Thirty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution (Repeal of offence of publication or utterance of blasphemous matter) Bill 2018: Second Stage

Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I apologise to the House, to the Ceann Comhairle and Deputy O'Callaghan. I did not realise that matters were running as they were.

I am always pleased to come to the House to advance new legislative proposals, many of which have the capacity to impact, often in a most significant way, on the lives of those who live in our country. It is an even rarer privilege to be in a position to propose legislation which, if passed by the Oireachtas and agreed to by the people, will result in an amendment to our Constitution. The Constitution is at the heart of our legal system. It is a document which has withstood the test of time but, as time has passed, it has also gradually evolved to reflect our country and its people as together we have moved from the 20th into the 21st century. Fundamental values are timeless, but some concepts are deeply rooted in a particular time and a particular view of what is socially appropriate. Blasphemy is one such concept, and it is with the removal of the reference to blasphemy from our Constitution that we are concerned this evening.

Before proceeding further, I express my gratitude to the House for agreeing to deal with this Bill in the first week of its return. It was inevitable that some discussion of the Bill would have to take place during the month of September. This is because under the referendum Act 2004, polling must be not earlier than 30 days and not later than 90 days after the polling day order, which can only be made by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government when the necessary referendum Bill has been passed by both Houses. As it is intended that the referendum on blasphemy will take place on the same day as the presidential election, which is 26 October, I am sure that the timing constraints in respect of the passage of the Bill are apparent to everyone.

The Bill I introduce this evening is the Thirty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution (Repeal of offence of publication or utterance of blasphemous matter) Bill 2018. This is a somewhat lengthy Title for what is undeniably a short Bill. However, the Title describes in precise terms the purpose and intent which underlies the Bill. The Bill consists of two sections. The key section is section 1, which sets out the terms of the amendment proposed. The proposal set out in the section is for the substitution of the word "seditious" for "blasphemous, seditious" in paragraph i of subsection 1° of section 6 of Article 40 in the English text. If this amendment is approved by the people in the forthcoming referendum, the relevant part of Article 40.6.1°.i of the Constitution will read as follows: "The publication or utterance of seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law."

Section 2 is a standard citation provision, citing both the name of the amendment and the name of the Bill.

One of the problems in addressing this topic is that in a modern society it is very hard to reach a common understanding on the precise meaning which attaches to the concept of blasphemy. A simple definition is perhaps one which focuses on the act of expressing contempt or a lack of reverence for God or sacred things. That apparent simplicity is, however, misleading in terms of the complexity which in reality underlines this subject. From presentations made at the Constitutional Convention and other analytical work, it is clear that the understanding of the concept has evolved greatly.

Within the Irish context, the analytical work suggests our legal understanding of blasphemy essentially derives from the common law as it prevailed in England and Wales over the centuries. Thus, in the late 17th century, the rationale for maintaining blasphemy laws was inextricably linked with the need to protect the Anglican religion as the established church. In other words, there was a fundamental link between protecting the state, on the one hand, and the religious system of belief which sustained that state on the other. However, as individual rights came more and more to the fore in social thinking, a new rationale, that of protecting the religious sensitives of believers, became more prominent. By the time the Constitution was adopted, it seems that the focus of our blasphemy laws was very much directed towards speech likely to cause gross outrage to such sensitivities. In addition, by virtue of the various equality provisions in the Constitution, it also seems that the perceived protection offered by the blasphemy provision was not confined to any one church.

