A secularised state

Following the abortion referendum, Ireland seeks to take another step towards secularisation in the removal of the blasphemy law

On June 12, 2018, it was announced by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan, that the Irish government had approved a referendum on the blasphemy provision in the Irish Constitution. Flanagan described this as an “important step” for the enhancement of Ireland’s international reputation, echoing the sentiments of many Irish citizens and political parties. At first glance, the information the public was provided with regarding this referendum appeared quite vague, and did not get much attention from the media. This is unsurprising, considering that it follows a highly contentious referendum on Article 40.3.3 to allow abortion access in Ireland, and is further overshadowed by the announcement that six additional referendums and a Presidential Election will also be held across 2018 and 2019.  

The referendum brings to our attention the profound influence that religion has in Ireland, and again asking its citizens whether they wish to retain the status quo or embrace a more secular society.  

Ireland’s blasphemy law was written into the 1937 Constitution, making it a common law offence. Blasphemy is prohibited under Article 40.6.1(i) and asserts that, while the state guarantees liberty for citizens to exercise the right to freely express their opinions and convictions: “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.” This statement essentially expresses the State’s rationale for the existence of the blasphemy law. The article goes on to specifically target the offence of blasphemy, stating: “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

Since its inclusion in the constitution, Ireland’s rule on blasphemy has been bolstered by various acts. This is exemplified in The Defamation Act 1961, which made blasphemy a statutory crime. However, various issues arose from this act, primarily because the act did not provide a satisfactory definition of blasphemy. This act was then replaced by the Defamation Act 2009, which updated the very definition of defamation. The Defamation Act 2009 encompasses both of the previously separated verbal and written definitions of defamation into one entity, as the separation of definitions was thought of as being obsolete.

In this act, defamation means the publication of a defamatory statement concerning one or more persons, and is defined as “a statement that tends to injure a person’s reputation in the eyes of reasonable members of society”. This is directly connected to Ireland’s blasphemy laws as Section 36 of this act states that “a person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €25,000”. Blasphemy is defined in this section as “[if] he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion” and “[if] he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage”.

Ireland’s blasphemy laws have consistently inspired controversy and debate among various groups and political parties. There have been several requests for the omission of the crime of blasphemy from the constitution since its introduction, including from the 1996 Constitution Review Group and the 2008 Irish All-Party Committee on the constitution. It was ruled by the Supreme Court in 1999 that Irish blasphemy laws were unenforceable.

One of the foremost campaigning groups against the blasphemy law is Atheist Ireland. Their main criticisms of this law are that they believe that it does not protect religious belief but instead causes incentive for outrage and infringes upon the right to free speech, that it treats religious beliefs as more valuable than secular and scientific beliefs, and that in a modern society we should be removing religious references from the Constitution rather than enforcing them. It is also notable that Ireland already bans the incitement of hatred, which includes religious hatred. Political parties that have stated the view they do not believe that blasphemy should be a criminal offence include Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and the Workers’ Party, while the Labour Party and the Green Party have expressed support for a referendum on the topic. Many public figures, from David Norris to Ed Byrne have also previously expressed support for the removal of this law. While others like Senator Rónán Mullen expressed his concerns by highlighting the wasted costs that would be incurred on taxpayers as a result of the referendum taking place.   

A major step towards the granting of the blasphemy referendum was the creation of the Constitutional Convention in 2012. The blasphemy issue was specifically discussed by the convenors in 2013 at a plenary session, in which submitters were allowed to make presentations. Those who spoke in favour of retention of the law included members of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland and the Knights of Saint Columbanus, while Atheist Ireland, the Irish Council of Civil Liberties and the Humanist Association of Ireland spoke in favour of its removal. Convention members voted overwhelmingly against retaining the existing constitutional prohibition of blasphemy at 61 to 38.

The last time there was a prosecution for blasphemy in Ireland was in 1855. The only prosecution attempt of any significance since then was the 1995 to 1999 Corway V. Independent Newspapers. A Dublin carpenter, John Corway, brought three private prosecutions involving the coverage of the 1995 divorce referendum against Aengus Fanning, the editor of the Irish Independent, Niall Stokes, the editor of both Hot Press and The Irish Times. The Sunday Independent had published a caricature of politicians waving farewell to a priest. “Hello progress, bye bye Father” was printed with the image, a play upon the prominent anti-divorce campaign slogan “Hello divorce, bye bye Daddy”. The Irish Times also printed a cartoon and Hot Press printed an article about the referendum that Corway interpreted as blasphemous. Corway’s reasoning behind this lawsuit was expressed in his statement that “as one professing and endeavouring to practise the Christian religion through membership of the Roman Catholic Church, I have suffered offence and outrage by reason of the insult, ridicule, and contempt shown towards the sacrament of the Eucharist as a result of the publication of the matter complained of herein and I am aware of other persons having also so suffered”. However, Corway was ruled against and lost all three cases.

Ireland’s blasphemy laws were truly brought into the spotlight in 2015 after Stephen Fry’s appearance on the Irish television programme “The Meaning of Life”. When asked by Gay Byrne what he would like to tell God, Fry described God as a “capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain” and who “is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish”. In County Clare, an anonymous person reported Fry for the crime of blasphemy because of these statements. Although the investigation was dropped, it sparked widespread outrage and debate about this law which many people view as archaic and oppressive.

One of the more ambiguous aspects of the referendum is its implications. It is not something that many people consider as affecting their daily lives, especially due to the lack of prosecutions. Yet, the law still stands. In order to help us better understand the effects of the blasphemy law, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who first announced to the Dáil in 2014 that the government had accepted the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention to hold this referendum, spoke to Trinity News. Senator Ó Ríordáin emphasised the importance of holding this referendum in order to “make the constitution as Republican as possible”. He added that by Republican he was not referring to a “narrow-minded nationalism” or anything of that sort, but a Republicanism that perpetuated egalitarianism. He discussed how perceives the constitution to still be overtly religious, and how this religious influence does not belong there: “Hate speech or crimes of religious intolerance…can still be dealt with through criminal law. The constitution should not mention blasphemy.” When asked what he thought the social or political impact of the referendum outcome would be, Ó Ríordáin’s response was that its purpose would be to “start a conversation about the role of religious influence in public life.”

In a time of fast paced social change, this referendum marks another step taken by the Irish government to create a more inclusive state. The people of Ireland will make this decision, as a collective, on October 26. The registration for voting closes on October 9. It is now only a matter of time before we determine whether the Irish people are willing to further dilute the relationship between religion and state, or continue governing our country according to a constitution laced with the theological undertones from 1937.