The Irish Government must not ignore its commitment to hold a referendum on our blasphemy law

An anonymous Irish Government spokesperson recently said that it is highly unlikely that a blasphemy referendum will be held during the lifetime of this Government.

This is despite the commitment given to the Dail in October that the Government has agreed to put this question to the people and that a referendum should be held on removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, and despite the fact that last July the UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland to remove the law against blasphemy, reflecting concerns raised by Atheist Ireland at a questioning session in Geneva.

Please contact your local TDs and ask them to ensure that the Government keeps its commitment on this important issue.

The Guardian published an article on Tuesday about this development. Here is the article, followed by some relevant background information.

First, here is the article by the Guardian’s Henry McDonald:

Ireland’s lack of action on blasphemy law disappoints atheists and secularists – Atheist Ireland’s Michael Nugent says ruling coalition reneged on promise from 2011 to put controversial legislation to general vote.

Irish atheists and secularists have accused their government of breaking a promise to call a referendum over the Republic’s controversial blasphemy laws in the lifetime of the current coalition. Atheist Ireland expressed disappointment that the government had quietly dropped plans for a plebiscite to rid the country of the legislation, which secularists have argued are incompatible with modern Ireland.

Last year, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition had promised a referendum on the blasphemy law to coincide with two other votes on gay marriage equality and lowering the age for when a citizen can become president of the state. Earlier this month, however, the government confirmed that referenda will be held in the spring on gay marriage and the age of a presidential candidate, but excluded a national vote on blasphemy.

Michael Nugent, a co-founder of Atheist Ireland and a Dublin-based comedy writer, said: “If they refuse to hold it at all during the term of office of the government – as an unnamed government spokesperson hinted at earlier in December – then yes that is a betrayal.’ Nugent pointed out that both ruling parties pledged before the 2011 general election to reform the blasphemy law with Labour explicitly vowing to take the word out of the Irish constitution.

He said the back-tracking on the issue would “continue to undermine confidence in the constitution and the legislature. It will continue the ‘nod and wink’ politics of the recent past, where we are expected to believe that (politicians’) words do not mean what they say, and to not take seriously what is in our constitution.” The author of a comic opera co-written with Father Ted writer Arthur Matthews added: “Ireland’s blasphemy law will continue to give encouragement to Islamic states at the UN, as they point to a modern western democracy passing a new blasphemy law in the 21st century when defending their own blasphemy and apostasy laws.”

The Republic’s blasphemy law was only introduced in July 2009 by the then Fianna Fáil-led government. Breach of the law is punishable with a fine of up to €25,000. The law defines blasphemy as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted”. The former Fianna Fáil justice minister Dermot Ahern has defended the law, claiming it is necessary because the 1936 Irish constitution extends the protection of belief only to Christians.

Background information

Now here is some background information that is relevant to that article.

Three months ago today, on 2 October 2014, Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin, Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, published this tweet:

This Government decision was welcomed by opposition speakers Seán Ó Fearghaíl of Fianna Fail, Michael Colreavy of Sinn Fein, and Clare Daly of the United Left Alliance.

It is consistent with the answers that both Government parties gave to Atheist Ireland when we asked them during the last election if they believed that blasphemy should be a criminal offence.

Before the 2011 general election Atheist Ireland asked both parties “do you believe that blasphemy should be a criminal offence?”

Fine Gael replied:

“No. Fine Gael does not believe the blasphemy should be a criminal offence and made this point repeatedly during the debate on the Defamation Act 2009.”

The Labour Party replied:

“Our Party Conference has previously agreed to hold a referendum proposing to delete the word ‘blasphemous’ from Article 4.1.6 of the Constitution and to repeal any legislation that made reference to blasphemy as a form of defamation.”

Yet on 17 December 2014 the Irish Times reported:

“As well as the same-sex marriage referendum, and the vote to lower the age limit for presidential candidates from 35 to 21, another two are outstanding arising from the constitutional convention. One is to lower the voting age from 18 to 16, and the other is to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution.

While a Government spokesman said the voting age referendum is still being considered, it is highly unlikely any more referendums will be held during the remainder of the Coalition’s term of office.”