The law on blasphemy has been invoked rarely. For example, it appears that the last recorded prosecution for blasphemy in Ireland took place back in 1855 and even that resulted in an acquittal. The public appetite, therefore, for entertaining blasphemy prosecutions does not seem to be that significant. In recent times the position and particulars of the offence of blasphemy in Irish law were considered by the Supreme Court in the case of Corway v. Independent Newspapers which involved an application by an individual to institute a prosecution for blasphemy. During the course of that judgment the constitutional framework which guarantees freedom of conscience, the free profession and practice of religion and equality before the law to all citizens was under discussion. It was noted that it was difficult to see how the common law crime of blasphemy, related as it was to an established church and an established religion, could survive in such a framework. The judgment placed particular emphasis on the fact that, while the crime of blasphemy existed as an offence in Irish law because the Constitution said so, existing legislation had not adapted the common law crime of blasphemy to the circumstances of a modern state. The court, therefore, concluded that, given the current state of the law and the absence of any legislative definition of the constitutional offence of blasphemy, it was impossible to say of what the offence of blasphemy actually consisted. This analysis and the implied criticism of the Legislature it contained are essentially what led to the much maligned provisions which were set out in sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009. Section 36 sets out the elements which characterise the statutory offence of blasphemy. Section 37 concerns powers of entry to premises by An Garda Síochána and related powers for the search and seizure of blasphemous statements. It is fair to say the offence created under the Act is quite difficult to prove. I am not aware that any prosecution under it has taken place. However, Members will probably have read in the newspapers, as I did at the time, that a member of the public had made a complaint to An Garda Síochána about comments made by Stephen Fry in an interview with Gay Byrne on his television programme "The Meaning of Life" in 2015.

Deputies will be aware that a general scheme has been published on my Department’s website setting out the measures which will, in the event of the amendment being approved, be drafted in a formal Bill. While the scheme will be subject to change during the formal drafting process, the core provision it contains - the repeal of sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009 - is one to which the Government and I are fully committed. This proposal is not being brought forward in a vacuum. There have been a number of reports in which the constitutional provision on blasphemy has been considered. All of the reports have recommended that the provision be deleted. In 1991 the Law Reform Commission published a report. In 1996 the Constitution review group came to the same conclusion. In 2008 the Joint Committee on the Constitution also concluded that the specific reference to blasphemy should be deleted from the Constitution, as did the Convention on the Constitution in 2014.

I am not going to deny that the proposal before the House is modest. However, there are good reasons for removing the reference to blasphemous matter from the Constitution. One relates to the fact that, for as long as it remains in the Constitution, we have in being a constitutional offence of publishing or uttering blasphemous matter. The provision must be operable. It is clear to me that, for as long as the existing constitutional provision remains, the offence of blasphemy must also remain on the Statute Book, even if it is viewed as being obsolete and alien to the minds of many within our society.

Another reason relates to our international reputation. An outsider looking in sees Ireland as a country with a blasphemy law not just on its Statute Book but also in its constitution. Even if the view is ill-informed, it marks us out as a country which keeps company with those who do not share the fundamental values we cherish such as belief in freedom of conscience and expression. Not only may there be misapprehension about the nature of our blasphemy laws and how they are applied in practice but the very existence of such laws in this jurisdiction gives comfort to other jurisdictions that can use it to justify the more extreme regimes they apply. At a minimum, therefore, there is considerable merit in putting distance between ourselves and such illiberal regimes.

In a society where there is a wide diversity of beliefs, it is simply not possible for the State to guarantee that from time to time individuals will not be hurt and possibly outraged because a form of expression which they might regard as deeply offensive is considered by others to be no more than comment which is humorous or, oftentimes, satirical in nature. Furthermore, notwithstanding the high threshold which must be met if there is to be a successful prosecution of blasphemy, it is not in keeping with best international practice that there should be even the most remote possibility that a criminal prosecution would be taken in such circumstances.

In our current society maintaining the criminal offence of blasphemy in the Constitution and, as a consequence, on the Statute Book has less to do with the protection of religious values and more to do with an unnecessary and anachronistic check on freedom of expression. It is time for us to move away from the inhibiting effect which a blasphemy law has on our fundamental freedom, even where the effect might be subliminal rather than to the forefront of our minds. It is timely that we affirm our belief in a more inclusive society where communication between those with different belief systems can take place on an equal basis, with tolerance and respect as guiding principles. I acknowledge that the removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution is, on the face of it, relatively small. Nonetheless, it would be deeply symbolic and, in a very tangible way, confirm our status as a modern democratic society where free speech is valued and multiculturalism is embraced. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. Fianna Fáil will be supporting the expeditious passing of this legislation in order that a referendum can take place on 26 October. The purpose of that referendum, if this legislation is enacted, will be to amend Article 40(6) of the Constitution. As people may be aware, that article contains one of the most important rights Irish citizens and others in Ireland have, namely, the right to freely express opinions and convictions. Like every other right, that right is subject to restriction and can be affected when conflicting rights are at stake. However, what we are dealing with specifically in the legislation before the House is a specific restriction of the right to freedom of expression contained within the article. It states the "the publication or utterance of blasphemous [...] matter" shall be an offence. It is clear from the Constitution that there is no ambiguity about it. In 1937 the people made a decision that blasphemy was to be an offence.

