Hell no: Blasphemy vote is facile

Colum Kenny: When it comes to freedom of speech in Ireland, there are bigger fish to fry

The blasphemy referendum is a waste of time and money. In its present form, it sends the wrong message and should be voted down. It is empty political posturing.

It is claimed by some that the Convention on the Constitution recommended that blasphemy be removed from the Constitution – full stop. This is misleading.

What the convention recommended in 2014 was that the provision should be removed and replaced in the Constitution with a general provision on incitement to religious hatred. The Government is not doing this.

Responding for the Government to that recommendation, then minister of state Aodhán Ó Ríordáin told the Dáil that, “The convention voted in favour of including a new constitutional provision against religious hatred, with 53 per cent of members in favour, 38 per cent against and 9 per cent undecided. “

Most Irish citizens think it wrong to abuse or to insult grossly the religious opinions of other people. Growing political rancour around the world, and breakdowns in civil discourse especially online, are lamentable.

The Constitution proclaims that the publication or utterance of blasphemous matter is an offence punishable in law. But it also protects reasonable free speech.

Blasphemy is not a problem in Ireland. It could become one without certain protections

Irish statute law of 2009 defines blasphemy as words or images that are “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”. A prosecutor must prove that such adherents were outraged, and that it was intended to cause outrage.

Fair comment is protected. For it is a good defence to prove that “a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates”. And a fine, not jail, is the only punishment.

Certain protections

Blasphemy is not a problem in Ireland. It could become one without certain protections recommended by the Convention on the Constitution.

It is claimed by supporters of the referendum that the UN Human Rights Committee called for Ireland to do what is now proposed. In fact the committee asked that the Irish government “should consider removing the prohibition of blasphemy from the Constitution as recommended by the Convention on the Constitution”. The convention recommended replacing the provision, not just eliminating it.

Some Yes campaigners say that extreme Islamists hold up Ireland’s nuanced blasphemy law to defend human right outrages committed by them. Removing it won’t stop such outrages. But such arguments risk conflating all Muslims in a prejudiced stereotype.

What makes this referendum even more facile is that it was prompted partly by an English comedian, Stephen Fry

The collective voice of more than 50 Muslim majority nations, with a combined population of almost two billion people, is the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). And the United Nations backs the OIC’s call for all States to take actions to foster “a domestic environment of religious tolerance, peace and respect”. Such actions include “Adopting measures to criminalise the incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief” and “understanding the need to combat denigration and the negative religious stereotyping of persons, as well as incitement to religious hatred”.

What makes this referendum even more facile is that it was prompted partly by an English comedian, Stephen Fry, who discussed God with Gay Byrne on RTÉ. One viewer complained to the Garda that this was blasphemy, but reportedly said that he himself was not offended. He was just making a point. Busy gardaí investigated but found no grounds for action. There was never a chance that Fry might be prosecuted. Theologians would happily debate his views, not suppress them.

Libel damages

When it comes to freedom of speech in Ireland, there are bigger fish to fry. The current provision on blasphemy has far less impact on what people can say and hear than does the continuing high level of fees and damages in libel cases and the enormous cost of asserting freedom of information and other rights in court generally.

We could also hold a referendum debate on something that matters, such as votes for emigrants or a special limitation on private property that would discourage land speculation, or on nationalising all primary school property.

The Government has learned little from its heavy defeat in the referendum that in 2015 proposed allowing people aged under 35 to become president of Ireland. Voters treated that gesture with the contempt it deserved.

The Constitution is enriched by intellectual rigour and by using it to achieve justice and equal opportunity. But it is belittled by the kind of distraction and “virtue-signalling” involved in a referendum held solely to remove the single word blasphemy from the Constitution. I’ll be voting No.

Colum Kenny is emeritus professor of journalism at Dublin City University