Sixth Report of the Constitutional Convention - Blasphemy: Statements

I propose to report to the Dáil on the Government's response to the sixth report of the Constitutional Convention, which proposes the removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution. The convention was established by Government in 2012 to consider a range of issues on which constitutional change may be needed and to report on its conclusions to the Houses of the Oireachtas. This House approved the convention's terms of reference and the issues to be considered. The latter include the removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, which is the subject of the convention's sixth report. The Government welcomes the sixth report of the Convention on the Constitution and thanks it and its members for their high level of engagement. The Government accepts the main recommendation contained in the report, namely, that a referendum should be held on removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution.

Members will recall that the guarantee relating to freedom of expression in Article 40.6.1°(i) of the Constitution also includes, by way of limit to the general guarantee, a sentence providing that publishing or uttering blasphemous material is to be a criminal offence punishable by law. The crime of blasphemy under common law referred to material insulting to the State-established - that is, Church of Ireland - religion. In the Corway case in 1999, the Supreme Court underlined that the constitutional reference to an offence of blasphemy could not be interpreted in such a narrow sense and would have to be understood in a manner appropriate to "the circumstances of a modern State which embraces citizens of many different religions, and which guarantees freedom of conscience and a free profession and practice of religion." The Supreme Court added that it was for the Legislature to define how this would operate in practice. The offence of blasphemy is duly defined in section 36 of the Defamation Act 2009 as publishing or uttering material which is grossly abusive or insulting regarding matters held sacred by any religion and which intentionally causes outrage to a substantial number of that religion's adherents. There is a defence if a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic or other value in the material. The penalty on conviction is a fine not exceeding €25,000. 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.

The convention devoted its seventh plenary meeting, held on 2 and 3 November 2013, to the question of whether the Constitution should be amended to remove the offence of blasphemy. The convention's report indicates that it received very many submissions on this issue. It notes that the submissions suggested a very high level of support for removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution and that it is clear that this issue is regarded by many of those who made submissions as forming part of a much wider debate, including the role of religion in the Constitution and the relationship between religion and the State. The convention reports that, in keeping with its general principles of fairness and efficiency, it sought to present the fullest possible range of perspectives to its participants both for and against retaining the existing text. It also heard detailed expert presentations on the origins and development of the offence of blasphemy, on its practical operation in Ireland historically and today and on how this compares with other jurisdictions. The outcome of the convention's deliberations was that a substantial majority of its members recommended that the offence of blasphemy should be removed from the Constitution, with 61% of members voting in favour of removal, 38% voting against and only 1% undecided. The sixth report of the convention recommends, therefore, that the offence of blasphemy be removed from the Constitution.

I am pleased to inform the House that the Government has agreed, at its meeting on 30 September, to put this question to the people and that a referendum should be held on the question of amending Article 40.6.1°(i) of the Constitution to remove the offence of blasphemy. As regards the detailed content of any constitutional or legislative change, the convention's report raises a number of further issues, namely whether the offence of blasphemy should simply be deleted from the Constitution or replaced with a new provision prohibiting incitement to religious hatred, and whether we should retain a legislative provision for the offence of blasphemy or replace this at statutory level with provisions prohibiting incitement to religious hatred. The convention voted in favour of including a new constitutional provision against religious hatred, with 53% of members in favour, 38% against and 9% undecided. There was no clear majority on whether to keep a legislative provision for the offence of blasphemy, with 49% in favour, 50% against and 1% undecided. If a legislative provision is retained, the convention favours replacing the existing offence with detailed legislative provisions against incitement to religious hatred; in this regard it voted 82% in favour, 11% against and 7% undecided. These recommendations will require more detailed legal and other consideration. For example, there is already relevant legislative provision in the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, which will need to be taken into account.

The Minister for Justice and Equality has been charged by the Government with the task of further examining these issues and undertaking the work necessary to prepare both a referendum Bill and another item of legislation to amend the current legislative provision for the offence of blasphemy. With regard to timing, the referendum will take place at an appropriate date to be decided by Government after the necessary further consultations have been completed and the required legislation has been prepared.

