Ireland blasphemy referendum: Country to vote on removing the offence from country’s constitution

Vote on whether or not to remove article on blasphemy from constitution is being held on same day as country’s presidential election

Ben Kelly
Thursday 25 October 2018 10:19
Stephen Fry under police investigation for blasphemy after branding God an 'utter maniac'

On 26 October, voters in Ireland will go to the polls to decide on whether blasphemy should be removed as an offence from the country’s constitution.

The law on blasphemy is generally seen as outdated, and while this is not as contentious a social issue as others like same sex marriage and abortion, a referendum is still required to alter the constitution.

The referendum will take place on the same day as the country’s presidential election, in which the incumbent Michael D Higgins is expected to be re-elected.

The latest poll shows 51 per cent of voters are in favour of removing blasphemy from the constitution.

What is the law on blasphemy in Ireland?

Under the constitution of Ireland, “the publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” is punishable by law, and carries a fine of up to €25,000.

This was further defined in the Defamation Act of 2009, which stated that someone is guilty of the offence if they publish or utter “matter that is 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”, and if they intend, “to cause such outrage.”

Has anyone ever been prosecuted for blasphemy?

No one has ever been prosecuted for blasphemy in Ireland.

The only attempted prosecution since the creation of the state was in the late 1990s when a carpenter called John Corway attempted to sue three publications for articles and cartoons relating to the 1995 divorce referendum. He was unsuccessful.

The laws around blasphemy were brought back to public attention in 2017 after it emerged police were looking into comments made by Stephen Fry on an RTE programme. In a discussion about religion, the writer and broadcaster asked presenter Gay Byrne, “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain.”

Police later dropped the matter, stating they were “unable to find a substantial number of outraged people.”

A constitutional convention first proposed changing the article in the constitution in 2013, and it was finally brought forward by the government in June 2018.

When is the blasphemy referendum?

The referendum will be held on Friday 26 October, with voting open from 7am to 10pm. Counting will begin on the morning of Saturday 27 October, with the result expected to be announced later that afternoon.

On the same day, voters will have their say in the presidential election, which will determine who will serve as Ireland’s head of state for the next seven years.

The incumbent Michael D Higgins seems likely to be re-elected, but will face five other candidates at the ballot box: Sinn Féin's Liadh Ní Riada, independent Senator Joan Freeman, and businessmen Sean Gallagher, Gavin Duffy and Peter Casey.

What is the question being put to voters in the referendum?

The referendum concerns Article 40.6 of the constitution which states:

The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.

The proposal is to amend this by removing the world ‘blasphemous’, so it would simply read:

The publication or utterance of seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.

Voters will be asked if they want to vote Yes or No on the amendment.

How likely is the referendum to pass?

The latest poll, carried out by the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI and published on 17 October, showed that 51 per cent of people are in favour of removing blasphemy as an offence, 19 per cent are in favour of retaining it, while 25 per cent say they are undecided.

The referendum on blasphemy will be much more low key than the recent votes on same sex marriage and abortion, which were deemed to be bigger social issues. That this topic has been scheduled to share a polling day with the presidential election is evidence that the government doesn't believe it requires as much debate or scrutiny.

There is a general consensus that this article of the constitution is outdated, and that a majority of people would agree it should be removed – particularly in the context of Ireland’s growing separation of church and state.

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