The Minister mentioned the decision in 1999 in the case of Corway v. Independent Newspapers. It was a very important judgment, as a result of which - I would have thought even before it - it was apparent that the Legislature would have to give effect to the offence set out in the Constitution. It was for that reason that in 2009 the Oireachtas enacted the Defamation Act, in particular sections 36 and 37 which included a specific offence of blasphemy. Had that not been done, it would have left the public in an invidious position. There would have been a common law and constitutional offence of blasphemy, yet the citizen and the public would not have known how that offence would be committed.

Neither would the citizen or the public have known the penalty for the commission of the offence. It was for that reason that it was thought appropriate, as well as it being constitutionally necessary, to enact within legislation a specific section dealing with the crime of blasphemy. At the time, the then Minister who brought the legislation through the House was heavily criticised for the fact that it was presented as though he was introducing to Ireland the crime of blasphemy. which was incorrect. The crime existed in 1937 as a result of the enactment of the Constitution. It existed in 2008 and 2009 at the time the Defamation Bill was debated. It exists today as a result of the constitutional provision.

It is important to note that the crime of blasphemy has had a lengthy history. Originally, it was dealt with in the Star Chamber and the ecclesiastical courts. It subsequently developed from the mid-17th century as a common law offence. As the Minister indicated, in Ireland it was very much associated with blasphemy against the established religion. Some of the cases to which the Minister referred, the most recent being in 1855, were examples of people burning bibles. In 1855, when a Redemptorist priest accidentally burned a bible, he was prosecuted but acquitted. The truth of the matter is that no one has been prosecuted for blasphemy since 1855. When the Free State Constitution was passed in 1922, there was no reference to blasphemy in it. The right to freedom of expression was contained in the 1922 Constitution, but there was nothing about an offence of blasphemy. However, the drafters of the 1937 Constitution did see fit to specifically include an offence of blasphemy. Sometimes people are critical of the drafters of the 1937 Constitution. I am not as it has served the country extremely well. However, like all documents generated in the 1930s, parts of it are outdated, anachronistic and sexist. We will discuss the latter point tomorrow when we will examine the constitutional article in respect of a woman's place in the home. Notwithstanding that, it is inappropriate for the Constitution to set out offences. It is there to set out the fundamental political and constitutional structures for the State. It should not set out what offences are, whether it is the offence of manslaughter or murder, which are not there. Obviously, owing to the mores of the 1930s, it was thought appropriate that the specific offence of blasphemy should be included in the Constitution.

The Constitution respects and values the right of individuals to express freely their religious convictions. In a republic it is important that we respect and recognise the rights of individuals to express their religious beliefs. However, that right is contained in Article 44 which expressly states, "Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen". Religions have had a successful history in Ireland. However, I believe they are now strong enough to survive the abolition of the crime of blasphemy. They should be able to withstand criticism, ridicule or abuse in the same way many other institutions in the State are subject to ridicule and abuse, yet survive perfectly well. If the people remove the crime of blasphemy, it does not mean that they have disrespect for religions. Irish people have respect for religions. However, religions are entitled to be ridiculed. In many respects, that will also liberate religions. For too long the State has provided a support for religions that they do not need in a modern society. They are strong enough to survive on their own two feet without unnecessary anachronistic crimes being contained in the Constitution. If we remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, there will be nothing to stop the Oireachtas in 50 or 100 years from deciding to include the crime of blasphemy in the Statute Book.

People might think the role of the church and the State is at the heart of this debate. It is unquestionably the case that, when drafted in 1937, the Constitution was influenced by members of the Catholic Church. The Jesuit priest Fr. Edward Cahill had a significant say in it, as well as the future archbishop John Charles McQuaid. We should also be aware that it was not that unusual in the 1930s for the Catholic Church to seek to influence the primary document of the State when one considers the history of this island back to the time of the Tudor conquest. However, that is a debate for another time. What is worth noting is that it is wrong to simply present the drafters of the 1937 Constitution as being in thrall to the Catholic Church. History does not support that argument. We know that the Catholic Church had an influence in respect of Article 44, within which the drafters included a reference to the special position of the Catholic Church. However, that was not satisfactory to the church in Rome. We know that the then Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, later Pius XII, thought it was of no use. Many in the Catholic Church in Ireland also believed Mr. de Valera did not go far enough.