I wish to take this opportunity to update the House on the overall position regarding the Government's response to the convention's reports. The convention produced nine reports in total, all of which have been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Government has already agreed to the holding of three referendums in 2015 on foot of the convention's first three reports. These referendums will be on reducing the voting age, reducing the age of candidacy for presidential elections and same-sex marriage. Preparation of these referendums is relatively advanced. As regards the fourth report, Government has agreed that work should commence on the establishment of an electoral commission.

Work is ongoing on the remaining reports, which, as the House will be aware, deal with matters such as giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections, Dáil reform, economic, social and cultural rights, and the Convention's conclusions and final recommendations. The Government expects to respond to all of these reports before the end of the current Dáil session. There is merit, therefore, in ensuring that the timing of referendums can be decided in the context of the overall programme of proposed reform, not least in order that the costs relating to the holding of referendums can be combined, where feasible, in the public interest.

I again express the Government's appreciation of the innovative, thoughtful and participatory way in which the convention and its members have debated the relevant issues. I commend the convention on its work and thank it, on behalf of the Government, for its sixth report, the recommendations of which we intend to take forward as I have just outlined.

Ós rud gurb é seo an chéad uair dom bheith anseo agus an tAire Stáit nua i láthair, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis as ucht a cheapacháin. Tá súil agam go n-éireoidh go geal leis ina chuid oibre.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this issue and on the progressive work of the Constitutional Convention. At the outset, I should reflect the points I have made to the Taoiseach on a number of occasions in the House in respect of the sense of disappointment on my part and that of many of the members of the convention regarding the timescales the Government originally set down. There were three such timescales, the first of which related to the convention's completing its work, the second to the Government's consideration of the reports submitted by the convention and the third to the House's evaluation of the individual reports. Only the convention met the time deadlines which were set down by the Government. I am sure the Minister of State will agree it is regrettable that the important business of the convention, which was assiduously addressed by its members and prioritised by the Taoiseach, has not been given the priority it deserves in Departments. It has been regularly stated at meetings of the Whips that the cause of the delay is that individual Ministers have found it inordinately difficult to generate from within their Departments the necessary reports required to respond to the proposals of the convention. In addition, discussion of the convention's reports has tended to be tagged onto the week's business in this House. I am not seeking to undermine any debate which might take place here, but it must be noted that the time available to us today to discuss the convention's sixth report is very limited. There is also a limited level of interest in participating in this debate, which is extremely regrettable.

I put it to the Minister of State that it was a mistake for the Seanad not to be included in the important convention process from the outset.

I am certain that if these reports had been brought before the Upper House, they would have been considered in far greater detail than they have been in this House, sadly, which is a cause of some regret. I hope the reason for this is not that there was an arrogant assumption on the part of the Government that the Seanad would no longer exist by the time the reports fell to be discovered.

Fianna Fáil took the view that the remit of the Constitutional Convention was too narrow and expressed fears about the Government's role. However, the convention has proved to be highly effective. The hard work of those involved and the attentiveness of the participants have yielded results that will help to reshape our way of doing politics in this country. It would be a shame if the Government prevaricated further on the matters involved or spurned the opportunity presented. We need to re-engage citizens who are increasingly tired with the way we do politics. Working through the convention was a step but only one towards that end. I hope the Government will revitalise the work of the convention with a fresh push. This needs a clear timeline for debates and, ultimately, future referendums, where necessary. I trust that next week's memorandum to the Cabinet, to which the Taoiseach referred yesterday and to which the Minister of State has just referred, will meet these criteria. Putting it on the long finger will only do more harm.

