On October 26th, Irish citizens voted to remove blasphemy from article 40 of the Constitution. This means that the government will revoke the law which made it illegal to say something that is offensive to a religion.
However, the word ‘blasphemous’ is the only part being removed and it is still considered a serious offence to publish or say something that may offend any religion. The 2009 Defamation Act outlined that blasphemy is punishable by a fine of up to €25,000.
So what happens now without the word ‘blasphemous’ in the Constitution? The only memorable case regarding blasphemy in Ireland is the Stephen Fry case. Fry was investigated after comments he made about God in an interview with Gay Byrne on ‘The Meaning of Life’ in 2015 when he was asked what he would say to God if he met him. “I’d say bone cancer in children: what’s that about? Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? If a god did indeed invent the universe then that god is quite clearly a maniac…”
No one in Ireland has ever been prosecuted because of the blasphemy law, however, it is important to consider the consequences of free speech when it comes to religion. When Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, well known for its brand of satire, published cartoons of Muhammad in 2015, the paper’s office was stormed and 12 of its staff including its editor were shot dead.
The blasphemy referendum shed a light on this issue and created a precedent for other countries where blasphemy is punishable by the death sentence. A recent case in Pakistan saw a woman called Asia Bibi convicted for insulting Muhammad but she was acquitted last week. Bibi is a Christian woman and this decision angered many in the majority Muslim country.
Referendums can cost the taxpayer between €3 million and €4 million. As the only change that will be made to the Constitution is the removal of the word ‘blasphemous’, it is difficult to say whether or not this referendum was useful.
There were arguments for keeping the word ‘blasphemous’ in the Constitution. The first is to protect religious belief and the second is that it is a large expense for little change. However, the state was aware of this and costs were kept to a minimum by holding the referendum on the same day as the presidential vote.
DCU student Courtney Fitzmaurice gave the view that there wasn’t “any way of getting around the cost” and that it was “another step in removing the power of the Church in Ireland”. Fitzmaurice also mentioned how there wasn’t enough media coverage around what happens now that the referendum passed and how her parents didn’t fully understand what they were voting for because there was a lack of discussion and debate.
Many argued that the referendum was overdue as Ireland has a long history of combining the church and state authorities. Sonja Tutty, a student in DCU said, “as a Christian, I voted to remove blasphemy because not only is it pointless but it also goes against freedom of speech and freedom of religion. It gave the Christian church the upper hand and goes against religious equality.”
Image Credit: Sonja Tutty