Ahern to propose blasphemy amendment

Wed, Mar 17, 2010, 00:00

THE MINISTER for Justice will propose to the Cabinet a constitutional amendment deleting the constitutional prohibition on blasphemy when the children’s rights amendment comes up, according to his spokesman.

The children’s rights amendment is set to be put to referendum in the autumn. A spokesman for Dermot Ahern told The Irish Timesthe Minister was prepared to go to the Cabinet with this proposal in the future, in the context of other amendments being proposed.

Last April, Mr Ahern proposed an amendment to the Defamation Bill then before the Oireachtas defining the offence of blasphemy, which is referred to in the Constitution, and was also referred to in the 1961 Defamation Act.

His spokesman said: “The legal advice was that he could not ignore what was in the Constitution and what was in the Act. The short-term view was to alter the Act to remove the prison sentence, reduce the fine and introduce other measures. He did not consider it justifiable or sustainable to have a referendum on it alone. But he has no difficulty with a referendum to remove it.”

He was opposed to a stand-alone referendum that would have cost €3 or €4 million, his spokesman added. At the time, Mr Ahern wrote in The Irish Times: “My intention is to remove the possibility of prison sentences and private prosecutions for blasphemy, currently provided for in Irish law. The only credible alternative to this move is a blasphemy referendum, which I consider, in the current circumstances, a costly and unwarranted diversion.”

During the debate on the Bill, Mr Ahern told the Oireachtas Committee on Justice he favoured abolishing the offence of blasphemous libel, but favoured reforming the law, rather than a constitutional amendment. “As a republican, my personal position is that Church and State should be separate. But I do not have the luxury of ignoring our Constitution. So, as Minister for Justice, I faced a choice – referendum or reform.”

After debate, Mr Ahern further amended his proposals on blasphemous libel in the Defamation Bill to allow for a defence of “genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value” in the alleged blasphemous material. He reduced the fine payable on conviction from €100,000 to €25,000. The Bill was passed last July.

The President convened the Council of State to consider whether it, and the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, should be referred to the Supreme Court. She decided not to refer them.