Fianna Fáil supports the Constitutional Convention's decision to remove the blasphemy provision from Article 40.6 of the Constitution. Its replacement with a new provision covering incitement to religious hatred, backed up by fresh legislation, would be a more effective mechanism in protecting the unique sensibilities of deeply held religious beliefs. The current provision has, effectively, proved to be unworkable, with the result that its role in protecting the distinctive sensibilities of religious groups has not really materialised. Furthermore, the ethnocentric definition of blasphemy is widely seen as outdated in an Ireland that has changed immensely since the 1937 Constitution was promulgated. It is important that any new provision strike the delicate balance necessary between freedom of speech, the cornerstone of human dignity, and respect for deeply held religious values. It is possible to strike this balance and put in place a framework whereby the Constitution would reflect a pluralistic Ireland that respected the wide belief systems of its citizens.

There are four specific reasons we should replace the existing provision. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a democratic society. Any constraint on it must be clear and limited, but that is not the case with blasphemy under Article 40. Freedom of speech is a vital part of the development of any human being. We should always be vigilant in any constraint placed on it in the name of the public good. The lack of clarity on the definition of blasphemy has meant that this explicit restriction on freedom of speech remains vague. In the United Kingdom, for example, common law cases defined it as referring solely to the Christian definition of "God" rather than any other religious deity.

The lack of clarity has also meant that no case has ever arisen in Ireland, as the Minister of State noted. It remains unclear if religious sensibilities based on unique fundamental ideals are protected from unwarranted and inflammatory attack. The content of the offence of blasphemy is also unclear. The Law Reform Commission observed that the offence was "totally uncertain as to both its actus reus and its mens rea", terms applying to the guilty act and the guilty intention, respectively. The special place of religious beliefs and non-beliefs needs to be recognised and protected in a clear and legally sound manner.

The offence of blasphemy is an ethnocentric Judeo-Christian definition and not appropriate in a modern liberal democracy in which all beliefs should be respected. The fact that case law in the United Kingdom has limited blasphemy to the Anglican tradition excludes other religions in an increasingly diverse society. Its inclusion in the Constitution reflects the deeply Catholic society that created it in 1937. Reforming the Constitution would allow us to mirror the shifts in Irish life and the need to show a more diverse society. Respecting the beliefs of all traditions and none is vital in a democratic liberal republic.

Autocratic regimes throughout the world are citing Ireland as an example in respect of blasphemy laws in creating stringent limits to freedom of expression. It is deeply unfortunate that autocratic regimes across the globe are citing Irish law as a pretext for introducing blasphemy provisions in their constitutions. For example, Indonesia is one of several Islamic states that have cited Irish blasphemy legislation in support and defence of their own blasphemy laws. Irish blasphemy law was cited as an authority in support of Indonesia's constitutional court's decision to uphold its law prohibiting blasphemy in 2010.

Alexander Aan is a 32 year old Indonesian civil servant who started an atheist group on Facebook on which he published articles about Mohammed and questioned the existence of God. He was beaten up by his work colleagues, arrested for blasphemy, jailed for two and a half years and fined the equivalent of $10,000. As a liberal democratic country in western Europe and part of the European Union, Ireland has been used as a pretext for these oppressive laws and systemic discrimination, often against Christians or other religious groups that do not accord with the majority. There is a moral obligation on Ireland, therefore, as a democratic nation, to stand up for human rights, of which freedom of expression and speech is one of the most fundamental. Ambiguity on the issue undermines Ireland's international role.

A new provision on blasphemy and fresh legislation would protect deeply held religious beliefs more effectively. The debate at the convention agreed on a new provision that would recognise the concerns expressed around the need to protect religious beliefs. It mirrored the view of the 1996 Constitutional Review Group:

The Review Group considers that the retention of the constitutional offence of blasphemy is not appropriate. The contents of the offence are totally unclear and are potentially at variance with guarantees of free speech and freedom of conscience in a pluralistic society. Moreover, there has been no prosecution for blasphemy in the history of the State. In so far as the protection of religious beliefs and sensibilities is necessary, this is best achieved by carefully defined legislation along the lines of the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 which applies equally to all religious groups, but which at the same time took care to respect fundamental values of free speech and freedom of conscience.

