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.
Ireland is therefore the only developed country to have introduced a new “blasphemy” law in the twenty-first century.
New 2009 “blasphemy” law
Article 40 of the constitution, though protecting freedom of religion and conscience, 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 embody this constitutional provision, lawmakers inserted a section on blasphemy into 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”.
The crime may be mitigated if “a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates”.
While there have been no prosecutions under the 2009 “blasphemy” provisions, 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.
Investigation into Stephen Fry “maniac” God interview
In 2017, an investigation was announced into an interview segment on RTÉ (Ireland’s public service broadcaster) with British comedian and actor Stephen Fry. During the 2015 interview on The Meaning of Life, hosted by Gay Byrne, Fry was asked what he would say to God. He replied: “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. … It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? … Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. … The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”
The 2017 investigation by the Gardaí (Irish police) was prompted by a complaint from a member of the public following the broadcast of The Meaning of Life in February 2015 according to the Irish Independent. Gardaí in Donnybrook only began a full investigation two years later, after having come back to the original complainant. The anonymous complainant told the Irish Independent that he wasn’t personally offended by the interview, but thought he was doing his “civic duty” by reporting an act of “criminal blasphemy”.
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.”