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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 0°C
well holy god

A date for the blasphemy referendum still hasn't been decided on

Preliminary consultations and preparatory work have been undertaken on the issue.

A REFERENDUM ON blasphemy was promised by the government two years ago – but a date still hasn’t been set for it.

Today is International Blasphemy Rights Day, and campaigners here in Ireland have described Ireland’s blasphemy laws – enshrined in the constitution and carrying a fine of up to €25,000 – as “unjust”.

In October 2014, then-TD Aodhán Ó Riordáin, now a Labour Senator, announced in the Dáil that there will be a referendum to remove blasphemy from the Constitution.

aodhan blasphemy

In 2009, an amendment to the Defamation Act 2009 was introduced by Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern.

Section 36 states:

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.

The laws were back in the news this week amid speculation that Louis Theroux’s latest documentary, My Scientology Movie, wouldn’t be shown in Ireland due to the laws.

However, Dr Neville Cox of Trinity College, a specialist in the Defamation Act, told that “there is no blasphemy case here”.

The film’s distributors said they had no plans to show the film in Ireland, but didn’t specifically comment on the blasphemy speculation.

Constitutional Convention

The news of a blasphemy referendum in 2014 came on foot of a Constitutional Convention, which was a forum of 100 people from across the island of Ireland who discussed a number of issues related to the Constitution.

Members of the convention heard presentations by academics and legal experts on the blasphemy provision, as well as evidence from various interest groups on either side of the issue including Atheist Ireland, the Humanist Association, the Irish Council of Civil Liberties, and the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland.

In January 2014, the convention recommended the removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution.

Its members were asked:

  • Should the reference to the offence of blasphemy in the Constitution be kept as it is?

38% answered Yes, 61% answered No and 1% said they were undecided.

Delegates were then asked:

In the event that the Convention favours change to the Constitution should the offence of blasphemy be:

  • Removed Altogether – 38%
  • Replaced with a general provision to include incitement to religious hatred – 53%
  • Undecided – 9%

Asked should there be a legislative provision for the offence of blasphemy, 49% of members voted Yes and 50% voted No.

Blasphemy rights

Today is International Blasphemy Rights Day, where campaigners call for people to  ”show solidarity with those who challenge oppressive laws and social prohibitions against free expression, to support the right to challenge prevailing religious beliefs without fear of violence, arrest or persecution”.

The Center for Inquiry says:

“While many perceive “blasphemy” as offensive, this event is not intended to ridicule and insult others. Rather, it was created as a reaction against those who would seek to take away the right to satirize and criticize a particular set of beliefs given a privileged status over other beliefs.”

The Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) is today calling on the coalition government and all political parties, TDs and senators, to repeal the blasphemy law, the 2009 Defamation Act, by supporting a referendum to remove references to God from the Irish constitution (Article 40.6.1.i).

HAI Campaigns Director Terry Flynn noted that under the 2009 Defamation Act blasphemy is a crime punishable with a fine of up €25,000.

“We are now asking all political parties, all TDs and Senators – to repeal this anachronistic blasphemy law by supporting a referendum to remove references to God from the Irish constitution,” said Flynn.

The HAI believe such a referendum should also include clauses that prevent non-religious [people] from being appointed as President of Ireland or as a judge without swearing a religious oath.

The HAI believes that blasphemy laws “are unjust and believe that, in a civilised society, people have a right to express and to hear ideas about religion”.

Atheist Ireland has been campaigning against the blasphemy laws, and noted that it has recently has raised this issue twice internationally: at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, and at the OSCE annual human rights meeting in Warsaw, Poland.

Asked by how plans for the blasphemy referendum are progressing, the Department of Justice noted that the government agreed in September 2014 to hold a referendum on removing the offence of blasphemy in response to the Convention on the Constitution’s report.

The Programme for a Partnership Government also proposes that a number of referenda be held, including a referendum on the question of removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution.

It said that: “Preliminary consultations and preparatory work have been undertaken.”

The department said that further work will be necessary to prepare a Referendum Bill and a Bill to amend the current legislative provision for the offence of blasphemy (contained in the Defamation Act 2009), “dependent on the priority and timeframe to be decided by Government”.

It also said that a decision on the scheduling of the blasphemy referendum will be made by government in the light of its Legislative Programme. This is “subject to completing the necessary further consultations and preparing the necessary Referendum Bill and the accompanying amending legislation regarding the statutory offence of blasphemy”.

So while the plans to hold a referendum on this contentious issue are still on track, two years on there is still no date set for the referendum.

Read: Ireland’s blasphemy laws unlikely to prevent Louis Theroux’s Scientology film from being released here>

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