Putting in place renewed provisions would provide a constitutional and legislative bulwark against intolerance of any form.

While blasphemy seems outdated to us today, religious belief continues to form a core part of the daily lives of the majority of people on this island. It plays a positive role in shaping the value system of a society that cherishes the innate and non-negotiable dignity of every human. I am profoundly weary of any cultural war whereby we seek to eliminate religious values from public life. The separation of Church and State is a cornerstone of the republic, one of which we are proud, but it should not be misconstrued as the complete removal of religion from public life and debate. Religious values have a vital place in our national discourse and must be respected. We would be the poorer were that not to be the case. Changing Article 40 would be a step in the right direction towards protecting religious sensibilities and moving away from a restricted ethnocentric religious view. New legislation would strengthen this approach.

I trust the Government will take on board the debate in the House today and views from the convention and move towards a referendum in the near future. I welcome the commitment the Minister of State has given in this regard. Those of us who participated at the convention accept that the Constitution, while having served us rather well, would benefit from rejuvenation to reflect the modern Ireland in which we are all happy to live. With these thoughts, I commend the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention to the House. It is welcome that the Government has taken the proposal on board and I look forward to those in my political party being able to be enthusiastic supporters of the referendum when the matter is eventually put to the people.

People outside this building in the real world - the Paddys and Patricias as the Taoiseach likes to refer to them - are scratching their heads and wondering why given the state of the nation and the challenges some of them face, the Parliament is spending so much time debating blasphemy. Tomorrow I have to meet a family originally from Slovakia in my constituency. There are five children, including three who are Irish born. The family has been deemed by the Department of Social Protection not to qualify for welfare support under the habitual residence condition, which means the parents do not qualify for the jobseeker's allowance or even for supplementary welfare payments. The family is homeless, including three infants who were born in this country, without money for food and has no hope. The State's doors are being closed on them. If we want to talk about morality, we should talk about a State that is prepared to see children go homeless and hungry before we spend so much time discussing blasphemy. It is blasphemous to be talking about blasphemy when humans are being hurt like this. However, that is the Ireland in which we live today, the Ireland of the closed doors. That is the Ireland where the inflexibility of rules is the immorality surrounding us.

In 2009, the then Fianna Fáil Government tabled an amendment to the Defamation Bill, which provided that "a person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000." This Act also allows members of the Garda to obtain a warrant to enter any premises to remove documentation that might be blasphemous.

The 1937 Constitution upholds this attempt to nullify blasphemy under Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution. However, the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution recommended as long ago as 1996 that this provision should be removed and this view was endorsed by the Law Reform Commission. Most recently, it was the view of the Constitutional Convention that blasphemy should be removed from the Constitution.

Blasphemy laws were first introduced to protect churches from public criticism and were used to suppress voices of dissent against their rule. The first blasphemy laws that can be found in common law can be traced back to protecting the Anglican religion, which, as the established church, was part and parcel of the law of the land. The charge of blasphemy was used throughout the 20th century as a means of silencing dissenting voices to what was perceived to be the natural order of things. In 1938, Cardinal McRory of Armagh called for a conference on atheism to be banned. In 1929, the Dean of Tuam called on local vigilance committees to deal with newsagents which sold "blasphemous" literature "as they thought best". Dr. Gilmartin, Archbishop of Tuam, in 1930 praised Mussolini as "a great head" of state for banning blasphemous language in public places. The archbishop bemoaned the fact that Ireland was not more like fascist Italy. In a more sinister turn of events, two members of the Jehovah's Witnesses community were set upon in County Clare in 1956 by a gang, including a Catholic priest, for spreading “blasphemous” literature. The judge in the case that followed sided with the attacker claiming that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had escaped very lightly.