The great achievement of the Constitution is not in those areas on which we now concentrate a lot but in the fundamental rights section. It was not inspired by any Catholic teaching or doctrine but by the 1919 constitution of the Weimar Republic. We need to recognise that the Constitution of 1937 is a much richer and more complex document than is sometimes presented by those who seek to suggest it was a Catholic document for a Catholic people during a Catholic time. When one looks at other constitutions around the world, one can see the value of the Constitution. America cannot change its constitution because of its constitutional framework. That is why so much energy is invested in the appointment of Supreme Court judges whose function is to interpret the constitution. In Britain sovereignty does not reside with the people but with parliament. Part of the problem in Britain at present is due to this confused constitutional make-up. The great point about the Constitution is that it invested sovereignty in the people. The people can change it if they want to and their elected representatives decide legislation is appropriate. They have done this many times in the past and are able to do it readily through legislation being enacted. That is the great value of the Constitution. It is not frozen in the 1930s. It can be changed readily. It needs to be updated and modernised. but the fundamentals are strong. That is why we have such a successful political system and society.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an gCeann Comhairle as an deis labhartha seo a thabhairt dom. Gabhaim buíochas freisin leis an Aire as an reachtaíocht seo a chur os ár gcomhair. Beimid ag tacú leis an mBille ós rud é go bhfuil sé ciallmhar, réasúnta agus ag luí leis an tsochaí atá againn sa lá atá inniu ann.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill which deals with the removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution. It is an outdated piece of the Constitution. This is an important step forward in a society where the fundamental belief in freedom of speech must be a central tenet and valued by all. The removal of the offence of blasphemy is welcome. I am confident that the people will wholeheartedly endorse this come referendum day with a strong majority, recognising that it belongs to a time and an Ireland long since gone and completely out of place in the Constitution of a modern state.

Unfortunately, partition created two conservative and reactionary states on this island, both dominated in different ways by an attitude which saw a particular religious affiliation or faith privileged. In many instances, it was an extreme interpretation of those faiths. The closeness of the church and the state in both jurisdictions led to the dominant religions abusing their privileged position to the detriment, in particular, of those who failed to conform to the theocratic ideals championed by both the church and the state.

The place of the church in the 1937 Constitution further enshrined the power of the Catholic Church as it filled a power vacuum that existed in the aftermath of the Civil War. It was no doubt held high in the esteem of the people, and their belief in it and its utterances were strong. It was a different Ireland where the church and the State moved hand in hand, and it is difficult to say which had more sway. Unfortunately, it was also a time of book bans, censorship and control and it is clear that blasphemy fits in with this censorious attitude and philosophy.

Tá an sochaí ina bhfuilimíd inár gcónaí inniu difriúil go maith. Níl an bhéim chéanna, nó an t-ardú stádais céanna, ag creideamh amháin thar chreideamh eile, nó ag daoine le creideamh thar dhaoine nach bhfuil aon chreideamh acu. Tá sochaí níos oscailte, níos réasúnta agus níos measartha againn faoi láthair. The society we live in today is much more diverse and more open in its thinking, analysis and beliefs. The need for a referendum is reflective of that and is something that could and possibly should have happened decades ago. Deputy O'Callaghan made points regarding the choices faced by a former Minister, Dermot Ahern, and his belief that he considered legislation was required. It would have been open to him, in the same way as it is open to the current Minister, to bring forward a constitutional amendment, and he should have done so.

That this motion is before us is in part down to what we have seen emerge in the past few decades in the form of scandals concerning mother and baby homes, Magdalen laundries, industrial schools and the significant number of public cases of child sexual abuse which were covered up by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. It was the hand-in-glove relationship that allowed such abuses to prevail and blurred the line between the public and private sphere, between church and State and between right and wrong.

