Home > Irish politics, Religion > Dermot Ahern to propose removing Constitutional offence of blasphemy

Dermot Ahern to propose removing Constitutional offence of blasphemy

Good news from Dermot Ahern, who has said in a Sunday Times interview that he now supports holding a referendum to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, contained in Article 40.6. 1°. i., three months after the blasphemy provisions of the Defamation Act 2009 came into effect. He said that “he never regarded the provision in the new Defamation Bill as anything more than a short-term solution” (via Atheist Ireland).

It’s strange that he didn’t make more of the fact that he did believe it should be removed from the Constitution last year. I think it likely that he expected that no convictions would ever be made under its provisions, but I had thought that it was some sort of way of appealing to religious voters. So I wonder what it was that made him change his mind, to see it as an issue that deserved immediate Constitutional change. It’s quite possible that it was the recent arrests here in Ireland of members of a plot to kill cartoonist Lars Vilk, who had drawn a cartoon of Muhammad, showing the danger of laws infringing freedom of speech, by granting any merit to extremists’ arguments. Or maybe he just wanted to make sure he wouldn’t become known as a right-winger.

In any case, it’s welcome news. With the announcement from Fine Gael leaked in Saturday’s Irish Times, we’ve had a lot of Constitutional changes proposed recently, and it’s probably worth while going through from start to finish to see what else should be changed, as we approach in 2012 the 75th anniversary of its adoption.

  1. Frank Biggar
    22 March, 2010 at 5:30 am

    As someone who sees himself as some sort of agnostic but who doesn’t normally see himself as an atheist (though I don’t want to get bogged down here in pointless arguments about the ‘true’ meanings of words like atheist, agnostic, belief, God, gods, etc), I suppose I should congratulate Atheism Ireland on the brilliant way they have used the blasphemy law to promote themselves.

    But I fail to see any reason for atheists or agnostics to be happy about the ‘success’ in getting the referendum requested by Atheism Ireland (assuming that we do in fact get it), in the absence of any evidence that the outcome is likely to be favorable (and a great deal of evidence, admittedly not yet conclusive, suggesting the exact opposite). Until I see some evidence to the contrary, I think there’s every reason to fear that the real purpose of the proposed referendum is to copperfasten the law through the backing of a popular vote, as well as to make it much more difficult in practice for people such as moderate liberals in the DPP’s office to turn a blind eye to future breaches of the law.

  2. Frank Biggar
    22 March, 2010 at 7:10 am

    As a postscript to my previous posting, let me point out that there are any number of entirely harmless ways that the law could be made to comply with the Constitutional requirement that blasphemy be punishable by law without the need for a referendum that will probably merely copperfasten the current blasphemy law.

    Here’s one example of such a harmless law:
    Article 1. The offense of blasphemous libel is hereby abolished.

    Article 2. After a prosecution initiated by the DPP, and conviction by a unanimous jury, blasphemy shall be punishable, so long as the Constitution requires such punishment, by a fine not exceeding 25 euro.

    Article 3. Blasphemy shall consist of provably offending a provably good and true and all-powerful God, by publicly insulting the afore-mentioned God (also known as ‘taking His name in vain’).

    Article 4. For the purposes of article 3 above, ‘provably’ shall have the following meaning:
    4.1 The all-powerful God will descend in a flaming chariot into Dail Eireann during a televised session when at least 140 Deputies are in attendance, and publicly declare Himself to have been offended by the blasphemous utterances of one or more named individuals. The attending Deputies will confirm unanimously by both public and secret ballot that they are satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that there is no possibility of the aforementioned events being the result of trickery by a being or beings who are not a good and true and all-powerful God.
    4.2 The all-powerful God will then, within less than a week, also descend in a flaming chariot into a live television transmission of RTE’s Late Late Show when at least 100 audience members are in attendance, and publicly declare Himself to have been offended by the blasphemous utterances of the same named individual or individuals. The attending audience members will confirm unanimously by both public and secret ballot that they are satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that there is no possibility of the aforementioned events being the result of trickery by a being or beings who are not a good and true and all-powerful God.

    Article 5. No prosecution for blasphemy shall be initiated prior to the availability of proof, as defined in article 4 above.

    Article 6. For the purposes of this law, any alleged God who fails to supply proof as defined in article 4 above, shall be presumed to be either insufficently offended to be the victim of blasphemy, or insufficiently powerful to qualify as a true all-powerful God, and thus ineligible to be considered a victim of blasphemy.

