Blasphemy, the Irish Constitution and Stephen Fry

So, rarely being one to shirk a challenge, here goes.

The (fairly) new law of blasphemy in Ireland is in the spotlight after media reports that the Gardaí have launched a blasphemy probe into comments made by Stephen Fry in 2015 on the television show The Meaning of Life. (See, for example, the Irish IndependentWhy is Stephen Fry being investigated by gardaí for blasphemy and what happens next?) When asked by Gay Byrne what he might say to God at the pearly gates, Mr Fry is alleged to have replied: “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery? It’s not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

Article 40.6.1.i. of Bunreacht na hÉireann declares that “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law” and this has been taken to require a prohibition on blasphemy; however, in Corway v Independent Newspapers [1999] IESC 5 the Supreme Court held that there was no clear statutory definition of blasphemy to give effect to that provision – in effect, striking it down as incompatible with the Constitution’s guarantees of religious equality and freedom of expression.

To fill the legislative gap, the current crime of blasphemy was added at a fairly late stage in the passage of the legislation to reform the law of defamation and became s 36 Defamation Act 2009. S 36(1) declares that a “person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter” shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding €25,000, while s 36(2) provides that a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if—

“(a) he or she publishes or utters matter 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

(b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”

The state of the law was considered by the Convention on the Constitution, which concluded in its Sixth Report, The removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution,

  • that the offence of blasphemy should be removed from the Constitution;
  • that it should be replaced by a general provision to include a prohibition on incitement to religious hatred; and
  • that a new set of detailed legislative provisions should be introduced which would include provisions on incitement to religious hatred.

The prerequisite to amending the Constitution is a referendum. The then Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Aodhan Ó Ríordáin, told Dáil Éireann that there would be a referendum to remove the requirement for a crime of blasphemy from the Constitution, noting that “In practice, there have been no prosecutions under the 2009 Act and the last public prosecution for blasphemy in Ireland appears to have been brought in 1855”. But that was in a statement to the Dáil on 2 October 2014 and the referendum has still not happened.

The consensus seems to be that it is extremely unlikely that Mr Fry will be prosecuted for what sounds to me like a question that theologians have been asking (if rather more politely) for aeons: surely it’s what’s known in the trade as theodicy. If he were prosecuted and found guilty, however, it looks like just the kind of case that Strasbourg would relish.

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Dr Eoin O’Dell, of the Trinity College, Dublin, Law School, has written a helpful and comprehensive post on the issue: Blasphemy is in the news again; it should be removed from the Constitution, as the Constitutional Convention recommended.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Blasphemy, the Irish Constitution and Stephen Fry" in Law & Religion UK, 7 May 2017, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2017/05/07/blasphemy-the-irish-constitution-and-stephen-fry/

9 thoughts on “Blasphemy, the Irish Constitution and Stephen Fry

  1. The Irish law of blasphemy requires no deity and is unconnected to the Catholic Church.

    No doubt An Garda Síochána find it more amenable to “investigate” such colourful nonsense rather than crime cf British police forces investigating imaginary “historic” sexual offences preferably involving dead prime ministers.

    • That’s my reading as well: all it needs to do to constitute the offence is to cause “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion” – so it would include believers in a non-theistic religion such as Buddhism.

      What constitutes the “substantial number of the adherents” that needs to be outraged in order to trigger the offence is an interesting point, however. Are the Gardaí supposed to commission an opinion poll? I’m always very suspicious of vague expressions in legislation like “a substantial number”.

  2. And what degree of outrage is the threshold for counting?
    What exactly constitutes “outrage”? How does it differ from just being annoyed.
    The Concise Oxford Dictionary mentions “violation” and “violence” several times.
    As Frank Cranmer points out theologians have for many years discussed the problem of evil in a world “made” by a loving god (sorry God) in the discipline called Theodicy. Was even thinking about this problem blasphemy?
    And then there is the problem of proving “intention” to outrage.
    The Catholic Church tells its adherents that I will suffer for eternity in hell because I am not a Catholic (and, I promise you, never will be). I think that is a bit outrageous.
    Better to live in a society where such nonsense is not encoded in law.
    I was thinking of trying to get an Irish passport – perhaps I will think that through again.

    • Perhaps the prosecuting authorities taking a leaf out of the book of George Bramwell Baron of the Exchequer Court may opine
      “The matter does not appear to me now as it appears to have appeared to me then”
      and desist
      and you can apply for your passport
      subject to Irexit.

  3. The Fry matter is closed but the blasphemy matter will haunt Ireland until Article 40.6.1.i. of Bunreacht na hÉireann is repealed… and by the way the blasphemy law in the North of Ireland too.

  4. Pingback: Law and religion round-up – 14th May | Law & Religion UK

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