We start the new decade with the good news that Ireland no longer has the medieval crime of blasphemy in our laws. Over the Christmas period, President Michael D Higgins signed the Blasphemy (Abolition of Offences and Related Matters) Bill 2019, and it has accordingly become law.
Atheist Ireland thanks the Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, for bringing the Referendum Bill to remove the offence from the Constitution in 2018, and now this Bill to remove the offence from our statute books.
Atheist Ireland has spent more than a decade lobbying for repeal of the blasphemy law with the Irish Government and Department of Justice, as well as at the United Nations, OSCE and the Council of Europe.
We had three tours of public meetings around Ireland about the need to repeal the blasphemy law, in 2009, 2012, and 2018. We led the public campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum in 2018.
We also worked with, and we gratefully thank and congratulate, our friends and colleagues in atheist and secular and civil liberties groups in Ireland and around the world, who also campaigned actively for the removal of this law.
The Blasphemy (Abolition of Offences and Related Matters) Act does three things:
- For the avoidance of doubt, it declares that the common law offence of blasphemy is abolished.
- It repeals Sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009, which described what the offence of blasphemy consisted of.
- It amends the Censorship of Films Act 1923, and the Censorship of Films (Amendment) Act 1925, to remove references to blasphemous matter.
So finally, after more than a decade of campaigning, we have removed the medieval crime of blasphemy from both our constitution and our statute laws. This means that:
- Our laws can now protect people from harm, not protect ideas from criticism, and our media outlets no longer have to self censor themselves.
- We are no longer breaching our international human rights obligations, as we have been told by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.
- States that execute people for blasphemy can no longer cite the Irish law at the United Nations, to justify their repression of religious minorities.
Ireland was once a Catholic country. Today it is a pluralist country, which still has Catholic laws that we are gradually changing. Thank you to everybody who is helping to make this happen.
Here are some of the contributions to the Oireachtas debates on the Blasphemy (Abolition of Offences and Related Matters) Bill 2019.
Minister for Justice, Charles Flanagan
I would like to emphasise that the removal of references to blasphemy from the Statute Book is not an attack on anybody’s religious belief. Nor is it intended to privilege one set of values over another. It is a simple acknowledgement that the meaning of the concept of blasphemy is unclear in a modern state, and that the concept is rooted in a distant past where fealty to the state was conflated with fealty to a particular religion.
There is also the international dimension to which I wish to make brief reference. It may seem abstract to devote time to abolishing an offence which has not been prosecuted in practice, but not when we recall that a number of countries actively prosecute charges of blasphemy. Those charges can carry severe penalties, including terms of imprisonment, brutal physical punishments or even the death penalty. They have also been applied in a discriminatory manner to justify the persecution of dissidents, the socially excluded or religious minorities. Such countries justify these regimes by referring to the continuance of blasphemy as a criminal offence in Ireland and in the Constitution. That is a very disturbing reality, and another reason I am happy to propose a Bill which addresses it directly. The criminalisation of expression alone is not something we should stand over. It is a different matter if that expression is geared towards inciting hatred or violence and where that is the intention, in this regard or in these cases the criminal law must come into play.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan, Fianna Fail
Fianna Fail supports the Bill. Why should we remove blasphemy? Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democratic society. Any constraints on it must be clear and limited. This is not the case with Article 40. The provision does not protect non-believers and elevates religion over other forms of discrimination. Ireland has changed immensely since the 1937 Constitution was promulgated. The most recent census figures in 2016 show that no religion is the second largest category of respondents after Roman Catholic, accounting for 9.8% of the population.
Autocratic regimes have cited Ireland as an example of blasphemy laws when creating their own stringent limits to freedom of expression. Indonesia is one of several Islamic states which cited Ireland’s blasphemy legislation in support and defence of its own. Irish blasphemy law was cited as an authority in support of Indonesia’s constitutional court decision to uphold its law prohibiting blasphemy in 2010.
Senator Michael McDowell
One of the most cogent arguments for its adoption is the fact that legislatures across the world point to Ireland as a reason to have blasphemy laws in their jurisdictions which are much more severe in terms of consequences for ordinary individuals. I am a liberal and have no problem with people mocking the religious views of others if they so wish. It has been part of society on these islands for a long time. Popery and Protestantism were the subject of mutual abusive remarks for many years at the highest and lowest levels of public discourse.
