Retention of blasphemy offence in Irish law ensures ‘joke is on us’

Róisín Shortall seeks referendum on issue following inquiry into Stephen Fry comments

Broadcaster Stephen Fry was at the centre of row over the State’s blasphemy laws. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire.

Broadcaster Stephen Fry was at the centre of row over the State’s blasphemy laws. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire.

 

Legislation has been introduced in the Dáil to allow a referendum to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution.

Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall also introduced a separate Bill to remove the offence of blasphemy from the 2009 Defamation Act.

Introducing the Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2017 and the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Blasphemy) Bill 2017, Ms Shortall said that as far back as 1991 the Law Reform Commission had recommended that the offence of blasphemy be removed from the Constitution.

She said it “rightly recommended that it be taken in conjunction with another referendum to save on expense. The commission’s view was that there was ‘no place for an offence of blasphemous libel in a society which respects freedom of speech,’” she said.

She said former minister for justice Dermot Ahern “recently admitted that the law in this area is ridiculous and needs to be repealed.

“He was speaking in response to the embarrassing publicity for our country when an internationally renowned comedian (Stephen Fry) faced possible charges and a potential €25,000 fine simply for expressing his beliefs on a TV programme about faith.”

Elaborate joke

Ms Shortall said that “many of us could have been fooled into thinking this was an elaborate joke but, unfortunately, it was not.

“As long as we maintain an offence of blasphemy in our laws, the joke is on us in Ireland. The Social Democrats believe the offence of blasphemy is an outdated concept that should be removed from our Constitution and our laws. It is yet one more example of where church and State need to be fully separated.”

The Dublin North-West TD described the offence of blasphemy as “archaic, obsolete and unnecessary”.

“It fundamentally offends the principle of freedom of speech, promotes disrespect for our laws and damages our international reputation.”

Ms Shortall added that having the offence of blasphemy on the Statute Book “offers little protection in genuine cases of deliberate incitement to hatred”.

The Defamation Act 2009 is now under review. She called on the Minister to update it without delay to offer better protection in cases in which minority and majority religious groups face deliberate and excessive provocation.

“For now, there is no reason we cannot proceed with updating our Constitution and removing this offence from the Statute Book. In a society where freedom of expression is valued and supported, there is absolutely no excuse for inaction in this regard.”