Urgent Need for Irish Constitutional Referendum on Blasphemy
The Executive Committee of Irish PEN, the Irish Centre for PEN International, is campaigning for a constitutional referendum to be held on blasphemy in the Republic of Ireland by the end of 2011.
Why do we need a constitutional referendum?
Why is the move towards “defamation of religions” bad?
Human rights attach to individuals, not to states, organised groups or ideas. When governments seek to limit the rights of individuals to criticise, they are not seeking, as they claim, to protect faith or belief. Rather, they are seeking increased power over their citizens. Religions are capable of good and evil. To ensure that the good dominates, it is essential to maintain freedom of expression, ensuring writers are free to criticise them.
What’s the urgency?
The issue is of immediate importance, as it occurs against the backdrop of a sustained push by a number of nations within the UN to promulgate new international restrictions on speech considered defamatory to religions. PEN opposes such restrictions, believing that they do little to promote mutual respect and understanding and knowing from long experience that laws devised to guard institutions against defamation are frequently used to deny individuals the right to freedom of expression; indeed, several countries have jailed writers under blasphemy laws in clear violation of their right to freedom of expression. PEN’s efforts to prevent these new, rights-threatening restrictions have been gaining ground in recent years, and Ireland itself has voted against these resolutions at the United Nations.
Passing the Defamation Act 2009 has undercut these international efforts to ensure the protection of freedom of expression. Pakistan, which has been leading the coalition of 57 Islamic states that has been pressing to ban religious defamation internationally, has cited verbatim the Irish legislation to justify the group’s continuing efforts to expand blasphemy laws internationally. To its shame, Ireland is now being held up as a model for restricting freedom of expression internationally.
What needs to happen?
At a time when Ireland needs to restore its reputation in the world, Irish PEN calls upon the Government to include an amendment removing blasphemy from the Irish Constitution at the earliest opportunity and before the end of 2011.
Wouldn’t that be expensive?
No. The new Irish Government has already indicated that the long-awaited referendum on children may be held before the end of 2011. The amendment removing blasphemy from the Constitution could be run at the same time for no extra cost.
What do the legal people think?
In 1991 the Law Reform Commission said that there was “no place for the offence of blasphemous libel in a society which respects free speech”. In 1996 the Oireachtas Constitution Review Group said: “The retention of the present constitutional offence of blasphemy is not appropriate.” The Bar Council has noted that blasphemy and treason are the only crimes explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. In 2008, the Joint Committee on the Constitution said that “in a modern Constitution, blasphemy is not a phenomenon against which there should be an express constitutional prohibition”.
Why hasn’t it been removed yet?
Instead of removing it from the Constitution, the former Fianna Fail Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern introduced blasphemy as an amendment to the 2009 Defamation Bill. In March 2010, Mr Ahern’s press office indicated that there might be a constitutional referendum on the matter in the autumn of 2010. On 25 March 2010, Mr Ahern said that he had “clearly stated that I hoped that the matter could be addressed by referendum at a suitable opportunity in the near future”. He said a referendum as a “stand alone” amendment would involve “considerable expense” and was not of “immediate importance”. He concluded: “I remain of the view that on grounds of cost, a referendum on its own on blasphemy should not be held and that it should instead be run together with one or more other referendums.”
What’s in Ireland’s Defamation Act 2009?
Section 36 of the Act defines the new offence of “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter”. It concerns matter deemed “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion” resulting in “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion”. Those found guilty of the offence face a fine of up to €25,000. Moreover, courts are empowered to issue a warrant authorising the police to forcibly enter and search any suspected premises, including a dwelling, for copies of “blasphemous” statements. The new Act came into effect on 1 January 2010.
Now it is of immediate importance
Given the moves at the UN, it is now of immediate importance that the Irish Constitution be changed, with the amendment on blasphemy held, at no extra cost, in conjunction with the amendment on children mooted for later in 2011.
Irish PEN calls upon the new Government to restore our reputation for free speech without delay.