I do not intend to oppose the Bill. I emphasise, however, that in getting rid of what is in the Defamation Act, we are stating categorically that it is henceforth lawful to disgust other people for the purpose of disgusting them and without any other excuse except for the pleasure of attacking their religion gratuitously in the most insensitive way. I wonder whether that will be a positive step forward. My view is that there must be some counterbalancing legislation that does something about community relations rather than simply taking out the scalpel and removing all protections for religion, especially in a context where Article 44.1° of the Constitution is retained.
Senator David Norris
I speak from the point of view of a believing, churchgoing Christian. I go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and to St. Bartholomew’s Church in Clyde Road, where I sang in the choir as a child every Sunday for holy communion. I am not a militant atheist and I am not trying to wreck the Christian context of this country. However, I believe also, as strongly as I believe in my religion, in the separation of Church and State. We have heard that 10% of the Irish people in the last census identified as atheist, and there are Muslims – those of Islamic faith – and Buddhists. A substantial section of our population do not necessarily believe in Jesus Christ and the invocation of the Trinity in the opening of the Constitution, which means nothing to them or is offensive to them. That should all be removed.
As a believing Christian, I believe it appropriate to remove all those references, including the one in Article 44.1 of the Constitution which states that we acknowledge the homage that is due to God Almighty, and so on. Those are inappropriate, in my opinion. To look at it this way, the great dean of St. Patrick’s, Jonathan Swift, would be absolutely banged up on a blasphemy charge for A Modest Proposal and for his various diatribes on religion. The great dean, Jonathan Swift, would be up in court if we maintained this legislation.
Senator Ronan Mullen
The laws on blasphemy, as they existed, have never impinged, even in the slightest way, on any Irish person. In spite of this, we have spent millions of euro and wasted much Oireachtas time in an effort to abolish them. We should think about what is going on in our country when those are the kind of political priorities we have… Whatever about a desirable secularism and a healthy separateness between the business of the churches and the State, which we would all support, there is a difference between being a modern, secular, tolerant, pluralist society and being an anti-religious society. That is what many people seek to turn Ireland into.
The people who seek that outcome are undermining Ireland’s future and opening up a future where populists will thrive because there will be no desire to reflect on our heritage and on the things that bind us and have bound us in the past, for good or ill. The only policy that seems to satisfy some people these days in relation to religious practice is one of erosion and denigration. This is the problem of people scratching an itch. There is a certain itch about religion and faith that people feel they have to scratch. Unfortunately, they should not be scratching it at the expense of the taxpayer and wasting so much time in the process.
Senator Ivana Bacik
As I said previously about the referendum of 26 October last year, the continued presence of the offence of blasphemy in the Constitution was not tenable in a modern democratic state. Any one who reads the history of it will know it is a medieval crime. It has no place in the Constitution or on the Statute Book of a modern republic. The change, as others have said, was one that was recommended for a long time, by the Law Reform Commission back in 1991, by the expert Constitution Review Group in 1996, and by the Constitutional Convention in 2013. My only regret about the referendum is that we did not also delete the other similarly anachronistic offences referred to Article 40.6.1o.i of the Constitution relating to seditious or indecent matter.
I listened, not exactly with surprise, to the previous speaker. I was disappointed that so much of Senator Mullen’s input was devoted to saying what a waste of time this all was. The waste of time was the introduction in 2009 by the then Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Mr. Dermot Ahern, of a new statutory offence of blasphemy. That was the waste of time, which Senator Norris and I opposed when we argued that its introduction was pointless. We further argued at that point for the removal of the constitutional offence. The referendum was necessary to tidy up what is the foundational legal document of the State. As I think Senator Mullen will agree, the text of the Constitution matters. Having gone through all of the consultations, which Senator Ned O’Sullivan and others spoke about, it was very important that we move to hold the referendum. This legislation is now necessary to give effect to the desire of the people who voted by a majority of 64.85% to remove the offence of blasphemy.
