IRELAND goes to the polls today to vote in a referendum on whether to remove the constitutional offence of blasphemy from the statute books. The proposal is likely to be overwhelmingly supported by the electorate.
The original offence of blasphemy has its roots in a common-law offence of blasphemous libel which was last tested in 1855; it was again prohibited in the Constitution of 1937, but in 1999 was declared to be incompatible with the same constitution’s guarantee on religious equality. A decade later, the shortcoming was replaced with another offence which prohibited publication or utterance of blasphemous matter against all religions. Since then, there have been no prosecutions.
The mainstream Churches in the Republic are broadly in favour of the removal of the blasphemy clause, although the Church of Ireland “would have preferred to have seen a proposal to replace Article 40.6.1.i. with an Article protecting freedom of religion and freedom of speech in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights”, according to a statement from the Bishop of Limerick & Killaloe, Dr Kenneth Kearon, who chairs the Church and Society Commission.
While acknowledging that the current blasphemy provisions are largely obsolete, the Church expresses concern at the use of similar laws across the world to justify oppression against minorities.
The statement cautions: “There is a fundamental human right to freedom of religion, but also the freedom of expression (within limits). However, the human right of faith communities to contribute to public life, including public debate on issues that are of importance to everyone, without being subjected to attack or ridicule, must be acknowledged and respected. Religious and other minorities, in particular, have a right to expect that they will not be gratuitously offended or humiliated.
“We remind citizens that some religions and cultures may have different sensitivities for what they find offensive, and this should be, as far as possible, respected.”
Referring to the psychological impact of hate speech on isolated communities, particularly online abuse, it urges the Irish government to make the country “a leading example of protection for freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and the human rights of minorities.
“While we recognise that this is not an option in the upcoming referendum, we would have preferred to have seen a proposal to replace Article 40.6.1.i. with an Article protecting freedom of religion and freedom of speech in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights Articles 9 and 10. Further, we would urge the Oireachtas to enact the Criminal Law (Hate Crime) Bill which was proposed in 2015, but has yet to be brought forward to be debated.”
Voters will also be asked to elect a new President for the normal seven-year term. The current incumbent, Michael D. Higgins, is seen as being far ahead of his rivals.