Saturday, 27 October 2018

Ireland - Another Rejection of Religious Bigotry

RTÉ exit poll suggests blasphemy referendum will pass

In another stunning rebuff to basic Christian teaching and to religious privilege in general in the Republic of Ireland, this once staunchly Catholic country appears to have voted overwhelmingly to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, if exit polls are to be believed.

In the last few years, increasingly secular Ireland has voted by very large majorities to legalise same-sex marriages and to decriminalise abortion, both in the face of vigorous campaigns by the Catholic Church and against fundamental church teaching.

The exit poll shows 71.1% 'Yes, in favour' and only 26.3% 'No, against' to the question, "Did you vote for or against the proposal to remove the reference to blasphemy from the Constitution?". Only 2.6% abstained or didn't know/didn't say.

Because the referendum was held on the back of the presidential election which received far more coverage, this low abstention rate is far lower than had been anticipated, so is maybe a more significant figure than the actual vote in favour of repeal, indicating a strength of feeling against the law that was not previously recognised.

Article 40 of the Irish Constitution currently states that “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”. The word 'blasphemous' is now almost certain to be removed following the vote yesterday.

Although there has never been any successful prosecutions for blasphemy in Ireland, it's constitutional prohibition is considered by campaigners to be an infringement of the right to free speech.

The last time it was even attempted, against the actor, writer and humanist Stephen Fry, was enough to catapult the issue onto the national stage, leading ultimately to this referendum. In 2015 Irish police opened an enquiry with a view to prosecuting Fry after he called God 'a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world so full of injustice and pain' in an interview with RTE chat-show host Gay Byrne.

Although the enquiry was dropped, the case sparked a public debate about the efficacy of the blasphemy law and how well it sat with the idea of free speech. Even the Catholic Church conceded that the constitutional bar was 'largely obsolete' and should be repealed.

In 1995 an attempt to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy against against the Sunday Independent newspaper resulted in a High Court ruling that “it is impossible to say of what the offence of blasphemy consists". This resulted in the government attempting to define blasphemy in the 2009 Defamation Act as, "[intentional words or images that are] grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents”. But the same law states that if people find genuine artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in something, it can’t be deemed blasphemous - which rendered the law almost meaningless, so full of gaping holes that a coach and horses could be driven through and which frankly made an ass of the law.

The campaign to repeal the law was supported by all major political parties in the Republic.

Blasphemy was abolished as an offence in England and Wales in 2008 but remains an offence in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

[Update 28 Oct 2018] The actual result was a little less than the exit poll cited above suggested, but was still a substantial majority in favour. 64.85% voted in favour of amending the Constitution and 35.15% against on a 43.79% turnout. All constituencies voted in favour of change. In addition to removing the reference to blasphemy from the Constitution, the Defamation Act 2009 will also be amended to repeal sections 36 and 37.

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