Ahern proposes Autumn referendum on blasphemy

Atheist Ireland welcomes the statement from Dermot Ahern, the Irish Justice Minister, that he is proposing a referendum this Autumn to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Irish Constitution, along with two other referendums that the government is already committed to.

The Minister has told the Sunday Times that “I was only doing my duty” in bringing in the new blasphemy law, and that “there was an incredibly sophisticated campaign [against me], mainly on the internet.”

Atheist Ireland thanks everyone who has helped to make the campaign against this new law as effective as it has been to date. It is now important we maintain the pressure on this issue to ensure that the referendum happens as proposed and, more importantly, that it is won.

We reiterate our position that this law is both silly and dangerous: silly because it is introducing medieval canon law offence into a modern plularist republic; and dangerous because it incentives religious outrage and because its wording has already been adopted by Islamic States as part of their campaign to make blasphemy a crime internationally.

The following is the text of the article in today’s Sunday Times:

Ahern proposes a referendum on scrapping blasphemy law

Dermot Ahern, the justice minister, is proposing that a vote to remove the criminal offence of blasphemy be held as part of a planned series of referendums this autumn, writes Stephen O’Brien.

Ahern, who was criticised for increasing the fine for blasphemy to €25,000 last year, said he never regarded the provision in the new Defamation Bill as anything more than a short-term solution.

“There was a lot of nonsense about that blasphemy issue and people making me out to be a complete right-winger at the time,” he said. “There was an incredibly sophisticated campaign [against me], mainly on the internet. I was only doing my duty in relation to it, because clearly it is in the constitution. The attorney general said ‘there is this absolute, mandatory thing… it is an offence, punishable by law.”

A final decision on a blasphemy referendum rests with the cabinet, but if Ahern remains justice minister after this month’s reshuffle, he is likely to propose that it be added to the autumn list. The government is already committed to referendums on children’s rights and establishing a permanent court of civil appeal.

The plebiscites are expected to take place in October, on the same day as the a vote for a new directly elected mayor of Dublin, and three Dail by-elections in Donegal South-West, Dublin South and Waterford.

“I said [last year] that I didn’t want a wasteful standalone referendum on blasphemy in the middle of an economic crisis,” said Ahern. “My preference was to reform [the blasphemy provision] in the short term and to have a referendum in the medium term when it could be bundled with a number of others.”

A defamation bill was already in preparation when Ahern became justice minister in May 2008.

Ahern then said he had three options: to abandon the bill; to hold a single-issue referendum to remove the constitutional reference to blasphemy; or to update the references in the 1961 Defamation Act.

Opting for reform, he said he had removed the seven-year jail sentence from the old legislation.


  1. Avatar
    Rafiq Mahmood March 17, 2010

    Well, it is fair enough as far as it goes, but it is a cop-out and, actually, an expensive cop-out which TD Ahern claimed to want to avoid.

    First, it would mean that the silly provisions remain on the statute book until after the referendum – and well after too. There would be no rush to remove them because, even with the Constitutional requirement gone the provisions might not actually be unconstitutional.

    Secondly the whole constitution needs secularising. That could be done with one referendum because it is essentially one issue: even though the religious provisions are spread throughout the document. It is a mistake to think that you need a separate referendum question for each clause. Here are my suggestions for the Constitutional amendment required. Unfortunately there are some holes in it as I do not know the Irish language necessary.

    Thirdly, what would happen in the event that the amendment fails? It is wrong to think that the Constitution as it now is requires a new offence to be written into statute. It would be perfectly possible to link “blasphemy” to an existing offence. This is my suggestion for a Constitutional Offences law to fill the gap that Mr Ahern and the Attorneys General seem so worried about.

  2. Avatar
    yuri_nahl March 21, 2010

    This seems so dark ages. So out of character with modern life. Sort of like Father Ted meets Monty Python.


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