Religious defamation laws are not the right way to achieve tolerance, mutual respect and equality. Blasphemy is not a valid offence in public law, and should not be a criminal offence in a democratic society that respects diversity. It is not an acceptable limitation on the fundamental rights to freedom of opinion and expression and it should have no place in the Constitution. Rather, religious groups and non-believers alike must be adequately protected from incitement to hatred and discrimination on the grounds of religion, which must be legally prohibited, and such protections of religious minorities' right to equality should be constitutionally entrenched in a Bill of rights and in any all-Ireland charter of rights.

Freedom of belief and of religion are rights of special importance to the major traditions on this island, each with its own historical experience of official suppression by the State. However, despite significant advances by the peace process and under the Good Friday Agreement, sectarian violence continues to plague our country. Constitutional protection of plurality of belief and robust constitutional prohibition of discrimination, harassment or incitement to hatred on grounds of religious belief are needed to underwrite national reconciliation on the basis of equality and parity of esteem. In contrast, the continued presence of a blasphemy offence in the 1937 Constitution can only act as a barrier to building Unionist confidence in a unified future.

With regard to international law, freedom of expression is guaranteed under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, although subsection 2 allows for exceptions on the usual safety-security grounds and for the protection of "morals". In the 1989 case Wingrove v. UK the European Court of Human Rights found that the country’s blasphemy law did not violate Article 10. However, two aspects of this decision should be noted. First, it is 20 years old and, second, the case dealt with the denial of a certificate by the British Film Board. It cannot be assumed that a 21st century European Court, faced with a law that resulted in a criminal prosecution and a €100,000 fine, would reach the same conclusion.

The Satanic Verses is an example of a publication that could very easily have fallen foul of this law. Attempts to prosecute it in England failed only because the blasphemy law in place at the time, which has since been abolished entirely, applied only to the Church of England and not other religions.

The Danish cartoons could also be prohibited under this law. The Conway v. Independent Newspapers case, in which a prosecution failed only because of the absence of anything like the amendment being considered, dealt with a cartoon portraying Catholicism as anti-progressive. Whatever offence these materials may cause to some, criminal prosecution is hardly an appropriate response.

The charge of the offence of blasphemy has clearly been extended to enforce censorship. The State has had a very poor relationship with censorship. For many years, some of our most promising and gifted authors had their works banned in the Twenty-six Counties under what was, effectively, moral guidance disseminated by the State. This resulted in a suppression of the arts and while Ireland produced many talented artists and writers, they were not allowed the freedom they should have been given. Writers such as Edna O'Brien and Brendan Behan who are now celebrated once witnessed their novels being suppressed. This is what occurs when the State tries to enshrine in law measures that attempt to bring about respect, tolerance and mutual understanding but which are subsequently used by organisations and individuals to suppress freedom of expression. As such, blasphemy provisions should not be included in legislation.

It is incredible in a modern society that Deputies are spending time discussing the inclusion in legislation of measures on blasphemy. These provisions should not have been introduced in the first instance.

I have a certain sympathy for Deputy Michael Colreavy's argument that it is convenient for the Government that the House is discussing this issue as it can pretend to be delivering progress at a time when many families and individuals are terrified that they will not be able to make ends meet following the imposition yesterday of water charges as part of continuing Government austerity measures. That said, the House should discuss these issues more rather than less often.

The Constitutional Convention was an unprecedented exercise in participation. It is regrettable that the House is discussing its sixth report, given that its fourth and fifth reports have not yet been dealt with. The deadline for a response to the fourth report was December 2013. I note the Minister's comment that the convention's reports will be dealt with in the lifetime of the Government. I am not sure this will be possible because the lifetime of the Government has been considerably shortened recently. Some of the participants in the convention are disappointed that not enough has been done in response to some of its reports. I share their disappointment and encourage the Minister of State, in his remaining time in office, to address, as effectively as possible, the issues raised in the reports.

