Thirty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland
|Thirty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland|
|Repeal of offence of publication or utterance of blasphemous matter|
|Date||26 October 2018|
The Thirty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland (previously bill no. 87 of 2018) is an amendment to the constitution of Ireland which removed the offence of publishing or uttering blasphemous matter. The amendment to the constitution was proposed in Dáil Éireann, passed by the Oireachtas, and approved by the people in a referendum.
The bill was introduced to the Oireachtas on 13 July 2018 by the Fine Gael minority coalition government. A referendum was held on 26 October, on the same date as the presidential election. A second referendum on whether to remove an article referring to women’s place in the home, originally scheduled for the same date, was postponed until 2019.
The publication or utterance of blasphemous matter is an offence specified by the Constitution of Ireland as an exception to general guarantee of the right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions. In Corway v Independent Newspapers (1999), the Supreme Court held that the common law crime of blasphemous libel related to an established church and could not have survived the enactment of the Constitution. They also held that it was impossible to say what the offence of blasphemy consisted of.
The offence of publishing or uttering blasphemous matter was first defined in Irish law in the Defamation Act 2009. Someone is guilty of the offence if they publish or utter "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 they intend, "by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage". There is a broad defence where "a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates". To date, there has not been a public prosecution for the offence of blasphemy in the Irish state.
The Constitutional Convention held a session in November 2013, where they proposed replacing the offence of blasphemy in the Constitution with a prohibition on the incitement of religious hatred.
The matter came to public attention, in May 2017, when it was announced that English comedian Stephen Fry, along with broadcaster RTÉ, were under criminal investigation for blasphemy under the Act, following a complaint from a member of the public about comments made by Fry in a 2015 broadcast interviewed with veteran Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne. The case was dropped after the police confirmed that they had not been able to locate a sufficient number of offended people.
In June 2018, Minister for Justice and Equality Charles Flanagan announced that the government would hold a referendum to simply remove the reference to the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution.
Proposed change to the Constitution
The Thirty-seventh Amendment Bill proposed to amend the final sentence of paragraph i of subsection 1º of Article 40.6 by substituting "seditious" for "blasphemous, seditious,". The original text reads:
The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.
The new text reads:
The publication or utterance of seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.
Proposed subsequent legislation
The Department of Justice and Equality's draft general scheme for subsequent legislation proposes that the Government will then introduce a formal Bill to repeal sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009, which deal with the 'Publication or utterance of blasphemous matter' and the 'Seizure of copies of blasphemous statements' respectively, as well as to replace the words “indecent, obscene, or blasphemous” by “indecent or obscene” in the Censorship of Films Act 1923 as amended by the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2008, and in the Censorship of Films (Amendment) Act 1925.
Passage through the Oireachtas
The Bill was proposed by Minister Charlie Flanagan and passed all stage in the Dáil on 18 September and all stages of the Seanad on 20 September. Amendments by Solidarity to remove other religious references from the Constitution were ruled out of order. It was opposed in the Seanad by Rónán Mullen.
A Referendum Commission to provide information to the public on the proposed amendment was established on 18 July 2018. Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy signed the electoral order for the referendum on 21 September, setting the polling date as 26 October.
By 17 October, there had been little public debate about the referendum, leading The Irish Times to suggest that this might cause most "Don't know" voters to end up voting "No" as had happened before in similar little-debated referendums, although it still expected the referendum to be carried based on the most recent opinion poll of 12 October.
Those who supported removing blasphemy from the constitution included:
- Fine Gael
- Fianna Fáil
- Sinn Féin
- Labour Party
- Green Party
- People Before Profit
- Social Democrats
- Irish Council for Civil Liberties
- Church of Ireland
- Atheist Ireland
- Justice Minister Charles Flanagan
- Senator Ivana Bacik
- Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland
- Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference, who called the provision "obsolete" and said that similar laws have been used to justify violence and oppression against minorities in other parts of the world.
