A Look into the Irish Blasphemy Referendum

Stephen Fry, English comedian who was investigated by the Irish police for the crime of blasphemy.

Stephen Fry, English comedian who was investigated by the Irish police for the crime of blasphemy.

For those unaware, or who might have missed it due in part to the news of Brett Kavanaugh’s public hearings and confirmation and other such controversial topics, an important day is coming up for the Republic of Ireland. On the 26th of October, a referendum will be held to vote on a matter very dear to liberal thought, and something that anyone reasonable might see as good reason to celebrate. The Irish people will have a chance to strike down blasphemy laws that have stood through English Common law within the Republic for almost seven centuries, and have been officially part of the Irish constitution since its inception in 1937. This referendum comes after a controversy was stirred, following a case involving Stephen Fry attempting to be prosecuted under the very same law being struck down last year.

The laws in question once were only a provision to protect against insult to Christianity, but as of 2009, were expanded to protect all religions after it was ruled that the 1999 Constitutional guarantee of protection of religious equality mandated that it was necessary. Following this expansion, and brought up in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Ali Selim of the Islamic cultural Centre of Ireland suggested that the law ought to be used to prevent news reproduction of the cartoons featured in the publication. In 2016, Neville Cox of Trinity College, Dublin, stated that the 2009 act essentially “made the crime [of blasphemy] practically unenforceable.”

Ireland is a different country than it was when our constitution was written in 1937. But we still have a blasphemy law, introduced ten years ago because of the 1937 constitution that makes this medieval concept a criminal offence that is punishable by law. “

- Michael Nugent, chairperson of Atheist Ireland

It should come as no surprise that there is a multitude of whom find the continued existence of the law obsolete, finding the precedent others have tried to set with it, rather terrifying. Following the dismissal of Fry’s case, and a push from Atheist Ireland following the 2009 act for the referendum, the vote has finally come to the people of Ireland. While a strong Irish Catholic presence is nevertheless still powerful and ever present in the country, many liberals wonder if the referendum will come to pass. As an issue of free speech, and secular protection not only locally, but internationally, one can only hope that the Irish people will come together and make a pointed statement against laws that have outlived their purpose into the modern age. More than that, such protections may well be necessary in the future to ensure that the right of criticism of religion is protected and upheld in Irish law.

While memories of some are short, there can no doubt in the minds of the Irish people, that they recall the pain The Troubles brought, and the long-standing scars of intolerance and division that religious fighting had left in Ireland. If there is to be any hope of healing the wounds that have ripped apart countless clans and families, and to safeguard against further needless fighting over ideology, the ability to speak out and argue these ideas without persecution over differences must be protected. Striking down blasphemy laws in such a manner is the only way that expressions of speech can necessarily be guaranteed, that jokes can be made, and that freedom can stand in Ireland for all, no matter what faith they may possess—without penalty from the state for offending religious communities.

In the hopes of a brighter, freer Ireland for all who call it home, I humbly ask the Irish people to pursue liberty, despite adversity.