Convention recommends replacing blasphemy offence
61% favour change to Constitutional clause
Senators Ivana Bacik and Jillian van Turnhout voting as members of the Convention on the Constitution on whether the offence of blasphemy should be kept as it is in the Constitution. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The constitutional offence of blasphemy should be replaced with a new general provision to include incitement to religious hatred, the constitutional convention has recommended. Voting yesterday on whether the offence of blasphemy should be kept as it is in the Constitution, 38 per cent said yes, 61 per cent no and 1 per cent were undecided or had no opinion.
In a follow-up question, 38 per cent said the offence should be removed from the Constitution, 53 per cent said it should be replaced with a new general provision to include incitement to religious hatred and 9 per cent had no opinion. Asked whether there should be a legislative provision for the offence of blasphemy, 49 per cent of members said yes, 50 per cent said no and 1 per cent were undecided or had no opinion.
The 100-member forum includes 66 members of the public and is chaired by Tom Arnold. It will send a detailed report to the Government outlining its recommendations.
The convention heard from academic and legal specialists, and from advocates of both sides of the argument. Dr Neville Cox of Trinity College Dublin said the relevant part of the 2009 Defamation Act, which sets a maximum fine of €25,000 for those found guilty of publishing or uttering blasphemous material, was too tightly drawn to be applied in practice.
He said the law’s requirement that a publisher must be proven to have intended to cause outrage among a substantial number of a religion’s adherents meant it “will be very difficult successfully to prosecute the offence”.
The law also makes it clear that it is a valid defence to prove a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value in the publication of the material. “It makes it so hard to operate the law . . . that I think the 2009 act effectively kills off the crime,” Dr Cox said.
Dr Cox also pointed to a decision by the Supreme Court in Corway v Independent Newspapers, a 1999 case in which the court said it couldn’t define blasphemy and therefore couldn’t apply the constitutional prohibition. “What this did was render the crime of blasphemy a dead letter,” he said.
Dr Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland said the offence should be retained, arguing that freedom of expression should not be “unrestrained” and must be used responsibly. The Order of the Knights of St Columbanus argued in a written submission that the constitutional prohibition on blasphemy served to safeguard the right of believers “not to suffer unwarranted offence arising from the gratuitous impugning of sacred matter”.
Mark Kelly, director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said the blasphemy offence was a “national irrelevance and an international embarrassment”, and was supported in calling for the removal of the clause by Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association of Ireland.