WITH incumbent Michael D Higgins leading the opinion polls by a country mile in the presidential election race, it may affect the turn-out next Friday, October 26th. Whatever the level of interest in the election, there seems to be very little in the referendum that is happening that day, many people not even realising that there is one.
Electors will also be asked to vote on a proposal to change the Constitution so that blasphemy will no longer be a criminal offence. At present, Bunreacht na hÉireann says that publishing or saying something blasphemous is an offence punishable under law.
If the referendum is passed, the Oireachtas will be mandated to change the controversial Defamation Act 2009 so that blasphemy is no longer a criminal offence. The current situation seems at odds with the Constitution’s declaration that citizens have the right to freely express their convictions and opinions.
Blasphemy occurs if someone writes or says something that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and intends to cause that outrage. The sanction for doing so under the 2009 Act is a fine of up to €25,000.
Opponents have aptly described the criminalisation of blasphemy as a ‘medieval’ law. Groups, including Atheist Ireland and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), are campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote in next Friday’s referendum. They argue that, in many countries, blasphemy laws are used to punish people who call into question the moral authority of religious teachings, and these punishments can be cruel and barbaric.
Some of the more religious will want blasphemy to remain as a crime on our statute books – and they are entitled to their opinion – however most people with a moderate world view will argue the opposite. The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference has indicated that it won’t oppose the removal of references to blasphemy in the Constitution, regarding the current article as ‘largely obsolete.’
Its decriminalisation is certainly not going to result in a rash of blasphemous utterances by responsible publications.