Northern Ireland

Comedian Jake O'Kane criticises 'zealots' who cancelled play

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Media captionCouncillors decided the play made a mockery of the word of God

One of NI's leading comedians has criticised the council "zealots" who have banned a play in County Antrim.

Newtownabbey Borough Council cancelled the Reduced Shakespeare Company's The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged) after complaints that it was blasphemous.

Jake O'Kane said unionist councillors who took the decision "weren't elected to be moral guardians".

Councillor Fraser Agnew said there was a "need to defend Christian values".

The play was to have been staged at Newtownabbey's council-run Theatre at the Mill on 29 and 30 January.

But it was cancelled on Thursday after a meeting of the council's artistic board.

Some councillors had previously called for the show to be cancelled.

'Dead in water'

Mr O'Kane said: "I haven't seen the play, and unfortunately I'll never be able to see the play because councillors have decided that we will not be allowed to see the play.

"It's like getting in a time machine and they went back to before the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

"There was £7m spent on this theatre, it opened in 2010, and they may as well close the doors. If they are going to be the moral guardians of what we see and don't see, that theatre is dead in the water.

"We already have laws, we have hate speech laws, that dictate what the arts can and cannot do. If it is hateful, if it is against minorities, the laws are already there to censor that.

"We don't need a bunch of unionist councillors in Newtownabbey deciding what we can or cannot go to see.

"They call themselves moral guardians - they weren't elected to be moral guardians. We elected them to empty our bins, make sure the leisure centres were open - that's the powers they have.


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Media captionComedian Jake O'Kane said if people were offended by the play, they should not go to see it

"They didn't put on their manifesto that they were going to decide what we can or cannot see."

Mr O'Kane told BBC Northern Ireland's Good Morning Ulster that "the vast majority of people in Newtownabbey, I guarantee, are humiliated by this decision".

Mr Agnew, an Ulster Unionist Party representative on the council, said: "Unionists were objecting based on the number of calls they were receiving and some people who had seen the trailer.

"I had a call from a chap who had seen the play, who had trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood, and he advised me that it was blasphemous.

"If it was a play to do with anti-gay material can you imagine the outcry there would be over that, if it was anti-Semitic, if it was anti-Koran... all of those things would create an uproar.

"People weren't going to go, but I think there is this need to defend Christian values."

Alliance councillor Tom Campbell said: "It's typical of the DUP, they're intolerant, they're a party that wants to see censorship of things that people want to see in the borough.

"I've had plenty of complaints from people who wanted to see it and indeed I was one of those who had booked to see the show."


Human rights group Amnesty International said that the decision to cancel the play was "utterly unjustified".

Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International said: "It is well established in international human rights law that the right to freedom of expression, though not absolute, is a fundamental right which may only be restricted in certain limited circumstances to do with the advocacy of hatred.

"It is quite obvious that those circumstances are not met in the context of this work of comedy and thus that the cancelling of the play is utterly unjustified on human rights grounds.

"Such interference with freedom of speech and artistic expression should be of concern to freedom lovers everywhere."

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Media captionMayor of Newtownabbey Frazer Agnew said the decision was made after taking on board what people and councillors were saying

However, speaking to BBC Radio Ulster's Evening Extra programme on Friday, the Rev Brian McClung, welcomed the news that it would not be shown and said the play was "derogatory".

"There's a line that has to be drawn somewhere in what is offensive, and we certainly believe that what that company was putting on was highly offensive," he said.

"This is derogatory and offensive to Christians. Whether people laugh at you or not, you're standing up for the Bible and I make no apology for that."

Anne McReynolds, chief executive of Belfast's MAC theatre said: "It's a ridiculous situation, there's no question about that.

"You can see by the reaction of the vast majority of the population in Northern Ireland who engaged with the issue that there is no support for this kind of censorship."

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