What Minister O’Riordain told the Dail

This is what Minister Ó’Ríordáin told the Dáil on 2 October 2014:

“The Government welcomes the sixth report of the Convention on the Constitution and thanks it and its members for their high level of engagement. The Government accepts the main recommendation contained in the report, namely, that a referendum should be held on removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution…

I am pleased to inform the House that the Government has agreed, at its meeting on 30 September, to put this question to the people and that a referendum should be held on the question of amending Article 40.6.1°(i) of the Constitution to remove the offence of blasphemy…

As regards the detailed content of any constitutional or legislative change, the convention’s report raises a number of further issues, namely whether the offence of blasphemy should simply be deleted from the Constitution or replaced with a new provision prohibiting incitement to religious hatred, and whether we should retain a legislative provision for the offence of blasphemy or replace this at statutory level with provisions prohibiting incitement to religious hatred.

The convention voted in favour of including a new constitutional provision against religious hatred, with 53% of members in favour, 38% against and 9% undecided. There was no clear majority on whether to keep a legislative provision for the offence of blasphemy, with 49% in favour, 50% against and 1% undecided. If a legislative provision is retained, the convention favours replacing the existing offence with detailed legislative provisions against incitement to religious hatred; in this regard it voted 82% in favour, 11% against and 7% undecided.

These recommendations will require more detailed legal and other consideration. For example, there is already relevant legislative provision in the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, which will need to be taken into account.

The Minister for Justice and Equality has been charged by the Government with the task of further examining these issues and undertaking the work necessary to prepare both a referendum Bill and another item of legislation to amend the current legislative provision for the offence of blasphemy.

With regard to timing, the referendum will take place at an appropriate date to be decided by Government after the necessary further consultations have been completed and the required legislation has been prepared… I commend the convention on its work and thank it, on behalf of the Government, for its sixth report, the recommendations of which we intend to take forward as I have just outlined.”

Fianna Fail response

Fianna Fáil TD Seán Ó Fearghaíl said:

“Fianna Fáil supports the Constitutional Convention’s decision to remove the blasphemy provision from Article 40.6 of the Constitution. Its replacement with a new provision covering incitement to religious hatred, backed up by fresh legislation, would be a more effective mechanism in protecting the unique sensibilities of deeply held religious beliefs. The current provision has, effectively, proved to be unworkable, with the result that its role in protecting the distinctive sensibilities of religious groups has not really materialised. Furthermore, the ethnocentric definition of blasphemy is widely seen as outdated in an Ireland that has changed immensely since the 1937 Constitution was promulgated…

The offence of blasphemy is an ethnocentric Judeo-Christian definition and not appropriate in a modern liberal democracy in which all beliefs should be respected. The fact that case law in the United Kingdom has limited blasphemy to the Anglican tradition excludes other religions in an increasingly diverse society. Its inclusion in the Constitution reflects the deeply Catholic society that created it in 1937. Reforming the Constitution would allow us to mirror the shifts in Irish life and the need to show a more diverse society. Respecting the beliefs of all traditions and none is vital in a democratic liberal republic.

Autocratic regimes throughout the world are citing Ireland as an example in respect of blasphemy laws in creating stringent limits to freedom of expression. It is deeply unfortunate that autocratic regimes across the globe are citing Irish law as a pretext for introducing blasphemy provisions in their constitutions.

For example, Indonesia is one of several Islamic states that has cited Irish blasphemy legislation in support and defence of its own. Irish blasphemy law was cited as an authority in support of Indonesia’s constitutional court’s decision to uphold its law prohibiting blasphemy in 2010.

Alexander Aan is a 32 year old Indonesian civil servant who started an atheist group on Facebook on which he published articles about Mohammed and questioned the existence of God. He was beaten up by his work colleagues, arrested for blasphemy, jailed for two and a half years and fined the equivalent of $10,000. As a liberal democratic country in western Europe and part of the European Union, Ireland has been used as a pretext for these oppressive laws and systemic discrimination, often against Christians or other religious groups that do not accord with the majority. There is a moral obligation on Ireland, therefore, as a democratic nation, to stand up for human rights, of which freedom of expression and speech is one of the most fundamental. Ambiguity on the issue undermines Ireland’s international role.

I trust the Government will take on board the debate in the House today and views from the convention and move towards a referendum in the near future. I welcome the commitment the Minister of State has given in this regard. Those of us who participated at the convention accept that the Constitution, while having served us rather well, would benefit from rejuvenation to reflect the modern Ireland in which we are all happy to live. With these thoughts, I commend the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention to the House. It is welcome that the Government has taken the proposal on board and I look forward to those in my political party being able to be enthusiastic supporters of the referendum when the matter is eventually put to the people.”