  3. Frank Biggar
    22 March, 2010 at 7:19 am

    I suppose I should perhaps have added that the above sample law’s definiton of blasphemy is genuinely infinitely closer to what most people have traditionally understood blasphemy to mean (including those who voted for the 1937 Constitution) than the nonsense in Dermot Ahern’s definition (which would have amazed those who voted for the 1937 Constitution).

    • William
      22 March, 2010 at 11:30 pm

      Thank you for your comment, and I think you’re right, Dermot Ahern could easily have drafted a far less stringent blasphemy law in the first place. But I would be optimistic about the result of any referendum. In the first place, this is 2010, and even in 1972, the referendum to remove the special position of the Roman Catholic Church passed by 84%. Secondly, I think any referendum campaign would allow those in favour of removing this provision a chance to outline exactly what harms can arise from such a provision, and how the new law has been mimicked by fundamentalist states.

  4. Frank Biggar
    4 November, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Hi William,

    I’ve only just come across your reply to my above 3 comments. Not that it matters anymore, but the 84% in 1972 was because Cardinal Conway had publicly stated that he couldn’t care less whether the Special Position was kept or not. And the blasphemy prohibition is going because the Christian Churches have said they’re happy to see it go, as has been widely reported. Less widely reported is some of the other things they’ve said:


    As Churches in Ireland we acknowledge that the current reference to blasphemy in the
    Constitution of Ireland is largely obsolete and may give rise to concern because of the way such
    measures have been used to justify violence and oppression against minorities in other parts of
    the world.

    The promotion of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience for all in society greatly
    enriches the social fabric of a country, and is one aspect of respect for the dignity of human
    persons. The human right of faith communities to contribute to public life, including public
    debate on issues that are of importance to everyone, without being subjected to attack or
    , needs to be acknowledged and respected.

    (Significantly the first paragraph is reported in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blasphemy_law_in_Ireland ) and I heard of it from RTE News Headlines, while I failed to notice any mention of the second paragraph in either place, suggesting that the first paragraph is the public spin while the second is the substance)

    So if we have a referendum, I expect we’ll be given a choice between the present ban on causing religious offense called blasphemy law and a new ban on causing religious offense called something else, and eminent secular authority (England’s Law Commission) can be quoted to justify this new ban:
    (extract from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blasphemy_law_in_Ireland ):
    The Bar Council of Ireland made a presentation to the Committee, pointing out that blasphemy and treason were the only crimes specifically mentioned in the Constitution.[34] Neville Cox stated:[34]
    When the English Parliament originally enacted blasphemy laws, it was with a view to appeasing an angry God who was irritated by despicable literature and who was causing plagues and fires to occur in London. That was the historical reason for the law. The Law Commission in England suggested that there were two types of situation where what had previously been characterised as blasphemous material might generate a public interest in its prohibition. The first is where there is incitement to hatred and the second is where there is simply an excessive offence to religious sensibilities. The term “blasphemy” does not relate to either of these. It is, therefore, a misdescription of a changed law.

    However, this isn’t simply a name change. Regardless of whether Yes or No wins the ban ceases to be an easily ignored embarassment from 1937 and becomes a difficult to ignore recent expression of the people’s will. This may suit Atheism Ireland well (lots of free publicity and lots of useful martyrs), but I’ve never claimed to be a fan of Atheism Ireland. At any rate I would prefer to see no referendum, and an innocuous blasphemy law of the kind suggested in my comments (tho I’d probably replace the flaming chariots of my Article 4 with something like the sworn affidavits of a few living winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics asserting that it was beyond reasonable doubt that the offended God existed, etc.

    But I’m oversimplifying. I’m not sure whether a ban on causing offence will be explicitly mentioned, as these are not as ‘politically correct’ as laws against incitement to hatred. But since offence can lead to hatred and killing (for instance 25 UN workers murdered in Afghanistan after the Reverend Terry Jones burnt a Koran in America, etc), I’m not sure that causing offence needs to be explictly mentioned to get it banned in practice. And, since I’m not happy with having UN workers murdered, etc, I’m no longer entirely comfortable with my own knee-jerk opposition to such bans, and if an unbeliever like me feels that way, I can hardly get outraged with Irish Christian voters feeling that way, only a bit more so.

    At any rate it probably doesn’t matter because I think it extremely unlikely that anything I say or do would make a blind bit of difference, even if I knew what was the right thing to do (which I don’t).


    Frank Biggar

  1. 22 March, 2010 at 2:02 am

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