This week, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced plans to hold a series of referendums in the next two years. One of these referendums concerns Ireland’s outdated anti-blasphemy law, which mandates a maximum fine of up to €25,000 for the “publishing or uttering [of] matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion”.
Whilst nobody has ever been prosecuted under the current legislation (passed in 2009), it nonetheless creates a chilling effect on free speech and makes an ass of the law. The only reason it still exists is to satisfy the requirements of the Constitution of Ireland, and indeed Irish lawmakers have admitted that the 2009 act was designed to render the law practically unenforceable. When actor Stephen Fry was investigated by gardaí earlier this year for alleged blasphemy, former minister Dermot Ahern told the Irish Independent:
We diluted it in a way that made it pretty ineffectual...We implemented the crime but made it in a way that it would be virtually impossible to prosecute.
Ireland’s religious community is equally blasé about the 2009 act. As Kevin Hargaden, Social Theology Officer of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, explained to the Irish Times earlier this year:
This law was passed as a component of the Defamation Act in 2009. It was not the product of a grassroots movement of Irish Christians or a broad coalition of religious leaders. The Irish Council of Churches did not greet it with applause. No photo opportunity followed with the leaders of Dublin’s mosques. Religious adherents in Ireland did not actively lobby for this law.
Despite the widespread (and accurate) impression that Ireland’s blasphemy law has no teeth, its continued existence has proven to be a useful rhetorical tool for opponents of free speech. Following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Dr Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland threatened to pursue legal action against members of the Irish media who published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed: referencing Ireland’s blasphemy laws. And the problems created by the 2009 act aren’t limited to Ireland either:
...the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation - which has 57 member states - cites Ireland’s law as best practice and has even proposed the adoption of its precise wording to limit human rights on freedom of conscience.
Thankfully, with a recent poll showing a clear majority in favour of removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, Ireland looks set to adopt a modern, secular approach to free speech.