Sinn Fein response

Sinn Fein TD Michael Colreavy said:

“Religious defamation laws are not the right way to achieve tolerance, mutual respect and equality. Blasphemy is not a valid offence in public law, and should not be a criminal offence in a democratic society that respects diversity. It is not an acceptable limitation on the fundamental rights to freedom of opinion and expression and it should have no place in the Constitution.

Rather, religious groups and non-believers alike must be adequately protected from incitement to hatred and discrimination on the grounds of religion, which must be legally prohibited, and such protections of religious minorities’ right to equality should be constitutionally entrenched in a Bill of rights and in any all-Ireland charter of rights.”

United Left Alliance response

United Left Alliance TD Clare Daly said:

“It is incredible in a modern society that Deputies are spending time discussing the inclusion in legislation of measures on blasphemy. These provisions should not have been introduced in the first instance…

Deputy Ó Fearghaíl mentioned how our blasphemy laws have been used internationally, which is a critically important point in this debate. It is outrageous that the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, OIC, has used the Irish law’s wording as a model for a proposal to the United Nations to push for that to be a normative principle in international law and to encourage other states to pass anti-blasphemy legislation. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan have been roundly condemned by Human Rights Watch for their grave violation of human rights. Pakistan is a leading member of the OIC, which holds the Irish law up as a model….

It is sickening that in 2011, when Ireland’s blasphemy laws were being applauded by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, people in Pakistan were being jailed or sentenced to death for blasphemy. Even critics of the blasphemy law lived in mortal danger. The Moslem governor of Punjab defended a 40 year old Christian woman who was sentenced to death on the hearsay evidence of her neighbours that she had allegedly blasphemed. That governor protected the woman and called for the blasphemy legislation to be repealed. He then became a target of calls for his assassination. He was eventually assassinated by his bodyguard who was applauded and escorted into court by hundreds of people championing him as a great hero. That is where blasphemy laws can lead to in extreme circumstances. They do infringe freedom of speech and expression. They can be used by one majority religion to discriminate against a minority religion or a rival sect….

I note the Minister’s statement that the Government supports the proposal to delete the relevant passage from the Constitution. While I welcome that undertaking, I am a little concerned about what will happen next, given the inference that new legislation may be introduced to replace the current law. The Constitutional Convention was divided on whether to take this approach.

Replacement legislation is not needed because incitement to hatred on religious grounds is already covered by the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 which specifically protects individual citizens from being the target of hate, violence and mistreatment on the basis of their religion, lack of religion, race, gender, nationality, ethnicity or sexuality. It is correct that the State should protect people from becoming the target of religious hatred.

The law on blasphemy should be repealed, however, as occurred in the United Kingdom, on the basis that one can commit incitement to religious hatred against people but one cannot commit blasphemy against a person. Given that these are two different issues, our approach to them must also be different.”

Only one TD supported retaining blasphemy law

Only one TD expressed support for retaining the Blasphemy clause in the Constitution. Fine Gael TD James Bannon, speaking in a personal capacity, said:

“Throughout my time in public life, I have always believed the proper role of government is to protect equal rights, not equal things. We are all born equal, not in abilities or talents but equal under the law and equal in our rights. We need honest and fair government to secure those rights.

As regards such rights, the Constitution continues to prohibit the publication of blasphemous material. The Defamation Act 2009 makes it clear what is meant by this, namely, material which is grossly abusive or insulting on religious grounds. The law is thus aimed at protecting individuals from offence. It is my belief, therefore, that the Constitution is aimed at protecting individuals from offence.

The exclusion on blasphemy serves to safeguard the right of believers from offence. It protects the rights of citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions, and their duty to honour religion. I strongly believe the constitutional provision on blasphemy should be retained in the Constitution. This is my personal belief and always has been.”

Minister O’Riordain’s response to the debate

Responding to the debate, Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said:

“As a result of the work of the convention, there are to be three referendums next year, one of which will definitely be of interest to the students listening to the debate in the Visitors Gallery because it will be on the lowering of the voting age to 16 years. There is to be a referendum on same-sex marriage and one on the Presidency…

As echoed across the House, there is a danger of referendum fatigue. We have had quite a few referendums and there are to be some more next year. It was announced today that the intention was to hold a referendum on blasphemy. The issue is not so much that we have two competing rights but two very deeply cherished rights, one being the sacred right to freedom of speech, while the other concerns the freedom to practise one’s religion.

