Ideas surrounding censorship and free speech are prominent topics of debate globally. This could be attributed to several things: easy access to social media, the influence of Western culture, or the evermore multicultural nature of societies.
A popular argument is to tout the very American ideal of ‘freedom of speech’ as the ultimate ideal for a free society. However, the free speech debate becomes a little more complicated when translated to these shores, as the individual does not have complete legal freedom of speech in Ireland. However, this is something Irish voters may soon change where religion is concerned.
Ireland is set to vote on repealing article 40.6.1 on blasphemy from the constitution this 26th October. The legislation, as it stands, was last updated in the Defamation Act of 2009. This update defined ‘all theistic religions’ as protected under the constitution, where its original 1937 iteration was established under a monotheistic Catholic Republic. While the potential fines for cases of “publishing or uttering” blasphemy currently in place are substantial, up to the sum of €25,000, there has never been a successful prosecution under blasphemy law in the history of the republic.
It initially seems that the primary beneficiaries of any change to the law would be critics of the Roman Catholic Church. To say it plainly, the Church has not had an easy few years in terms of public relations. Once a bastion of unchallenged faith, Ireland’s rapid and continuing social change in the last few decades has eroded the Church’s grip on public life in almost every aspect of society.
Many of the Church’s critics have welcomed recent amendments to the constitution with open arms: the repeal of the Eighth Amendment lifting the ban on abortion, the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment legalising divorce, the passing of the Thirty Fourth Amendment allowing for same sex-marriages. The public is seemingly less accepting to the idea of an intertwined church and state than it once was, the former having previously heavily influenced the latter.
However, unlike the last two referenda on abortion and equal marriage, the upcoming blasphemy referendum seems more of a curious bookmark in the decay of Church control in Ireland, than a divisive social issue. The referendum has had significantly less coverage than past referenda in the media, perhaps because it holds far less emotional currency to the average person. In the context of a post-Repeal and post-Yes Equality world, the blasphemy ban seems very small in comparison to its effect in day-to-day life.
However, the question does stand to how seriously Irish people take blaspheming in their everyday lives. You don’t need to be in the country long to notice that ‘taking the lord’s name in vain’ in conversation is entirely common practice, accepted in most circumstances. We also have blasphemy in media to reflect upon: the ever-treasured sitcom Father Ted is an example of a comedic antidote to the perceived somberity of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The palatability of the sitcom still stands, not only as a standalone comedy, but as a fairly radical criticism of the Church’s sometimes awkward place in Ireland in modern times.
An argument frequently made around the time Father Ted was first being aired was that despite the extreme success of the show with both British and Irish audiences, it “wouldn’t be made here”, that such a programme would not be produced by any of our national broadcasters. This is something to reflect upon: is our national media still afraid today of falling foul of the Church? It seems the lines are blurred when it comes to joking about God, but the lines do still exist to many.
The issue of blasphemy in the Irish context was thrown back into public debate in early 2015, with British actor Stephen Fry’s appearance on Gay Byrne’s The Meaning of Life, in which Fry decried God as “mean-minded”, “stupid” and “selfish”. Reports circulated of a formal complaint being made to the Gardai, prompting investigation, which gave way to the shocking possibility Fry could be charged and fined for his personal views expressed on the programme. Following the incident, Minister for Health Simon Harris labelled the laws as “silly” and “embarrassing”, and as incompatible with Ireland as a democracy, and expressed his hopes for a referendum on the issue.
Another high profile incident was when British documentary maker Louis Theroux encountered a possible offence to blasphemy in 2016. Rumours that his feature documentary, My Scientology Movie, was not to be released in Ireland due to the blasphemy laws circulated in the media. Although this reasoning was dismissed by some experts of the Defamation Act, the film never received a theatrical release in Ireland, with little understanding as to why. Theroux’s subjects often include fundamentalist religious sects. Incidences such as these, involving such high-profile figures from outside of Ireland, serve as blistering reminders of who we were as a people not so long ago, under the thumb of a prohibitive Church, and this portrayal is at odds with our self-perception of ‘modern Ireland’.
Despite who we think the law may affect in everyday life, the law’s existence represents something that isn’t solely an Irish or Catholic matter. Our traditionally Catholic island can make the mistake of being narrow in our understanding to the sensitivities of other belief systems. The tragic 2015 attack on the offices of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo was a direct response to an issue of the magazine “blaspheming” the Prophet Muhammed, whose image is not to be reproduced according to some interpretations of the Qur’an. It would be a mistake to think, in our more diverse societal landscape, blasphemy is an issue only affecting Catholics in Ireland. If we are to debate the matter of blasphemy seriously before the vote takes places, it would be to the detriment of those in favour of retaining the blasphemy law to exclude diverse theistic voices from the debate.
While it may make the cut on a future episode of Reeling in the Years, the blasphemy referendum is not likely to be as era-defining in our culture as referendums past. However, for hardline secularists, the free-speech movement, and the atheist community, it is by no means a little victory. It is a perhaps a signifier of even more radical change to come.