Blasphemy and the Constitution

Sir, – The debate concerning whether or not blasphemy should be removed from the Constitution has produced one clear fact. If the clause is removed from the Constitution without strengthening the existing laws governing incitement to hatred on religious grounds, those intending to grossly abuse or insult their fellow citizens in matters that they hold sacred will do so with near-impunity.

Most contributors to the debate agree that the article itself is quite innocuous. They state the fact that there has never been a conviction for blasphemy and that a future conviction is highly unlikely. It has been suggested that the failure to prosecute is partly due to the fact that present-day society is largely respectful of other people’s beliefs and that it would take quite an offence to “grossly offend” a substantial number of the adherents of any religious community. Yet, the right to cause such offence under the guise of modernity and freedom of speech seems to be precisely what some of the Yes campaigners are advocating. Why else would anyone wish to encourage the publication of satirical literature and cartoons, as practised in other “progressive” European countries?

Others argue that Ireland’s Constitution encourages countries with challenging records on human rights to discriminate and oppress religious minorities. The case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan is a case for concern. However, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that deleting blasphemy from the Constitution would have any influence on her case. Indeed it can be argued that Ireland’s retention of the concept of blasphemy coupled with respect for minority religions may well be more helpful.

As an aspiring Christian involved in interfaith dialogue for more than 30 years, I have found that almost any topic can be discussed when those engaging in dialogue respect the faith and views of the other. In such dialogue the participants are likely to part slightly more enlightened and with a deeper sense of friendship. As 21st-century Ireland becomes increasingly more multicultural, perhaps retaining a modicum of respect for its diverse cultures and faiths is not such a bad idea. – Yours, etc,





Sir, – The executive committee of Irish PEN, the Irish Centre for PEN International, has been campaigning for the offence of blasphemy to be removed from the Constitution since 2009. Human rights attach to individuals, not to states, organised groups or ideas. When governments seek to limit the rights of individuals to criticise, they are not seeking, as they claim, to protect faith or belief. Rather, they are seeking increased power over their citizens.

The Defamation Act has been cited in many instances, since it came into effect on January 1st, 2010, by foreign governments seeking to suppress free speech in their countries, including Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, who cited Ireland’s blasphemy law in support of restrictions on defamation of religion.

It is essential to maintaining freedom of expression, ensuring that writers are free to criticise, that the offence of blasphemy be removed from the Constitution.

At a meeting of the writers in prison committee of PEN International in Brussels in March 2011, PEN Centres unanimously endorsed support for repeal of Ireland’s Defamation Act. Also in March 2011, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of the rights of individuals to practise their religion.

PEN is an organisation whose members pledge to promote good understanding and mutual respect between nations and to do their utmost to dispel race, class and national hatreds.

We deplore the distrust, disparagement or denigration of any individual based on her or his religious beliefs. We condemn discrimination, threats, harassment, or violence against individuals based on their religion and support national and international prohibitions against such actions. PEN and its member centres are engaged in activities and programmes around the globe aimed at reducing religious hatreds and suspicions. Irish PEN and PEN International calls on all writers and supporters of free speech to vote in the referendum on Friday to remove the offence of blasphemy from our Constitution. – Yours, etc,




Irish PEN,

c/o The United Arts Club,

Upper Fitzwilliam Street,

Dublin 2.

Sir, – As we approach the blasphemy referendum people on the Yes side who know better continue to claim that the Convention on the Constitution recommended the removal of the provision, while they omit the three significant words “as it is” and ignore the fact that what the Convention actually recommended by 53 per cent to 38 per cent was its replacement with a new general provision on hate speech. And that’s what a UN committee supported.

The distinction is that between the liberalism of the Enlightenment that understood the balance of rights and the libertarianism of Silicon Valley that resists regulation (of social media and capital for example).

Some Yes crusaders who think themselves progressive not long ago also wanted the legal protection for balance in broadcasting removed because it did not suit them. Its removal in the US, following a campaign by the right, cheapened public discourse.

Why are Irish citizens who see themselves as liberals or radicals so willing to let the Government set an agenda and claim an easy win by this petty referendum while sidelining free speech issues such as the use of defamation law to inhibit journalism or the prohibitive cost of legal proceedings, and more important constitutional questions relating to the abuse of property rights and other matters? – Yours, etc,


Emeritus Professor,

Dublin City University.