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Blasphemy, the referendum issue in newly secular Ireland

Fran Caffrey, AFP | People surround the foot of the Papal Cross in Dublin's Phoenix Park where Pope John Paul II spoke to over 1.5 million Irish during his visit to Ireland in April 2005.

Irish voters headed to the polls on Friday to vote on whether to remove the offence of blasphemy from their constitution.

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Once considered extremely devout and traditional, Ireland is transforming into a progressive nation. This is the second referendum the country has held in less than six months on morally challenging issues. In May, the Irish people overwhelmingly chose to overturn the ban on abortion. The previous year, they voted in favour of marriage equality. And now they will decide whether or not you should be prosecuted for sacrilegious behaviour.

This blasphemy referendum coincides with Ireland’s presidential election. It asks voters whether they support removing the word “blasphemous” from Article 40 of the Irish constitution. This states that “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law." Under the current law, blasphemy is legally punishable and carries a fine of up to €25,000. But no one has ever been successfully prosecuted for it in Ireland.

“The Irish constitution, which was written in 1937, makes blasphemy an offence and says that it is punishable in accordance with the law,” says Michael Nugent, Chair of Atheism Ireland. “The only time that law was tested, the court found that it was impossible to enforce because the law did not clearly define what the offence consisted of. We essentially then had a law that did not exist in real terms even though it was on our statute books.”

'Hello progress, bye bye Father'

This test case happened in November 1995. After the Irish divorce referendum, the Sunday Independent newspaper published a cartoon of a priest holding a chalice and communion host, with three politicians turning away from him. The caption read “Hello progress, bye bye Father". This was a play on one of the slogans used by anti-divorce campaigners, “Hello divorce, goodbye daddy”.

Dubliner John Corway applied to the High Court for an order allowing him to take a blasphemy prosecution against the Sunday Independent for this cartoon. In October 1996, the High Court ruled that the cartoon did not provide a clear case and that, even if it had done so, the public interest would not be served by instituting a prosecution.

The blasphemy issue arose again in 2008 when then Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan was tasked with updating the 1961 Defamation Act. Lenihan was reluctant to define the crime of blasphemy, but, the following year, his successor Dermot Ahern took it upon himself to update Article 40. In this, blasphemous material was defined as “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”.

A key trigger that propelled the issue forward was the appearance of British actor Stephen Fry on an Irish religious television programme in 2015. When Fry was asked what he would say to God if he met him, he was typically direct.

“Bone cancer in children, what's that about? How dare you create a world with such misery. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded stupid God who creates a world so full of injustice and pain?"

A small number of viewers complained to the Irish police, who subsequently confirmed that an investigation had been launched. The case ultimately failed and Fry was never charged with blasphemy, but it did catapult the law into the international media, and increased pressure for a referendum.

Nugent believes that this is a medieval law and needs to be removed from the constitution.

“It was essentially crowbarred into our statue books less than a decade ago. It causes our media to self censor and it breaches our international human rights obligations.”

Low turnout risk

The opinion polls indicate that the change in legislation should pass. If so, the bill will have to be formally approved by the government. There will then be two legal repercussions, the word ‘blasphemous’ will be removed both from the Defamation Act and the Censorship Act.

But its ratification is not guaranteed, as this referendum has received none of the high-profile media attention of Ireland’s two most recent referendums on marriage equality and abortion.

“The very real danger is the early reports of low turnout as this is being run alongside a relatively uninspiring presidential election,” says Nugent. “Low turnout typically means more older voters. And older voters typically means more conservative results. So there is an outside chance that this might be defeated. But all of the political parties are supporting it and even the Catholic and Protestant bishops have publicly accepted that the laws are obsolete. I am cautiously optimistic that it will pass.”

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