Our approach to the issue of blasphemy has been consistent only in its inconsistency. In 2009, when Deputy Micheál Martin was Minister for Foreign Affairs, he opposed an attempt by Islamic states at United Nations level to make defamation of religion a crime. In a speech at the time he stated:

We believe that the concept of defamation of religion is not consistent with the promotion and protection of human rights. It can be used to justify arbitrary limitations on, or the denial of, freedom of expression. Indeed, Ireland considers that freedom of expression is a key and inherent element in the manifestation of freedom of thought and conscience and as such is complementary to freedom of religion or belief.

It is difficult to disagree with any of the sentiments expressed by the then Minister. A couple of months later, however, his colleague, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Dermot Ahern, introduced legislation on blasphemy that was in direct conflict with the position the then Minister for Foreign Affairs had adopted. It would be difficult to make this up. Under the Defamation Act of 2009, "blasphemy" was defined as the publication or utterance of "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". While some defences are permitted under the Act, its provisions on blasphemy contravene Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits discrimination.

We live in a world with competing and, sometimes, clashing viewpoints on the nature and origin of the universe, ethics and other matters. Only religious viewpoints have been made exempt from robust criticism, while the non-religious outlook is not so protected. I will give the example of attitudes to homosexuality. The sacred texts of several of the world's major religions state in clear language that homosexuality is an abomination and that the death penalty should be applied to gay people. In some countries gay people are murdered under the law, while a large number of other countries take a more pick-and-mix approach to the holy books and the death penalty is not advocated for gay people. Nevertheless, one finds that the homophobia and discrimination against gay people that prevail among the various conservative religious outlooks are rooted in passages taken from religious holy books.

Let us examine the other side of this argument. Those who hold a liberal and secular world view also hold sacred and cherished beliefs about the treatment of gay people. All instances of homophobia and discrimination against gay people are offensive in their value system. If a person of a liberal, secular disposition were to openly condemn religious texts or the founders of certain religions for inspiring centuries of hate and discrimination against gay people, some religious people would be deeply offended, not on the basis of the accusation but on account of the fact that they believe their views alone should be protected. We must address that issue.

The legislative provisions on blasphemy are flawed. They stem from constitutional provisions that protect religious views from offence but do not extend similar rights to anyone else. The cost of living in a society that values freedom of expression is that one must tolerate the views expressed by others, especially views one does not like. Noam Chomsky put it well when he stated those who do did believe in freedom of expression for the people they despised did not believe in it at all. I share that view. None of us has the right to be protected from feeling offended by views that are contrary to our own. A society that cherishes free speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression cannot have on its statute books a law that protects religious ideas, while discriminating against free speech for those who are critical of religion. We need to address this issue by fostering a culture in which no ideas are afforded protections beyond those already in place.

I note the Minister's statement that the Government supports the proposal to delete the relevant passage from the Constitution. While I welcome that undertaking, I am a little concerned about what will happen next, given the inference that new legislation may be introduced to replace the current law. The Constitutional Convention was divided on whether to take this approach. Replacement legislation is not needed because incitement to hatred on religious grounds is already covered by the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 which specifically protects individual citizens from being the target of hate, violence and mistreatment on the basis of their religion, lack of religion, race, gender, nationality, ethnicity or sexuality. It is correct that the State should protect people from becoming the target of religious hatred. The law on blasphemy should be repealed, however, as occurred in the United Kingdom, on the basis that one can commit incitement to religious hatred against people but one cannot commit blasphemy against a person. Given that these are two different issues, our approach to them must also be different.

This is 2014 and Ireland is limping towards becoming a more secular country. In that context, the 1937 Constitution needs to be radically reformed and any legislation arising from it should be eliminated. This would bring us closer to becoming a real republic and, I hope, a step closer to achieving complete separation of Church and State.

I would probably disagree with Deputy Ó Fearghaíl. I am all in favour of protecting people's right to practice their religion and to have their religious ceremonies but that should be kept separate from matters of State. At a practical level, we can see that there is the recital of a prayer at the start of the day here which, to me, is offensive. I do not think that has a place in modern Ireland. We therefore need to go a lot further with the separation of church and State which is still there in a religious context in our education system and health service.