However, this is a step towards recognition of a new Ireland, one that is diverse, culturally, spiritually and otherwise, and one that is accepting of all within it, from all faiths and none.

The recent visit by Pope Francis happened in a very different atmosphere from the previous papal visit. The church establishment was challenged and criticised in a way that would have been unthinkable in 1979, much less long before that. This is a healthy development. No institution or body should be immune from challenge or criticism. However, it is important that this does never extend to religious intolerance or prejudice against any particular faith or creed. If there was intolerance by those of religious faith against those without any in the past, and doubtless there was, that by no means should lead to the reverse taking place now.

I want to be clear in stating I have no problem whatsoever in anyone holding religious beliefs. An inclusive Ireland must recognise the entitlement to everyone’s own beliefs. Religion is deep and personal to many, and plays a huge role in people’s daily lives. It is something in which people find much solace and strength. It can often motivate many to selfless acts of charity and sacrifice in service of the common good. However, what it cannot do is define the laws of our land, something which I believe is wrong and ill-fitting in a modern society. It is in that context that this provision must be deleted from our Constitution.

The next steps in defining a new and better relationship between church and State should ensure decoupling of the State and church from the areas of health, education and public services. The focus should be on developing systems that represent modern Ireland as a whole in all its parts, moving away from an overwhelming religious ethos informing all services towards one which embodies an ethos that is accepting of all creeds and institutions that gives people options and choice.

This is also an important question in terms of the future of this country, not only the country that we are but that we want to become. It is a fact that the issue of Irish unity has become much more widely discussed in recent times. It is my view that in any united Ireland, any new republic, no religious faith could be privileged over any other. An important statement that the State and political parties should make is that this must be the case in any constitutional change and in a united Ireland.

I am a republican; my party is a republican party. We want to build a real republic, representative of all, regardless of religion or any other factor. We want to see a republic, as envisaged by Wolfe Tone, for Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.

This referendum is representative of an intention to move forward and embrace an ever-changing Ireland. I hope the people endorse this important step but we must also build on it and continue to move in the direction of building a modern, secular, republican State that respects people of all religions and none.

I think we are all republicans here.

The sentence in paragraph (i) of Article 40.6.1o currently reads, "The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law." As I understand it, as amended, the sentence will read, "The publication or utterance of seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law."

I want to refer to the Corway v. Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd., case of 1999. In that case the Supreme Court pointed out the difficulty in prosecuting the offence of blasphemy. The case arose out of an attempt by Mr. Corway to bring a private prosecution against the newspaper for publishing what he claimed was a blasphemous cartoon. The difficulty for the court was that neither the Constitution nor any legislation provided a definition setting out the ingredients of the offence of blasphemy.

At common law, blasphemy consisted only of attacks on the doctrines of the established church, Anglicanism, by way of vilification, ridicule or irreverence. The Minister has alluded to this previously. Mr. Justice Barrington gave the lead judgment and stated:

In this state of the law, and in the absence of any legislative definition of the constitutional offence of blasphemy, it is impossible to say of what the offence of blasphemy consists... The task of defining the crime is one for the legislature, not for the courts.

The question for the Government is whether we could not make exactly the same criticism about at least one of the two offences the Government is proposing to leave in the Constitution. Is the Minister for Justice and Equality satisfied that he could provide a clear and comprehensive definition of the offence of indecent publication? None of the rest of us could. Is the Internet, for instance, covered by the Constitution? Although we still have laws that prohibit indecency-obscenity in various circumstances, there is no constitutional or statutory definition of either indecency or obscenity.

However, this is precisely the problem the Supreme Court identified in regard to blasphemy. As Mr. Justice Barrington stated: “The task of defining the crime is one for the legislature, not for the courts." Therefore, what was the thinking behind the decision to keep some offences in Article 40o while deleting this one, given that all three give rise to the same difficulties?

I will share time with Deputy Coppinger and we will each have five minutes.

Solidarity-People Before Profit will be supporting this legislation and the plan to remove references to blasphemy from the Constitution.

