The Censorship of Publications board is an outdated relic from a different era. It has lingered on while time has passed it by. The board has been bereft of members since 2011 and has had only one book referred to it over the past five years, namely Minister Shatter’s “Laura”. Its strikes a lonely figure amongst the government’s approach of cronyism to board appointments. Perversely the board now gives added publicity to books being referred to it while in practise it is essentially by-passed by the internet. It is a quango that is long since past its sell by date.
The majority of people had never heard of the board thought it was long since departed before Minister Shatter’s novel made the front pages. Now it’s time to ensure they never have to hear from it again.
In an age of easy access to mass information the idea that banning books in an entire country was either genuinely possible or socially necessary seems quaint. For most people across Ireland publications are available at the simple click of a mouse. The advent of the IT revolution and arrival of commercial giants like Amazon and Google have brought a wealth of publications to countless households. While it was once said that all the knowledge in the world was housed in the Library of Alexandria now it is contained in Google.
E-books cover innumerable spheres of interest broadening the cultural wealth of the country but also plumbing the depths of bad taste. After all, even Fifty Shades of Grey sold 60,000 copies in less than two months after its release here.
This technological revolution has occurred hand in hand with a dramatic shift in cultural and social values.
The diverse religious views of the population, relaxation of old social mores and panoply of different nationalities in Ireland is a far cry from post war country where the Censorship Board was set up. In that immeasurably more traditional country a different sense of values and the role of the state in enforcing those values, prevailed. Over the decades that shared sense of what was and was not acceptable has been transformed. Economic growth, demographic shifts, immigration, globalisation have all combined to change how we look at things. The past is a foreign country.
Lagging behind this immense shift in Irish society is the aging monolith of the Censorship of publications board. A bye gone reminder of a bye gone time. It reflects a vague set of values on what is permissible without any reflection of the reality of how people access information or their own individual rights. Its continued existence is now having the direct opposite effect than its creators had hoped for. Referring a book to the board has the counterproductive impact of widely publicising a book which is easily available through other routes. After it was referred to the Board “Laura” was re-published with high demand.
The story of censorship in Ireland jars with our proud sense of a great literary tradition on this island. Outside commentators have long since criticized what they saw as a draconian regime. The British poet Robert Graves referred to our board as “the fiercest literary censorship this side of the Iron Curtain”. Our own writers have wilted under the harsh glare of the literary fireman. The late John McGahern reflected upon his own amusement at the idea of a board before finding that still had a chilling effect on his life as he lost his job as a school teacher under the orders of an irate bishop when his books were banned.
Writing in his memoir he stated that “we had looked on the Censorship Board as a joke. Most banned books, like most books published, weren’t worth reading and those that were could easily be found”. However upon finding his own works banned he “found it childish and unpleasant, and I was a little ashamed that our own independent country was making a fool of itself yet again…. I refused to take part in any protest on the grounds that it would do the whole sorry business too much honour.”
A significant amount of books have banned on the vague basis of obscenity by the Board since its creation in 1946 when it replaced the 1929 Censorship Act. Currently there are 274 books and magazines banned in Ireland. Separate from this is the scourge of child pornography which the 1998 Child Trafficking and Pornography Act covers. That act makes it an offence to possess, print, publish or show child pornography. Current banned publications include Amazing Detective Stories and Daring Romances. Deemed obscene in the 1950’s they would not merit a raised eyebrow on Fair City now.
Upon receipt of a complaint from a member of the public the board has the power to prohibit the sale and distribution of a particular publication. This means that it is illegal for this book to be bought, sold or distributed around the country. Books that are prohibited may be appealed to the Censorship of Publications Appeal Board. Both the Censorship of Publications Board and the Appeals Board consist of five members each. While the Minister has indicated that he will appoint a temporary board to deal with Minister Shatter’s “Laura” book both boards have been empty for years.
The internal process behind banning is done behind firmly closed doors. For a book to be prohibited, at least three members must agree with the decision and only one can dissent. If the prohibition is passed, it comes into effect as soon as it is announced in Iris Oifigúil. The ban lasts for 12 years. No details are given or minutes published on the discussion over the merits of the publication. The reasons behind the decisions are not uttered in public. There is no open conversation of why certain books should be banned and others allowed. No national discussion on what our collective values are. Instead it is all done in the shadows. The entire process is intransparent.
The appeal process is equally opaque and out of date. An appeal against the prohibition of a book may be made by the author, editor or publisher of the book or by any five members of the Oireachtas (the Seanad or the Dáil) who take the interest and initiative to act together. The Reform alliance could band together to appeal “Laura” being prohibited but no ordinary citizen could.
The Appeal Board may affirm the order, revoke the order or vary the order so as to exclude a particular edition of the book from the order. Ordinary citizens are not allowed appeal a ban. Again the decision making process is not one that allows for meaningful debate and discussion.
The Gardaí may be issued with a search warrant if they suspect that prohibited books or periodicals are being kept anywhere for sale or distribution. If they find prohibited publications, they may remove them. If you are convicted of possessing prohibited publications, you may be liable for a fine of €63.49 or six months imprisonment. This type of law is out of place in modern Ireland. The idea of spending prison time for selling books which are easily available else where, even if never enforced, does not belong to a modern democratic society.
The Board stands out like a sore thumb in the government’s much published pledge to cull quangos.
Prior to the 2011 election FG’s “Reinventing Government” promised the abolition of over 145 state bodies and companies including the dismantling of the HSE and FAS. It was also the cornerstone of their general election campaign on cutting waste in the public service.
In reality Fine Gael has completely abandoned its pre-election and election commitments to abolish 145 quangos. Only 49 will be abolished in total under this government.
According to the Public Service Reform Plan published in November 2011, 48 state agencies to be rationalised by end 2012 & 46 to be reviewed by end June 2012.
Earlier this month Minister Howlin reheated the old news about a €20m which he had previously spoken about in 2012 and outlined the slow progress made on the actual number of agencies involved. This list of agencies was simply a rehash of agencies we had already rationalised or were in the process of rationalising.
The government has attempted to mask its failure to radically overhaul the Quango sector by obfuscating on the details. In reality it has to date reduced the overall number of quangos by 25 agencies in total.
The government has rowed back on its specific promise to abolish the National Cancer Registry and merge Irish Aviation Authority & Commission for Aviation Regulation.
If it completes the rationalisations promised since 2012 and further outlined in January 2014 it will abolish a further net amount of 24 quangos. So by its own account albeit hidden behind the spin the government will complete the abolition of just 49 quangos. This is a far cry from the 145 promised in the photo ops of 2010.
However it can improve its numbers by add the Censorship Board and Appeals Board to its paltry efforts.
The proud literary heritage of this island has been often overshadowed by a dark cloud of censorship. The rich works of renowned authors had fallen foul of the censorship’s board watchful eye. The chill winds of prohibition blew through libraries and book shops across the state and cooled the enthusiasms of writers on the island.
Many years have passed on since the censorship board had its hay day. Irish society has been transformed while technology has pushed back our cultural horizons to fresh frontiers. Now is the time to move on from an obsolete relic whose effectiveness is counterproductive and purpose questionable.
I am confident the Minister will live up to his party’s promises to cull quangos and put the Board out of its misery