Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2017: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Defamation Act 2009 to remove the offence of blasphemy.

I am introducing two related Bills this afternoon - the Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2017 and the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Blasphemy) Bill 2017 - and with the permission of the Chair, I propose to speak about both of them together.

I thank the Chair. The purpose of the two Bills is pretty straightforward. The Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Blasphemy) Bill 2017 would allow a referendum to go ahead that would seek the approval of the electorate for the removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution. This would involve amending Article 46.1.1° of the Constitution. The Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2017 would remove the offence of blasphemy by repealing sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009. As long ago as 1991, the Law Reform Commission recommended that the offence of blasphemy be removed from the Constitution and rightly recommended that it be taken in conjunction with another referendum to save on expense. The commission's view was that there was "no place for an offence of blasphemous libel in a society which respects freedom of speech".

A former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern, recently admitted that the law in this area is ridiculous and needs to be repealed. He was speaking in response to the embarrassing publicity for our country when an internationally renowned comedian faced possible charges and a potential €25,000 fine simply for expressing his beliefs on a TV programme about faith. Many of us could have been fooled into thinking this was an elaborate joke but, unfortunately, it was not. As long as we maintain an offence of blasphemy in our laws, the joke is on us in Ireland. The Social Democrats believe the offence of blasphemy is an outdated concept that should be removed from our Constitution and our laws. It is yet one more example of where church and State need to be fully separated.

The offence of blasphemy is archaic, obsolete and unnecessary. It fundamentally offends the principle of freedom of speech, promotes disrespect for our laws and damages our international reputation. In any case, having the offence of blasphemy on our Statute Book offers little protection in genuine cases of deliberate incitement to hatred. The Defamation Act 2009 is now under review. We urge the Minister to update it without delay to offer better protection in cases in which minority and majority religious groups face deliberate and excessive provocation. For now, there is no reason we cannot proceed with updating our Constitution and removing this offence from the Statute Book. In a society where freedom of expression is valued and supported, there is absolutely no excuse for inaction in this regard. We hope we can count on the support of Deputies on all sides of the House in respect of both Bills.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.