This October twenty-sixth, voters in Ireland will decide at the polls if the country’s prohibition on blasphemy should be removed from the nation’s constitution. It comes for me as a welcome sign of some progress against what otherwise was a trend in Western Europe toward establishing an international blasphemy standard that many regard as censorship and a vehicle for possible criminal prosecution of speech and expression.
While the Irish government has insisted that no persons have been successfully prosecuted for blasphemy since the 1850s, the existence of any such statute serves as leverage by the state to control what its citizens may say or what behavior it considers objectionable. The time for repeal I believe has arrived.
The Constitution of Ireland (enacted July 1st, 1937 and effective December 29th of that year) reads under Article 40 Section 6.1.i:
The education of public opinion being, however, a matter of such grave import to the common good, the State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.
The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law. [emphasis added]
The proposal asks the People to amend the constitution by simply removing the word blasphemous from the second paragraph.
A poll conducted by The Irish Times / Ipsos MRBI shows that fifty-one-percent of voters favor removal by the amendment with nineteen-percent against and twenty-five-percent undecided.
The current government (elected officials) generally favor the amendment.
In an e-Mail press release to party list server subscribers, Fine Gael Minister of Justice Charlie Flanagan wrote:
“On the 26th October, the same day as the Presidential Election, we will ask voters to support a proposal to remove blasphemy from our Constitution. I am asking for your support for the referendum proposal and for your help in securing a YES vote. Blasphemy has no place in a modern Constitution. It has no place in our laws. Nonetheless, Fianna Fáil [a political party] placed legislation on the statute book in 2009, saying they had no choice because of the Constitutional provision. For almost 30 years expert groups such as the Law Reform Commission (in 1991) and the Constitution Review Group (in 1996) have recommended a referendum to remove blasphemy from the Constitution. The Constitutional Convention supported the proposal in 2013. In Government we are taking action on these recommendations as part of a programme of constitutional reform.
Fine Gael believes that freedom of expression and freedom of religion are important values in a democratic society. Criminalising blasphemy is not consistent with those values. A large alliance of churches in Ireland supported the removal of blasphemy from the Constitution in a submission to the Constitutional Convention. Their position was reiterated by the Irish Catholic Bishops earlier this month when they stated that the Constitutional provision, while largely obsolete, “may give rise to concern because of the way such measures have been used to justify violence and oppression against minorities in other parts of the world.”
The Bishops were referring to the fact that blasphemy laws are used in some countries to oppress minorities through imprisonment, violent punishment and death sentences. We have always condemned such human rights violations and our voice will be stronger if the referendum passes. I would be grateful if you could use your influence with your family, friends and acquaintances to make the case for a YES vote on 26th October. If you have any time to canvass or to promote a YES vote on social media – that would be hugely appreciated. Fine Gael will be releasing online videos and promoting the referendum on social media and elected members will promote the referendum through a variety of media channels.“
An unsuccessful attempt at a private prosecution for blasphemy was made in the mid-1990s in Corway v. Independent Newspapers, yet the courts ruled there to be no applicable statutory provision cited by Corway.
In a later response, the government in 2009 passed in its Defamation Act section 36 which proscribed “Publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” as an indictable offense carrying a potential fine of €25,000.00. Its elements include “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion”, when the intent and result is “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion” yet having a defense where said matter could be held to provide “genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value”. The law allows the Garda Síochána to enter and seize suspected blasphemous material.
The referendum vote coincides with that of the country’s presidential election poll. If the Yes vote prevails it is expected that the government will then repeal its consequent statutory prohibition contained within the 2009 act.
By Darren Smith
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.