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Out of Fry’s pan and into Hell’s fire?

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

It might come as news to some – it almost escaped my own notice if I’m honest – but on October 26, the Irish public will be asked to cast not one, but two votes. One, to decide who shall be the next President of Ireland. The other, to decide whether or not to remove the reference in our Constitution which makes blasphemy an offence punishable by law.
How many of us even knew that blasphemy was an offence in Ireland? Judging by popular parlance, not too many. It’s rare to hear a conversation in Ireland that’s not peppered with less than deferential references to the man above and his son, and in more extreme cases, his mother and the angels and saints too.
The history of the reference to blasphemy and its evolution over time is both interesting and amusing, as is the proposed vote itself. Article 40.6.1 of the Irish Constitution relates to freedom of speech, and the article refers to blasphemy in the following line:  
‘The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.’
The reference to blasphemy, or ‘blasphemous libel’ was originally included in the 1937 Constitution, and the government later made it punishable by imprisonment or by a fine, without defining what it actually was, though it was only deemed applicable to Christianity.
However, in the late 20th century, the offence was deemed to be incompatible with the Constitution’s guarantee of religious equality, therefore in 2009, a new offence of ‘publication or utterance of blasphemous matter’ against any religion was added to the 2009 Defamation Act. Equal opportunities at its finest – and all for a law that has not resulted in a prosecution since 1855!
So why even bother with a referendum? Surely to God (ahem) we have better things on which to spend our money?  
Well firstly, there is the obvious reason that blasphemy should not be a crime, and that freedom of speech – and its associated responsibilities – should be promoted. There is also always the danger that someone may actually be prosecuted.
In 2017, the Gardaí launched an investigation after comments made about God by Stephen Fry during RTÉ’s ‘The Meaning of Life’ show were deemed blasphemous by a viewer. The viewer claimed not to have been personally offended, but – tongue wedged firmly in cheek, one hopes – felt it was his civic duty to report a crime.
Unsurprisingly, the investigation eventually concluded because Gardaí were unable to find ‘a substantial number of outraged people’. The suggestion was made that the law had been deliberately enacted to be unworkable. An amused Stephen Fry claimed to be ‘enchanted’ by the furore.
While this is all rather entertaining, the existing law does have potentially sinister implications. In theory, it infringes on media freedom – comments in the press deemed blasphemous are open to challenge under the law with the possibility of a €25,000 fine. There is also the far more serious reality that Ireland’s blasphemy laws have been used to justify restrictions placed on religious minorities in other states like Pakistan, where those found in contravention of the law face much more extreme consequences.
That is something Ireland, which now prides itself as a modern and pluralist state, simply cannot stand over under any circumstances, and is alone justification for holding a referendum which popular opinion might deem a wasteful use of funds. There is also the argument that such a law inhibits the separation of church and state.
But this being Ireland, we need to find an Irish solution to the problem. The referendum will not propose deleting the problematic line from the constitution, merely removing the word ‘blasphemous’, perhaps replacing it. So even if, as expected, the referendum passes, making indecent or overly rebellious comments shall remain punishable by law. Still, the law shall remain unworkable. Still, restrictions on freedom of speech will remain enshrined in our constitution. And still church and state will remain happily intertwined, for now at least.
Perhaps though, there is a thrill in having a law we can happily and vociferously flout, safe in the knowledge that prosecution is unlikely. Either way, for God’s sake, don’t forget to vote!