Convention’s vote on blasphemy could bring Ireland back to the 1980s

We are pleased that 61% of the Constitutional Convention members have rejected the reference to blasphemy in the Constitution. But we are shocked and concerned by some aspects of the outcome.

We are shocked that 38% of the members voted to keep this anachronistic reminder of the Ireland of Eamon de Valera. We are also shocked that 49% want there to be a law against blasphemy in 21st century Ireland. If these votes reflect Irish society generally, we may be in for a more difficult 1980s-style referendum campaign than we had anticipated.

It shows that we cannot become complacent in the ongoing campaign for pluralism, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom from discrimination, and ethical secular separation of church and state in Ireland.

It shows that we still have considerable work to do in removing the harmful impact of this clause internationally, where Islamic States have used the Irish blasphemy law at the United Nations to promote blasphemy laws around the world.

New clause including incitement to religious hatred?

We are concerned that 53% of the Convention want to replace the offence in the Constitution with a new general provision to include incitement to religious hatred. 38% wanted to remove it altogether, and 9% were undecided.

For a start, the word ‘include’ is ambiguous. Does this mean a new general provision that bans both blasphemy and incitement to religious hatred? Or does it mean a new clause that allows blasphemy but bans religious hatred?

Whatever it means, why should we again give undue privilege to religion? If we were to include prohibition of incitement to hatred in our Constitution, why should we discriminate against many victims of other types of hatred by focusing only on religious hatred, as opposed to hatred on the ground of race, colour, nationality, ethnic or national origins, membership of the travelling community or sexual orientation?

The ballot paper did not include the option to replace the clause with a positive clause on freedom of expression based on Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. This option was recommended by Atheist Ireland, and previously by the 1996 Irish Constitution Review Group chaired by TK Whitaker.

New law against blasphemy?

We are shocked that 49% of the Convention members want there to be a law against blasphemy in 21st century Ireland, and that 82% believe that, if there should be such a law, it should be a new detailed law including incitement to religious hatred.

The terms of reference did not suggest that the Convention would be voting on this, and so Atheist Ireland concentrated (in our written submission and our speeches to the Convention) on the problems with the Constitutional clause, and the existing law that the Government felt obliged to pass solely because of that Constitutional clause.

Here are two initial responses to this development.

Firstly, we already have a law against incitement to hatred. It is the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989. It bans incitement to hatred on account of race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origins, membership of the travelling community or sexual orientation. Why should we need a new law that isolates one of these categories of incitement to hatred, and bans it again?

Secondly, blasphemy laws and incitement to religious hatred laws are different things. The UK recently decided it could not allow both to exist and repealed its blasphemy law. You can commit incitement to religious hatred against people, but you cannot commit blasphemy against a person.

Atheist Ireland