James Lawless TD, Fianna Fail
The issue had arisen when my party was last in government in 2009. At the time the then Minister, former Deputy Dermot Ahern, stated his view, which I adhere to, that as a republican his personal position was that church and State should be separate. Indeed, a republic is not a theocracy of any religion or none. That should be the case and this Bill is another step along the path of separating church and State. We must leave our beliefs at the door if we are to come into this Chamber and act as legislators for a republic and our citizens. We must do so free of dogma, religious or otherwise.
Thankfully, we are now in a position to remove the provision. Freedom of expression is a paramount cornerstone of a democratic society. Constraints on freedom of expression can be provided for by law. Again, all laws are proportional and all rights are proportional. The exercise of one right cannot impinge upon another right to the extent that it is negated. However, we must be very clear, limited and careful when we attempt to qualify the exercise of rights, and freedom of expression is paramount among them. Blasphemy impinged on that right and that is one of the reasons we are removing it. While I said the provision did not discriminate between religions, it discriminated against those of no religion. Atheists, agnostics and people of no faith were not included in the definition, so it could have been seen as a pro-religious article if not pro a particular religion. That was a form of discrimination as well.
Brian Stanley TD, Sinn Fein
Sinn Féin fully supports the Bill. We supported the “Yes” vote in the referendum on this issue last October. The inclusion of blasphemy in the Constitution has become outdated. It was an undue restriction on freedom of speech. It is outdated that blasphemy be an offence which is punishable by law. Freedom of speech is a central tenet of republicanism and is valued by all. The imposition of partition on the island unfortunately created two reactionary states in this country, and those circumstances created the context and climate for the inclusion of the crime of blasphemy in the Constitution.
It belongs in the past, like the banning of books and censoring of films and theatre that went on in decades gone by. The concept of blasphemy suits that kind of controlling, stifling attitude and philosophy. Making a person with a criticism of any particular religion potentially liable for a criminal conviction is repressive and bad for democracy. In spite of the lack of convictions, the fact that complaints of blasphemy could be made had a potentially chilling effect on freedom of speech. Changing this is a step towards the recognition of a new Ireland, one that is culturally, spiritually, and religiously diverse, and one that is accepting of all within it from all faiths and none.
Sean Sherlock TD, Labour Party
This Bill implements the referendum result by removing statutory references to the offence of blasphemy. The Labour Party supports the Bill. The sentence in paragraph 5 of Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution originally read: “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” As amended, the sentence now reads: “The publication or utterance of seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” We are now tidying up the Statute Book in order to take account of the removal of blasphemy from the Constitution.
Catherine Connolly TD
I happily support the Bill. I wish we did not have to support it, that legislation had not been introduced in 2009 and that we, as a country, had had the courage to hold the referendum then. We finally found the courage to hold it last year, but it happened on the back of a tremendous amount of suffering. Just last week I attended the showing of “Land Without God”, Mannix Flynn’s film. I ask all Deputies to see it. His opening sentence is, “I was the child in the children’s court found guilty and condemned at six years and taken away in handcuffs.” It is a film which took over ten years to make. More significantly, it has taken a lifetime for his extended family to begin to speak about their experience in institutions. I pay tribute to Mannix Flynn, Maedhbh McMahon and Lotta Petronella for the film. I might not agree with all four of the words used by Fintan O’Toole to describe it, but I certainly agree that it is haunting and devastating. He also described it as poetic and moving. It was the first time some members of the family were ready to speak, yet this country was caught up with defamation and taking God’s name in vain, as opposed to looking at what was being done in the name of God.
Mattie McGrath TD
I supported the Government’s Bill to repeal the blasphemy clause from the Constitution. Many people saw the position I adopted as some kind of concession to those who want to remove even the mention of God or the sacred from our culture and society. That is emphatically not the case. I simply hold the view that it is not tenable for the State to involve itself in the making of theological judgements, much less enforce specific theological and philosophical judgements by any one particular creed or church. I believe in the separation of church and State. I do not believe, however, that the separation should become a division. Some people would like to see a big division. The church has a vital role to play in our society and it works effectively in a spirit of collaboration with the State on so many issues. That role needs to be respected and protected. It is not appropriate for the State to act as the guard dog of any particular church. Such a position harms both church and State – an outcome that is in nobody’s interests at any time.