The suggestion of the Constitutional Convention and my belief is that the provision on the offence of blasphemy does not belong in the Constitution. It is the kind of matter Members should be charged to address legislatively. There is no intention to replace the provision within the Constitution in legislative frameworks, but, at the same time, the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 could readily deal with the issues being discussed.”

Summary

An anonymous Irish Government spokesperson recently said that it is highly unlikely that a blasphemy referendum will be held during the lifetime of this Government.

This is despite the commitment given to the Dail in October that the Government has agreed to put this question to the people and that a referendum should be held on removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, and despite the fact that last July the UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland to remove the law against blasphemy, reflecting concerns raised by Atheist Ireland at a questioning session in Geneva.

Please contact your local TDs and ask them to ensure that the Government keeps its commitment on this important issue.

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9 Comments

  1. James Bannon aka `Bonkers Bannon’ actually said something in the Dáil recently, this is a first, not very clever what he said, but at least he said something. As friends of mine from Longford say, `we are spoilt for lack of choice’.
    Not surprised that `blasphemy’ may not be on the referendum agenda despite promises that Politicians have made. As Pat Rabitte has stated `sur don’t we all tell lies before Elections’.

  2. The Guardian did publish an article.

    And those wonderful people at Freethought Blogs cut and pasted some of it and passed it off as their own work.

  3. The Guardian, as cited by Michael in the OP, wrote:

    Last year, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition had promised a referendum on the blasphemy law to coincide with two other votes on gay marriage equality and lowering the age for when a citizen can become president of the state. Earlier this month, however, the government confirmed that referenda will be held in the spring on gay marriage and the age of a presidential candidate, but excluded a national vote on blasphemy.

    FreeThoughtBlogger Avicenna wrote:

    Last year, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition had promised a referendum on the blasphemy law to coincide with two other votes on gay marriage equality and lowering the age for when a citizen can become president of the state. The other issues are still being voted on, the blasphemy vote however has been pulled.

    Wait. Maybe the similarity is just an extraordinary coincidence? Let’s look again.

    The Guardian wrote:

    The law defines blasphemy as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted”. The former Fianna Fáil justice minister Dermot Ahern has defended the law, claiming it is necessary because the 1936 Irish constitution extends the protection of belief only to Christians.

    Avicenna wrote:

    The law defines blasphemy as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted”.

    The former Fianna Fáil justice minister Dermot Ahern has defended the law, claiming it is necessary because the 1936 Irish constitution extends the protection of belief only to Christians.

    No. I’m afraid this really is copy-pasting without attribution.

    Smearing and abusing critics, calling hostages “privileged rich coffee-sippers”, plagiarism: it’s all in a day’s work on FreeThoughtBlogs.

    https://web.archive.org/web/20150102093242/http://freethoughtblogs.com/amilliongods/2015/01/01/breaking-the-irish-law/

  4. If the Blasphemy Law is eventually replaced with a law “prohibiting incitement to religious hatred” then the net gain may well be zero.

  5. It could be a negative gain. You wouldn’t have to commit blasphemy to be convicted of inciting religious hatred.

  6. Hahahaha. Avicenna claims it was a coincidence. He tweeted:

    It’s not a shop. Just a coincidence. There are only so many ways to discuss politics without saying the same

    He proves to be just as honest as his defender PZ Myers. And of course the members of their Flock lap it all up. The cognitive dissonance must be causing severe tinnitus by now.

  7. Notice that Avicenna carefully avoids to name Michael Nugent in ‘his’ article, instead writing:

    Atheists and secularists have accused their government of breaking a promise to call a referendum over the Republic’s controversial blasphemy laws in the lifetime of the current coalition.

    Which atheists have accused their government of breaking a promise? O, right: He-who-shall-not-be-named-on-FreeThoughtBlogs.

    It’s pathetic.

  8. That is downright disgusting if the “spokesperson” is telling the truth. It would mean that the government in Ireland is downright dishonest, and I hope that they will do the right thing. It is horrible that in this day and age, in our “enlightened” Western democracies, there are still places that can prosecute anyone for denying the existence of a sky fairy.

  9. The referendum would be interesting, we would see which politicians support it and who doesn’t. That is why it probably will not happen.

    If they swap it with a law against inciting hate then it will be worse and open to abuse by the politicians, police and state apparatchicks. You just have to look over the sea to Britain to see how such laws are abused by the self righteous against those who oppose their “progressive” aims.

    You may find yourself unable to quote parts of the bible or koran.

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