Following a call last month by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) for the abolition of blasphemy law in Ireland, it was announced this week that the Irish will have a chance to kick the archaic law into the long grass via a referendum in October.
IHEU Chief Executive, Gary McLelland, above, speaking at IHEU’s All-Ireland Summer School Conference, urged voters:
To stand on the side of humanism, and in solidarity with those who are actively persecuted under similar laws around the world.
At present, Article 40.6.1° of Ireland’s constitution states:
The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.
The crime of blasphemy in Ireland carries a maximum penalty of a fine of €25,000.
He said that that while the polls looked good, it was important not to be complacent about the result.
Then, on Tuesday of this week, the lower house of Ireland’s parliament, the Dáil, passed a proposal by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan to hold a referendum on removing the offence on October 26, the same day as the Presidential election.
He argued that so long as the offence was retained in the constitution, Ireland would be seen by the rest of the world:
As a country which keeps company with those who do not share the fundamental values we cherish such as belief in freedom of conscience and expression.
Fianna Fáil spokesman Jim O’Callaghan agreed that the constitution “needs to be updated and modernised”.
British comedian Stephen Fry was the subject of an Irish blasphemy probe last year after a viewer complained about comments he made on TV show The Meaning of Life, hosted by Gay Byrne, in 2015.
On the show, he had been asked what he might say to God if he came face to face with Him in Heaven.
How dare you create a world in which there is such misery? It’s not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?
The investigation was later dropped.
McLelland told the conference that the remaining blasphemy laws in Europe set a terrible precedent on the international scene, with several countries around the world frequently and harshly punishing accused blasphemers with lengthy prison terms, or even death.
Wherever there are ‘blasphemy’ laws, the state is fundamentally saying that there is something wrong, disruptive, offensive, about the critical discussion of religion.
He said the scrapping of blasphemy in Ireland:
Was not just a little administrative matter that needs clearing up. No, it is essential that we stand with atheists and humanists around the world who are being censored, who are being jailed, who are being murdered even, over accusations of ‘blasphemy’.
I believe the opinion polls suggest that Ireland will fall on the side of freedom of thought and expression and will scrap the law. But remember that poll leads can disappear, especially if there are powerful lobbies pushing in the other direction, confusing the issue with ‘hate speech’ laws or implying that somehow ‘religious freedom’ requires a ‘blasphemy’ law – when in fact it’s the other way around!
I urge you not to be complacent, to see this referendum – as with the recent abortion referendum – as a chance to show where Ireland stands: in this case on the side of humanism, and in solidarity with those who are actively persecuted under similar laws around the world.
Let me say loud and clear, a future decision of the Irish people to repeal the supposed crime of blasphemy would have profound and significant positive effects around the world.