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Explainer: What is the upcoming blasphemy referendum about?

Nearly one in three voters are unsure how they’ll vote in the referendum on 26 October.

File photo
File photo
Image: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

IT’S JUST UNDER five weeks until Ireland goes to the polls to decide who’ll be the country’s next President.

But while the Áras race has been grabbing headlines in recent weeks, the referendum on the Thirty-seventh Amendment to the Constitution also takes place on 26 October.

If passed, the referendum would see the removal of the offence of blasphemy that’s currently contained in the Irish Constitution.

The Dáil passed legislation to allow the referendum to take place earlier this week, but a recent poll revealed that almost a third of voters are still undecided as to how they’ll vote.

So what exactly are the public being asked to vote on? And what will change if the referendum passes?

Here we take a look…

What is ‘blasphemy’ and why is it in the Irish Constitution?

In plain English, blasphemy is defined as being insulting or offensive towards, or showing contempt for, God or sacred things.

What constitutes blasphemy can be varied and depend on one’s religion, but examples include the burning of a Bible (for Christians) or drawing the Prophet Mohammed (for Muslims).

The word “blasphemous” appears in Article 40.6.1˚i of the Constitution, which reads:

The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.

It was included in the Constitution in 1937, when Ireland asserted its sovereignty over the United Kingdom and replaced the common law offence of blasphemous libel (which applied only to Christianity).

Later, the Government also made blasphemous libel punishable by seven years in prison or a £500 fine under Section 13 of the Defamation Act 1961, although what constituted blasphemy was still not defined.

In 1999, the offence was deemed incompatible with the Constitution’s guarantee of religious equality, so a new offence of “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” against any religion was added to the 2009 Defamation Act.

Why is a referendum to remove the offence of blasphemy being held?

In 2013, the Constitutional Convention recommended that the offence of blasphemy should be replaced with a general provision regarding incitement to religious hatred.

Under the confidence-and-supply arrangement agreed in 2016, the government therefore committed to holding a referendum on the removal of blasphemy from the Constitution.

When the referendum was launched earlier this year, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said its passing would be an “important step” for Ireland’s international reputation.

“By removing this provision from our Constitution, we can send a strong message to the world that laws against blasphemy do not reflect Irish values and that we do not believe such laws should exist,” he said.

What will happen if the referendum passes?

If passed, the Thirty-seventh Amendment would see the word “blasphemous” removed from Article 40.6.1˚i of the Constitution.

The Thirty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution (Repeal of offence of publication or utterance of blasphemous matter) Bill 2018 says the article would be amended as follows: 

  • “seditious” shall be substituted for “blasphemous, seditious,” in paragraph i of subsection 1° of section 6 of the English text

Therefore, the Constitution would read: 

The publication or utterance of seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.

However, the exact wording of the referendum question has yet to be published. 

The draft legislation also proposes the repeal of sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009, introduced by Ahern.

What are the polls suggesting?

At the moment, it seems likely that the referendum will pass.

An opinion poll for RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live, held in conjunction with TheJournal.ie, found that the majority of people (54%) would vote to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, compared with just 17% of those who said they would vote ‘No’.

More respondents across all age groups, social classes and genders said they would vote ‘Yes’ than ‘No’.

Men (59%) were more likely to vote ‘Yes’ than women (49%), while those aged 18-24 were less likely to vote ‘Yes’ (48%) than all other age groups, including those over 55 (51%).

More people aged 18-24 (22%) also said they would vote not to remove blasphemy than any other age group, followed by those over 55 (21%).

Meanwhile, well-off voters (20%) said they were more likely to vote against the referendum than those less well-off (13%).

Around 29% said they do not know how they will vote, including more than a third of women and those aged 35-44 (both 35%).

While none of these could bring enough of a swing towards a ‘No’ vote as it stands, there’s still over a month of campaigning and debating to go before referendum day.

In other words, there could be plenty of ground still left to run.

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