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, making Ireland the only developed country to have introduced a new “blasphemy” law in the twenty-first century.
However, following a constitutional referendum on 26 October 2018, the path is now open to scrap the law, which will make Ireland the only nation to vote in a referendum to repeal its blasphemy law. Repeal of the law is pending.
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”.
A constitutional referendum on whether to remove the “blasphemous” provision in the constitution was held on 26 October 2018.
The “Yes” campaign was successful. ‘Blasphemy’ will now be removed from the constitution, which means the lines on ‘blasphemy’ can then be removed from the Defamation Act.
Announcing the referendum, Minister for Justice and Equality, TD Charlie Flanagan, who made the proposal, said it was an “important step” for Ireland’s international reputation:
“Regrettably, there are some countries in the world where blasphemy is an offence, the punishment of which is being put to death.
“In these countries, such laws are not an anachronism but a very real threat to the lives of those who do not share the views of those enforcing the laws. Such situations are abhorrent to our beliefs and values.
“… By removing this provision from our Constitution, we can send a strong message to the world that laws against blasphemy do not reflect Irish values and that we do not believe such laws should exist.”
A referendum had previously been 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 would not be held during the lifetime of the current Government. 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 said “I strongly believe that this [repealing the blasphemy law] is the right course of action to take.”