Ireland to vote on controversial blasphemy law

Canvassers wear t-shirts to promote a yes vote for an upcoming referendum on blasphemy law in Dublin.
Canvassers wear t-shirts to promote a yes vote for an upcoming referendum on blasphemy law in Dublin. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Ireland will go to the polls to vote for its next President on Friday on October 26. But the Irish people will also have another question to answer on their ballot papers. They will be asked to vote to remove the offence of blasphemy from their constitution.


On Friday October 26, the Irish people will be voting on whether to maintain its legislation banning blasphemy.

Ireland is the only country in the western world to have introduced blasphemy into its constitution in the 21st century. This law was passed at the end of 2009 and enacted in January 2010.

It carries a maximum fine of 25,000 euros. The wording is that it prohibits the publishing or uttering of matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred. But, as Michael Nugent, Chair of Atheism Ireland, explains, the history of this law goes back much further.

“The Irish constitution, which was written in 1937, makes blasphemy an offence and says that it is punishable in accordance with the law. The only time that law was tested, the court found that it was impossible to enforce because the law did not define what the offence consisted of. We essentially then had a law that did not exist in real terms even though it was on our statute books.

“When the defamation act was being updated in 2009, everyone assumed that the government would take the opportunity to remove it. But instead, they inserted a definition to make the blasphemy law enforceable.”

According to Nugent, this law is out of date and needs to be erased from the Irish constitution.

“It is essentially a medieval law that was added into our constitution in 1937 and was essentially crowbarred into our statue books less than a decade ago. It causes our media to self censor and it breaches our international human rights obligations,” says Nugent.

One of the triggers to have this law debated now was the appearance of British actor Stephen Fry on an Irish religious television programme in 2015. When Fry was asked what he would say to God if he met him, his reply pulled no punches.

“Bone cancer in children, what's that about? How dare you create a world with such misery. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded stupid God who creates a world so full of injustice and pain?"

A viewer complained to the police and they subsequently confirmed that an investigation had been launched. Fry was never charged with blasphemy, but the case propelled the law into the international media, and increased pressure for a referendum.

According to some, the real question is not why should we keep this law but rather why should we remove it. Dr Ali Selim, of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Dublin city, is opposed to deleting blasphemy from the Irish constitution.

“There is no need to remove it from our legislation. In fact, having it in our constitution has contributed to protecting and maintaining the cohesiveness of our Irish society. It imposes respect, it does not defend religion. And respect is a fundamental component of every cohesive society. It gives us our rights but it also regulates our freedom. And we definitely need leglisation to regulate our freedom.

The polls indicate that the change in legislation should pass. But this is far from certain, as this referendum has received none of the media attention of Ireland’s two most recent referendums on marriage equality and abortion.

There will be a portion of the population going into the polling booths tomorrow not expecting to be asked to vote on a referendum, thinking that it is just a presidential vote. There will also be the very real possibility that people will not know if a ‘yes’ vote means to keep the legislation or to enact a change.

As Nugent says, the other real danger might be the numbers who vote, but interestingly both the Catholic and Protest churches in Ireland accept that this law is now out of date.

“The big danger will be low turnout as this is being run alongside a relatively uninspiring presidential election. A low turnout typically means more older voters. And more older voters typically means more conservative results. So there is an outside chance that this might be defeated. But all of the political parties are supporting it and even the Catholic and Protestant bishops have publicly accepted that the laws are obsolete.”

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