According to the way in which the legislation is framed, the blasphemy must cause outrage for it to be blasphemous. That is like an incitement to cause outrage in that people would have to demonstrate that they are outraged. It is a bit like what happened at the time of the Danish cartoon when people were mobilised to express their outrage. We should encourage people to be more proportionate in their views.

The blasphemy law purports to protect religions from blasphemy but it is actually encouraging division between different religions and different sects within a religion. One person's idea of what might be blasphemous is often another person's sacred belief. One only has to look at the Catholic-Protestant and Sunni-Shiite conflicts as prime examples.

Deputy Ó Fearghaíl mentioned how our blasphemy laws have been used internationally, which is a critically important point in this debate. It is outrageous that the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, OIC, has used the Irish law's wording as a model for a proposal to the United Nations to push for that to be a normative principle in international law and to encourage other states to pass anti-blasphemy legislation. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan have been roundly condemned by Human Rights Watch for their grave violation of human rights. Pakistan is a leading member of the OIC, which holds the Irish law up as a model. Human Rights Watch had this to say:

Pakistan’s vaguely worded blasphemy law has led to discrimination, persecution and murder since its imposition almost three decades ago. It should be reformed or repealed immediately. It is appalling that lawyers who defend the rights of people charged with blasphemy should themselves become the targets of deadly violence.

It is sickening that in 2011, when Ireland's blasphemy laws were being applauded by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, people in Pakistan were being jailed or sentenced to death for blasphemy. Even critics of the blasphemy law lived in mortal danger. The Moslem governor of Punjab defended a 20 year old Christian woman who was sentenced to death on the hearsay evidence of her neighbours that she had allegedly blasphemed. That governor protected the woman and called for the blasphemy legislation to be repealed. He then became a target of calls for his assassination. He was eventually assassinated by his bodyguard who was applauded and escorted into court by hundreds of people championing him as a great hero. That is where blasphemy laws can lead to in extreme circumstances. They do infringe freedom of speech and expression. They can be used by one majority religion to discriminate against a minority religion or a rival sect.

Let's face it, for Ireland to be cited by countries like Pakistan as having the best practice makes us worse than bedfellows. We are really on the other end of the scale. It must be removed from the Constitution and we do not need any replacement legislation to fill the vacuum. We should aspire to be a republic that cherishes all the children of the nation equally, as well as encouraging and welcoming the divergent views of its citizens, as long as those views are held respectfully. We have sufficient protection on the Statute Book to ensure that is the case. Eliminating these blasphemy laws will lead us in the direction, at least at the top, of setting the tone of a more tolerant and accommodating society.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, and congratulate him on being appointed to his new portfolio.

Since this Government came to power in March 2011, we have shown a clear desire and commitment towards constitutional reform. Indeed, the Government has already instigated a considerable amount of such reform. Since our first two referenda in October 2011, we have now held a total of six referenda. They have all tried to address a number of topics in Irish society from judges' remuneration to the children's referendum.

I welcomed the establishment of the Constitutional Convention as it was a new means of examining constitutional reform, while at the same time providing a direct voice for the citizens of Ireland. I was present at the convention's first meeting in December 2012. The membership was made up of 66 randomly selected citizens, 33 politicians from both Houses of the Oireachtas and members of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The convention produced nine reports in total, all of which have been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. I was honoured to have been appointed and to have been involved in a wide range of discussions. I am pleased to have played my own part in contributing to the debate on constitutional reform. We have recently seen the publication of the Government's priorities going forward to 2016, which clearly reaffirm this Government's commitment to bringing forward legislative reform for the remaining reports of the Constitutional Convention. I will be pressing the Government to ensure that these commitments are upheld.

With regard to the sixth report, we had impressive speakers and expert presentations on the issue of removing blasphemy from the Constitution. Many pointed out the constitutional position, the current statutory position and the historical background to defining blasphemy in Ireland. We also had a large amount of people asking what was the proper role of government.

