Ireland to have referendum on its blasphemy law


It appears that blasphemy is currently an offense in Ireland, even though the last known prosecution was in 1855 and the last conviction was in 1703 when a Unitarian pastor was fined £1,000 and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for publishing a book that argued that Jesus was not equal with God the Father.

The Irish constitution says the publication or utterance of “blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law”.

Assistant professor of law at Trinity College Dublin, David Kenny explains that although blasphemy was constitutionally illegal since 1937, only since the 2009 Defamation Act was blasphemy defined in law.

To be convicted of blasphemy, the court must prove that what is said or published is grossly abusive or insulting, causing outrage to a religion and that the person or publisher intended to cause outrage.

If found guilty, you could face a €25,000 fine. (£22k)

Under the 1937 constitution of Ireland, “the publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” was punishable by law but it took the 2009 law to codify it.

There will be a referendum on October 26 on whether to remove this offense from the constitution. Polls say that 51% of the population will vote ‘yes’ on removing the offense from the constitution, though the issue has not sparked anywhere near the passions as the referenda on legalizing same-sex marriage and abortion.

The only attempted prosecution since the creation of the state was in the late 1990s when a carpenter called John Corway attempted to sue three publications for articles and cartoons relating to the 1995 divorce referendum. He was unsuccessful.

The laws around blasphemy were brought back to public attention in in 2017 after it emerged police were looking into comments made by Stephen Fry on an RTE programme. In a discussion about religion, the writer and broadcaster asked presenter Gay Byrne, “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain.”

Police later dropped the matter, stating they were “unable to find a substantial number of outraged people.”

Most people likely think it is a silly law.

Comments

  1. Bruce says

    The major world religion categories all consider each other to be blasphemous. If people were logical then this law could have been used to force all religious people to be quiet about it. But in the real world, the best is just to remove the law.

  2. jrkrideau says

    There are probably any number of countries with a blasphemy law on the books. Canada seems to have one though I doubt many people, even lawyers, realize this.

  3. says

    Canada seems to have one though I doubt many people, even lawyers, realize this.

    @jrkrideau:

    Yep. Good guess. I didn’t remember that we had the offense of blasphemous libel (RSC, C-46, s296) until you mentioned it. Then I remembered that there had been some noise about repealing it, though I can’t find any successful repeal that simply hasn’t taken effect as yet and the RSC still lists the offense as in force so there’s certainly not been an already effective repeal that I missed.

    The offense long predates the Constitution Act, 1982 which sets our the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and it’s likely that any prosecutions under the act would be held unconstitutional by the SCC today, but it is still there. The situation then is somewhat different than that in Ireland where the constitution specifically authorizes the Irish parliament to attach criminal penalties to blasphemy, while the Canadian constitution appears to forbid them (though this hasn’t been tested yet). In the Irish context, the statute on the books is a genuine threat. In the Canadian context, the statute on the books is a largely empty threat.

    Nonetheless it’s a perfectly true and reasonable observation that Canada does have such a statute – even if the current freedom of expression and freedom of religion jurisprudence makes it difficult to imagine a circumstance where the statute would be upheld.

  4. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 Crip Dyke,
    Some laws hang around for a long time. I think I remember hearing something about a repeal as well but it was a “low” priority issue.

    I am not sure, but it may be that until Québec carried out its reform of the Civil Code in the 1990’s that all Québec hotels were required to provide stabling and feed for the guests’ horses.

    I remember hearing about two or three horses and riders turning up at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montréal in the 1970’s. No idea what the hotel did with the horses.

  5. lanir says

    I’m just imagining the police trying to find outraged people. It sounds like one of those things that could go very, very badly if the police wanted it to. A law like that by nature has to be somewhat vague and that can allow for the same thoughts and actions to be considered very differently depending on how they’re framed.

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