not even need to demonstrate that the material in question was intended to be distributed to anyone other than the owner. It will be “presumed, until the contrary is proven” that it was. It’s reminiscent of the Soviet Union, where having copies of literature banned by the state, known as “samizdat”, was enough to fall foul of the KGB.
To make matters worse, the Irish government has not actually defined in the bill what “hatred” is, saying that to do so could “risk prosecutions collapsing”. Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, continues to insist citizens will be able to speak freely, but a senator for the Green Party, one of three parties in the governing coalition, let the cat out of the bag: “We are restricting freedom,” Pauline O’Reilly said, “but we are doing it for the common good.”
Ireland, sadly, has a long tradition of censorship. There was once a body with a wonderfully evocative name, the Committee on Evil Literature, which recommended banning publications deemed harmful to the newly independent nation’s Catholic values.
The country prides itself on having come through that dark time, but all that’s actually happened is that the term “evil literature” has been redefined to suit contemporary values. They haven’t stopped enforcing orthodoxy. They’ve simply found a new woke dogma to enforce. No one is writing novels about that. After all, owning such a book could land you behind bars soon.