Those who opposed removing blasphemy from the constitution included:
- Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland
- Senator Rónán Mullen
- Séamas de Barra of Alliance for the Defence of Marriage and the Family
- Colum Kenny of DCU School of Communications
Opinion and exit polling
|Polling firm / Commissioner||Sample size||Yes||No||Undecided||Lead|
|17 September 2018||Amárach/Claire Byrne Live poll for TheJournal.ie||over 1,000||54%||17%||29%||37%|
|12 October 2018||Ipsos MBRI/The Irish Times||1,200||51%||19%||25%[a]||32%|
|26 October 2018||Ipsos MBRI/The Irish Times||4,365||69%||31%||—||38%|
|26 October 2018||Red C/RTÉ News||3,474||71.1%||26.3%||—||44.8%[b]|
- An additional 4% stated that they will not vote, hence, does not add to 100%.
- 1.8% saying they had not voted on the blasphemy referendum and 0.8% said they did not know or refused to indicate which way they voted.
The referendum took place on 26 October 2018, on the same day as the presidential election. Polling stations were open from 7 am until 10 pm. Turnout was reported to be low in many areas of the country. By midday, turnout percentages from around the country were in the low teens, with many polling stations reporting single figure percentages. In Dublin some estimates suggested that turnout would be half that of the referendum on the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland in May.
|Invalid or blank votes||22,236||1.49|
|Registered voters and turnout||3,401,652||43.79|
|Constituency||Electorate||Turnout (%)||Votes||Proportion of votes|
|Dublin Bay North||114,597||44.56%||36,649||13,930||72.46%||27.54%|
|Dublin Bay South||80,146||36.69%||22,329||6,866||76.48%||23.52%|
The Irish Times's analysis of its exit poll data said that "younger voters overwhelmingly backed deletion, while older voters were much more evenly split, with 48 per cent voting to retain the constitutional article as it currently stands".
RTÉ noted that given that the presidential election had received far more attention, it had been expected that there would be more abstainers than the 1.8% reported in its exit poll data.
When analysing the Red C/RTÉ exit poll, RTÉ Religious and Social Affairs Correspondent Joe Little said that older voters were less likely to vote 'Yes', with over 8 out of 10 voting 'Yes' among those aged under 44, 7 out of 10 among those aged under 45 to 64, and 6 out of 10 among those aged over 65. Support for 'No' also increased in the lower socio-economic groups, with 77% of those in the top ABC1 group voting Yes, 70% of the C2DE group, and 63% of the bottom F group. Sinn Féin voters were likeliest to vote ‘Yes’, followed by those voting Fine Gael, Independent, Labour, and Fianna Fáil. Women and men were equally likely to vote 'Yes'. 80% voted ‘Yes’ in Dublin, slightly over 70% in Munster, and slightly under 70% in the rest of Leinster, and in Connacht and the three border counties of Ulster (Donegal, Cavan,and Monaghan). Only 69% said that "they understood the proposition to abolish the offence in the Constitution" (74% of ‘Yes’ voters, and 64% of ‘No’ voters).
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(page 152) FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS - PERSONAL RIGHTS - ARTICLE 40 ...
(page 160) 6 1° The State guarantees liberty for the exercise of the following rights, subject to public order and morality: –
i The right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions.
The education of public opinion being, however, a matter of such grave import to the common good, the State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.
The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.
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Senator Ivana Bacik - Yes; Séamas de Barra, Alliance for the Defence of Marriage and the Family - No; Dr Colum Kenny, DCU School of Communications - No; Michael Nugent, Atheist Ireland - Yes
- McNeice, Stephen (3 October 2018). "Irish bishops say constitutional article on blasphemy is 'largely obsolete'". Newstalk. Retrieved 4 October 2018.
- Conor Gallagher (3 October 2018). "Constitutional blasphemy clause 'largely obsolete', Bishops decide". The Irish Times. Retrieved 25 October 2018.
Rights of religious communities to engage in public debate must be respected, conference states
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- Joe Little, Religious & Social Affairs Correspondent (27 October 2018). "Older voters less likely to back removal of blasphemy - poll". RTÉ News. Retrieved 27 October 2018.