The constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and association. However, the Catholic Church remains influential, there are numerous privileges for religion in general, and anti-blasphemy laws were introduced as recently as 2009.
Article 40 of the constitution, though protecting freedom of religion and consciousness, also states that:
“The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law”.
In an attempt to clarify the constitutional implications of the blasphemy regulations within the constitution, lawmakers inserted a section on blasphemy to the Defamation Act of 2009. Section 36 of the act criminalizes the publishing or utterance of “blasphemous matter” and imposes a maximum fine of €25,000.
Under the act a person has produced “blasphemous matter” if –
“(a) he or she publishes or utters 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, and
(b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage”.
Protection exists if:
“a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates”.
So far, there has been no recorded prosecution under the “blasphemy” law. However, Islamic states and proponents of “blasphemy” and “defamation of religion” laws have pointed towards the Irish law, and in particular its recent introduction, to justify their own draconian legislation.
A campaign to repeal the Irish blasphemy law is run by Atheist Ireland, a national partner of the End Blasphemy Laws campaign.
Referendum proposed and withdrawn
A referendum on removing the offence of blasphemy from the Irish Constitution law was due to take place in 2015, on the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention. However, on 13 January 2015, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that the planned referendum will not be held during the lifetime of the current Government:
“Mr Kenny said the Coalition felt it is better to put changes recommended by the convention to the people on a phased basis. Mr Kenny said two referendums would be held this year – one on same-sex marriage and another on reducing the voting age for Presidential elections. Both are expected to be held in May. Mr Kenny said he did not want to hold more than two referendums on one day because it might take the focus away from the other issues.”
The Minister for Communications, Alex White, urged the government to go ahead with the referendum, the Irish Times reported on 1 February 2015. Citing the 1991 Law Reform Commission recommendation to delete the blasphemy reference from the Constitution, and the 1996 Constitution Review Group’s similar conclusions, White implied that the creation of the 2009 law seems especially anachronistic, and:
“I strongly believe that this [repealing the blasphemy law] is the right course of action to take. Two constitutional referendums are due to take place before the summer but there has been no Government decision as yet on whether to hold more referendums during the remaining period of the 31st Dáil […] My own view is that the Government should look carefully at this, and consider finishing out, as far as possible, the work programme arising from the Constitutional Convention.”