Ireland removes ban on blasphemy in landslide referendum result

Huge Yes vote to remove obsolete article from country's constitution, over which no citizen has ever been charged

Michael D Higgins secures re-election as Ireland's president

Ireland has voted to remove blasphemy as an offence from the country’s constitution.

In a referendum, 64.8 per cent of voters were in favour of changing the law, with 35.1 per cent supporting the status quo.

The result was largely expected, as the article on blasphemy in the constitution is generally agreed to be outdated and obsolete.

It states that “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” The vote removes only the word ‘blasphemous’ from that sentence.

No one has ever been charged with the offence in the history of the Irish state, but it does carry a fine of up to €25,000.

The Fine Gael led-government supported a Yes vote, as did all major parties. While campaigning on Tuesday, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar outlined his support for the reform.

“What we want to have in Ireland is a 21st Century constitution for a 21st Century republic,” he said. “We’ve already reformed our Constitution to allow for things like marriage equality, women’s right to choose.

“We believe that having a criminal offence for blasphemy in Ireland is a bit outdated so we’re asking people to change that. It’s very much part of a reform of our whole Constitution to make the country more modern.”

A referendum on the matter, which is required in order to change the constitution, was first mooted as far back as 2009.

Attention was drawn again in 2017 after Stephen Fry made an appearance on the RTE programme The Meaning of Life, in which he described God as “capricious, mean-minded and stupid”.

At the time, police in Ireland confirmed they were looking into the comments, but eventually dropped the matter, as they were “unable to find a substantial number of outraged people”.

It was later decided that the referendum would be held this year, although there has been very little campaigning around it, with just one major radio debate.

This is in part because Friday’s vote was held concurrently with Ireland’s presidential election, in which the incumbent Michael D Higgins was re-elected.

Although this referendum has been more low key than the previous votes on same sex marriage and abortion, it does add to a pattern of social change in Ireland, and highlights the growing distance between church and state, in a country over which the Catholic church once held firm control.

A 2017 report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom found that 71 countries have laws which criminalise blasphemy.

According to a 2016 study by the Freedom of Thought report, the offence is punishable by death in six countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia.

England and Wales abolished blasphemy as an offence in 2008, but it is still ingrained in law in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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