Ireland: a referendum tackling blasphemy

People are to vote on Friday, 26th of October. Not only do they need to elect their next president, they are also being asked about the removal of the word “blasphemy” from constitution. Should the “yes” win, Parliament would legislate to decriminalize what is still considered a crime in Ireland.

 What does the law say?

Article 40.6 of the Irish Constitution stipulates that the “publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law” – despite “the right of citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions”.

This founding text dated back to 1937 but needed an additional law to define what blasphemy was. In 2009, the Defamation Act was enacted in order to fill this loophole – the previous law had been ruled unconstitutional because it only protected Christianity from blasphemy. This new law specifies that blasphemy consists in “publish[ing] or say[ing] anything that is related to matters held by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and intend[ing] to cause that outrage”. This crime would be fined 25 000 euros from then on and the article included that the defendant could justify the “literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value” of what they are blamed for.

In 2012, a Constitutional Convention was created with MPs and two thirds of citizens in order to give their thoughts about the constitution and its potential amendments. Amongst many recommendations, it suggested to remove the reference to blasphemy from the constitution and to introduce a ban on incitation to religious hatred instead. In 2004, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Minister of State for Communities, Culture and Equality, announced that a referendum would be held on this issue (see tweet below). Former Prime Minister Enda Kenny decided to postpone the voting.

Puzzled opinion

The referendum did not seem to have aroused a keen interest in this topic, nor did it create divisions. Many express doubts towards the very relevance of such a democratic process. A survey, for, revealed that 30% of people do not know how they will vote but that 54% would vote to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution (with just 17% of voters saying they would not). Even the Church, historically rooted in Irish culture, sees this reference in the Constitution as “largely obsolete” (according to the Bishop of Limerick, Kenneth Kearon’s words).

While Colum Kenny, emeritus professor in Dublin, condemns what he thinks is “a waste of time and money” – let’s remember the referendum is held on the presidential election day – many wonder what is the interest of such a modification. The last blasphemy prosecution was in 1885 when a priest had burnt a Protestant Bible. Charges had been dropped when he had claimed that it was not his intention and that the book had slipped into the pile of works meant to be destroyed.

More recently, in 2005, the British writer and comedian Stephen Fry, put the law back on stage. He was being interviewed about what he would say to God in afterlife, in the RTE “The Meaning of Life” and replied: “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world so full of injustice and pain?”. He added “the god that created this universe, if it was created by a god, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac, totally selfish”. A complaint was made to the Gardaí (Irish police) that decided to investigate under the 2009 blasphemy law but ended up giving up, for lack of backing.



A symbolic move

If some believe that this issue does not deserve such priority, others gloat over Ireland’s move closer to secularization, in spite of its Catholic tradition. Ministry for Justice Charlie Flanagan thinks it is significant for the country’s “international reputation” – considering that only Spain and Switzerland have regulated blasphemy through laws.

In a 2007 report, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom assessed 71 countries that punished blasphemy and ranked Ireland in 71st position. It took into account the impact of the laws onto the fundamental human rights, and their prospective interference. A good rank for Ireland who would obviously like to vanish from these rankings now.

Other very recent referendums opened marriage to same-sex couples, or legalised abortion. It seems that Ireland is now on its way to modernisation. However, new struggles are to be fought. For instance, Constitution stills refers to the role of women at home as “a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” and claims that the “State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.

Photo: St Patrick’s Cathedral (Dublin) / © Tony Webster

You may also like