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Atheists not hopeful of 'blasphemy' referendum, in spite of UN pressure

The UN Human Rights Committee has been strongly critical of Ireland’s position regarding blasphemy and religious freedom.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

THE CHAIRMAN OF Atheist Ireland, Michael Nugent, says he doesn’t believe the Government has any plans to address the issue of Ireland’s blasphemy laws.

It follows the UN Human Rights Committee’s recommendation this week that the State should consider removing the prohibition of the offence from the Constitution.

The offence — controversially re-introduced in 2009 — states that a person found guilty of the publication or utterance of “blasphemous matter” can be fined up to €25,000.

Material that’s “grossly abusive or insulting” in relation to “matters held sacred by any religion” can count as blasphemy when the intent is to “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion”.

The Constitutional Convention recommended  that the offence be removed from law and replaced with a provision on incitement to religious hatred, after a vote last November.

But there’s been no formal response from the Government yet on whether a referendum will take place — even though one was supposed to be forthcoming within four months of the Convention’s decision.

“It’s hard to tell what this Government is going to do, but I don’t think they’ve a long term strategy on this,” says Nugent.

He says there’s a “particular urgency” to address the matter, because Pakistan and other Islamic states have cited the statute to support their own laws on blasphemy.

The other concern is that the report by the Constitutional Convention suggested that it be replaced by a new clause regarding inciting religious hatred.

Nugent contends this would only “further institutionalise the power of religion” as we already have laws against incitement to hatred on a number of grounds.

The UN Human Rights Committee also said the State should amend the articles of the Constitution that require people wishing to take up senior office — including the presidency, membership of the Council of State, or membership of the judiciary — to take religious oaths.

Nugent says that recommendation “could be addressed separately”.

Meanwhile, with the Dáil off on its summer break, it looks unlikely we’ll get a response on the Constitutional Convention’s recommendation anytime soon.

Answering a parliamentary question last month, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the report in question was “currently being considered by the Department of Justice and Equality”.

While just two weeks ago in the Dáil, he admitted to Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald that the Government was “well behind time on a number of these”.

It’s already been confirmed that a referendum on same-sex marriage will be held next spring, following a recommendation from the Convention.

Read: UN: Ireland must take action to decriminalise abortion

Read: Tánaiste will swear oath ‘in the presence of Almighty God’ despite being agnostic

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