THE newspaper columnist Julie Burchill could be prosecuted under the Race Relations Act after a police investigation into claims that she incited racial hatred in an article about Irish St Patrick’s Day celebrations was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Burchill, who writes for the Guardian and News of The World, specialises in vitriolic opinion pieces that attract readers’ letters by the sackload. But her comments linking the Irish nation to fascism and child abuse, published in the Weekend section of the Guardian of 29 June, were condemned by Irish organisations yesterday as "racism."
In the piece, Burchill described St Patrick’s Day as the celebration of "almost compulsory child molestation by the national church, total discrimination against women who wish to be priests, aiding and abetting Herr Hitler in his hour of need and outlawing abortion and divorce". Later in the article, she refers to the Irish flag as "the Hitler-licking, altarboy molesting, abortion-banning Irish tricolour".
The row comes two days after it emerged that Greg Dyke, the BBC director general, was interviewed by police over comments against the Welsh by The Weakest Link presenter Anne Robinson in BBC show Room 101 last year.
The police investigation into Burchill’s column was triggered by a complaint by John Twomey, who reported it to officers at Kilburn police station in London.
Mr Twomey, a social worker at the London Irish Centre, who was acting in a personal capacity, said: "It was grossly defamatory of Irish people and very abusive. Every Irish person who saw it was slack-jawed in dismay when they saw it. I felt it was likely to stir racial hatred and that the 1976 Race Relations Act had clearly been breached."
Tom Griffin, the assistant editor of the Irish World, a newspaper of the Irish community in the UK, said: "Any person from an Irish background would regard what she wrote as trying to link the Irish nation with child abuse and fascism. If you tried to think of two things in which to denigrate a nation, the slur couldn’t get much worse."
Mr Griffin said he thought the piece, written during the World Cup, about celebrating the flying of the Union Jack and the Cross of St George, was "sad."
"Presumably most Guardian readers are sensible enough not to be stirred up by something like this, but if you are going to take the approach of having a race relations law, then what she wrote was in breach of it," he added
A spokesman for the Catholic Church in England and Wales said: "It is an entirely inaccurate and warped representation of the Catholic faith - and a smear on the Irish nation."
Jerry Kivlehan of the Federation of Irish Societies said: "As far as we are concerned the article is racist and anti-Irish."
Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, defended the piece. He said: "Anyone who's read more than a couple of her sentences knows Julie Burchill frequently indulges in over the top, iconoclastic polemic. That is why she both irritates and exhilarates her readers, not all of whom take everything she writes literally. The PCC has considered three complaints about her column of 29 June and has decided it falls within the boundaries of personal opinion or general comment. We agree. We are aware that the police have received a complaint from John Twomey but have heard nothing formally."
Burchill said yesterday that she stood by her complaint and vowed to fight it.
Referring to Mr Twomey, she said: "This man, in my opinion, is quite detestably and unfairly using the Race Relations Act to attempt to stifle all criticism of the Catholic Church and its quite shockingly bad record on women’s rights, supporting fascism and child abuse. I shall be fighting this case every step of the way and have already been promised support by a number of organisations representing children molested by Catholic priests."
A spokesman for the CPS said: "The case is still under review but a decision may be expected quite soon."