Throughout my time in public life, I have always believed the proper role of government is to protect equal rights, not equal things. We are all born equal, not in abilities or talents but equal under the law and equal in our rights. We need honest and fair government to secure those rights.

As regards such rights, the Constitution continues to prohibit the publication of blasphemous material. The Defamation Act 2009 makes it clear what is meant by this, namely, material which is grossly abusive or insulting on religious grounds. The law is thus aimed at protecting individuals from offence. It is my belief, therefore, that the Constitution is aimed at protecting individuals from offence. The exclusion on blasphemy serves to safeguard the right of believers from offence. It protects the rights of citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions, and their duty to honour religion. I strongly believe the constitutional provision on blasphemy should be retained in the Constitution. This is my personal belief and always has been.

I wish to pay tribute to the chairman of the Constitutional Convention, Mr. Tom Arnold, and all his staff for the very fine job they have done. Mr. Arnold was an exceptionally good chairperson who encouraged debate and motivated people throughout all the sessions that were held. He proved himself to be a person of great ability and integrity. He got fine speakers and everyone's opinion was listened to at the convention. Mr. Arnold would make a great leader of any political party in this land.

Is the Deputy expecting a vacancy?

I call the Minister of State. He has five minutes.

I am conscious that there are some secondary school students in the Visitors Gallery who may be interested in this debate because the Constitutional Convention was established because we wanted to have a Constitution that was not reflective of the Ireland of 1937 and was more reflective of the Ireland in which young people lived. This is interesting because, when the convention was established, it was suggested it was a waste of time and money and a vanity project. We were experiencing an economic disaster and economic issues were regarded as much more pressing and it was said we should not spend our time discussing issues related to the Constitution. However, in fairness to anyone who held that view but delved further into the issues presented in the weekend debates, generally in the Grand Hotel in Malahide, adopted a different view of how the Constitutional Convention worked. I echo the sentiments of Deputy James Bannon on the chairmanship of the debates by Mr. Tom Arnold.

As a result of the work of the convention, there are to be three referendums next year, one of which will definitely be of interest to the students listening to the debate in the Visitors Gallery because it will be on the lowering of the voting age to 16 years. There is to be a referendum on same-sex marriage and one on the Presidency.

A number of criticisms were made in the House and I appreciate the comments made. One was that debates such as this should not be happening at all because there were more pressing matters than a discussion on blasphemy. Another was that we should not be tagging on this debate at the end of the week in the Dáil. A reasonable position probably lies somewhere in between.

As echoed across the House, there is a danger of referendum fatigue. We have had quite a few referendums and there are to be some more next year. It was announced today that the intention was to hold a referendum on blasphemy. The issue is not so much that we have two competing rights but two very deeply cherished rights, one being the sacred right to freedom of speech, while the other concerns the freedom to practise one's religion. The suggestion of the Constitutional Convention and my belief is that the provision on the offence of blasphemy does not belong in the Constitution. It is the kind of matter Members should be charged to address legislatively. There is no intention to replace the provision within the Constitution in legislative frameworks, but, at the same time, the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 could readily deal with the issues being discussed.

We will have plenty of time to toss over and back the arguments on this issue. The Constitution should be a living document, not one necessarily set in stone. People should be sufficiently comfortable with it and sufficiently open-minded and generous of spirit to revisit it as time passes and different circumstances arise. I appreciate the comments made. There has been much discussion on the 2009 Act which, in fairness to the previous Government, emerged as a result of the Corway case and a recommendation from the Attorney General that the judgment be legislated for. That was the context to the 2009 Act on blasphemy. If we were to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, we would have a better chance of revisiting the Act.

I thank all contributors whose contributions are very much appreciated. We will have a chance in public discourse to discuss this issue much more thoroughly before it is put to the people in order that they can make their final decision on it.

Sitting suspended at 11.44 a.m. and resumed at 11.47 a.m.