Referendum on blasphemy being prepared as complaint made against Stephen Fry

Atheist Ireland says it highlights ‘a law that is silly, silencing, and dangerous’

The Department of Justice has confirmed preparatory work has begun on a referendum on blasphemy as the Garda remained tight-lipped about an investigation into a complaint made against Stephen Fry.

The British actor, comedian and writer made critical comments about God during an interview with presenter Gay Byrne on RTÉ in February 2015.

A complaint that Mr Fry’s comments were in breach of the Defamation Act was made by a man in Ennis Garda Station more than two years ago. It is understood that gardaí in Dublin acted on the complaint in recent weeks after the complainant wrote to Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan earlier this year to inquire into the status of the investigation.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said the Government had proposed a number of referendums be held during its term, including one on the question of amending Article 40.6.1(i) of the Constitution to remove the offence of blasphemy.


“Preliminary consultations and preparatory work have been undertaken,” the spokesman said.

Further work will be necessary to prepare a Referendum Bill and a Bill to amend the current legislative provision for the offence of blasphemy contained in the Defamation Act 2009, with the “priority and time frame to be decided by Government”.

"We are not commenting on an ongoing investigation," was all a Garda spokeswoman was in a position to say on Sunday, when asked about the complaint made by a member of the public against the Englishman on the Gay Byrne programme The Meaning of Life, and the investigation it has triggered.

The man who made the complaint did so on the basis that he believed the comments made by Mr Fry on the programme were a breach of the Defamation Act.

‘Utterly, utterly evil’

When asked by Mr Byrne what he would say if he was confronted by God, Fry 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?”

And when he was questioned on how he would react if he was locked outside the heavenly gates, he responded: “I would say, ‘bone cancer in children? What’s that about?’ Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him? What kind of God would do that?”

The footage went viral almost as soon as it was aired and a clip of his comments has now been seen almost nine million times on YouTube.

The actor, who is a prolific user of Twitter, has yet to comment publicly on the developments although in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast he told the BBC that he had been “astonished that it caused so viral an explosion on Twitter and elsewhere. I’m most pleased that it’s got people talking,” he said.

“I was merely saying things that many finer heads than mine have said for hundreds of years, as far back as the Greeks ... I never wished to offend anybody who is individually devout or pious, and indeed many Christians have been in touch with me to say that they are very glad that things should be talked about.”

€25,000 fine

The offence of blasphemy, included in the Defamation Act, is punishable by a fine of €25,000 under Irish law.

In a statement on Saturday, Atheist Ireland welcomed the Garda investigation because it highlighted “a law that is silly, silencing, and dangerous”.

“It is a silly law because it suggests that the creator of the universe needs the Oireachtas to protect its feelings,” said Michael Nugent, chairman of Atheist Ireland. “It is a silencing law because many Irish media outlets are self-censoring themselves to avoid the possibility of being prosecuted.

“And it is a dangerous law because the Islamic States at the United Nations use western blasphemy laws to justify their own blasphemy laws, for which they execute people.”

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast