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World Media

'A new, tolerant, liberal Ireland': World media reacts to blasphemy vote

The Irish Times exit poll has it passing by 69% to 31% while the RTÉ exit poll has it passing by 71% to 29%.

Stephen Fry The Atlantic The Atlantic

IRELAND’S BLASPHEMY REFERENDUM has gathered attention from the international media in the usual here’s-your-update-on-Catholic-Ireland way.

Despite what’s expected to be a very low turnout, the reference to blasphemy is looking to be removed from the Constitution by a resounding majority of 70%/30% breakdown.

Our favourite of all the headlines was this one by The Atlantic: How a Comedian Pushed Ireland Into a Referendum on Blasphemy.

This is referring to the RTÉ interview Gay Byrne did with comedian Stephen Fry, which prompted complaints to An Garda Síochána that the laws contravened Ireland’s blasphemy law.

The Atlantic surmises:

“When quizzed by the show’s host about what he would say to God in the afterlife, Stephen Fry responded, “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world so full of injustice and pain?” He was accused of running afoul of Ireland’s blasphemy laws, and Irish police opened an inquiry.

That investigation was eventually dropped, but the high-profile nature of the case sparked a public debate about the efficacy of the country’s blasphemy laws. In the aftermath of the Fry saga, an alliance of 14 Churches – including the Catholic Church – declared the constitutional clause “largely obsolete” and called for its removal.

On the eve of the referendum, Stephen Fry said that scrapping the blasphemy law would be a signal of a “new, tolerant, liberal Ireland”.

After my previous run-in with Ireland’s blasphemy law, it’s encouraging to see that it could be repealed soon. Lots of fine Irish people will once again need to go #HomeToVote to help usher in the new, tolerant, liberal Ireland.

The BBC‘s story about the presidential election says that the blasphemy inquiry was dropped when “Gardaí (police officers) could find no-one who was offended”.

“The last person to be prosecuted for blasphemy was in 1855 when the British ruled Ireland,” they added.

The Daily Mail said that this was “the latest in a potential reform distancing the once-devout nation from its Catholic past”. 

US station CNN called the referendum the “most recent in a series of referendums poised to reflect the nation’s continued trajectory into a secular, diverse society”.

David Kenny, an Assistant Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin told CNN that the vote signals “part of a modernising effort on the constitution.”

The station listed another example of blasphemy that was dismissed:

In 1995, a member of the public lodged a blasphemy case against the Sunday Independent newspaper, which had printed a cartoon of government ministers refusing the Catholic sacrament of communion. 

“Ireland’s Supreme Court eventually threw out the case in 1999, ruling that although blasphemy was technically a crime, there was no law to enforce it.”

EuroNews, in a very straight news report, referenced the same case.

The 2009 Defamation Act was later updated to include laws around blasphemy.

In Ireland, blasphemy is defined as a “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”.

It is currently punishable by a €25,000 fine, although the last attempted prosecution is believed to have involved a priest who accidentally burnt a bible in 1855 – before blasphemy was enshrined in the Constitution in 1937 – rendering the present-day law largely obsolete.


International news station AFP was told by a local Dublin priest Father Walter Macken, that the blasphemy provision “one of the small guarantees of religious coherence” in Ireland, but he qualified that comment.

“It doesn’t mean that much to me,” the 80-year-old said after casting his ballot in central Dublin. “It’s not that relevant to the everyday struggles – even the ones that I’m involved in.”

I’ve never, ever heard a blasphemy in my entire life.

“I think it’s definitely becoming a more secular country,” said David Tomkin, 70, as he prepared to cast his vote.

But I also think that this blasphemy law is too complicated for most people to understand.

The final tally in the blasphemy referendum is expected to be announced tomorrow morning, as they are being counted after the presidential election tallies.

- with reporting from AFP

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