It should be obvious why we must do it. It is a relic of an old Ireland that we need to leave behind because the special relationship - to use a phrase the Taoiseach used recently - between the Constitution, the political institutions of the State and a particular morality, that of the Catholic Church, has left a bitter legacy for huge numbers of people. For the sake of writers such as James Joyce whose literature was banned in the newly founded State because of this morality and these notions of blasphemy and, more seriously, the Magdalene women, those who suffered in mother and baby homes, the Tuam babies, children who were separated from their mothers, those who were the victims of forced adoptions, LGBT people generally who were persecuted by the State for so many years, single mothers who were stigmatised and vilified because they did not fit in with the morality of the church, for all of the victims of that draconian and supposed morality that was inflicted on so many and which caused so much suffering, it is critical that we leave all of that behind and take the morality of a particular religious view out of the Constitution and our laws and remove any special position it might have in the State and the political system in our society generally. It is long overdue that we would do this and we will support it wholeheartedly, but we must go further.

Reference was made to seven reports and the recommendations that we not only remove references to utterances of blasphemy but also to seditious or indecent matter. Perhaps the Minister might explain why the Government ignored these recommendations. One person's blasphemy is another's robust criticism of a viewpoint with which he or she does not agree. That is also true of sedition. One person's sedition is another's completely legitimate criticism of the institutions of the State, society or particular laws. With regard to indecent matter, the work of many of the best writers of this country was considered to be "indecent". Ulysses was considered to be indecent and something that could not be read by certain people. Dr. Noel Browne's mother and child scheme was considered to be indecent, subversive and seditious according to the prevailing morality of the State. I do not know why this constitutional amendment does not also remove those references.

More broadly, I believe that simply changing words in the Constitution, while not giving real and tangible effect to the need to separate church and State more generally, potentially leaves us open to legitimate criticism of tokenism. Why does the Catholic Church continue to control schools and hospitals, to refuse to pay its debts under redress schemes, to have an influence over the curriculum taught in schools and to have influence over procedures carried out in hospitals? All of that is unacceptable. While this measure is to be supported, it is tokenism, unless we move to give full effect to the complete separation of church and State, particularly in the education and health sectors.

Solidarity supports the Bill and will campaign for a "Yes" vote in the referendum. We formally proposed the removal of the offence of blasphemy in our Bill in July 2017.

The 1937 Constitution which is being amended was designed in a Catholic state where the Catholic Church held a privileged and special position. There are multiple references specifically from a Catholic or Christian belief. There are religious freedoms contained in the Constitution, but the tone is very much that of a Catholic state that permits or tolerates other religions, rather than people having religious freedom as a right.

While supporting the removal of blasphemy as an offence, for reasons I will go into, I am very disappointed that our proposed amendments to the Bill were ruled out of order. It was an opportunity to go much further. The amendments would have given the House the opportunity to allow voters to move beyond the offence of blasphemy and remove all archaic religious based references from the Constitution. I shall give some examples.

The preamble to the Constitution refers to "our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ". Article 6 of the Constitution states "All powers [derive] under God ...". That is a ludicrous assertion for the many people who do not hold to it, or that we in this House must subscribe to one God. There are also religious oaths for the Judiciary and the Presidency which inhibit non-believers or those with non-Christian beliefs from taking these offices. Article 44 states, "The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God". There are provisions that give the green light to the State to impose and favour religion in public services and public spaces. We see this every day in the health and education sectors and the Dáil recently. I put it to the Minister that this was a chance to delete something as ludicrous as "Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers [nothing about our mothers, of course] through centuries of trial". We proposed that this be deleted from the English text of the Constitution, but, unfortunately, that opportunity was not taken. It smacks of tokenism following the historic and momentous referendum on the repeal of the eighth amendment which was driven from outside the Dáil by young and working people.

The reference to blasphemy curtails free speech and acts as a chilling effect on debate. Atheists who appear on television or radio programmes can be warned not to stray into blasphemy. While the last prosecution was in 1855, the offence is still in place. The case of Stephen Fry is pertinent; it is both well known and recent. Nothing he said could have been considered to be offensive. They were his honestly held views, but the Garda still spent time investigating him to state the 2009 Act had been contravened. In the end he was not prosecuted, but the case serves as a warning. Under the Constitution, the Oireachtas can legislate to allow people who question religion or God to actually be prosecuted.

It also says a lot that the Green Party and Fianna Fáil in government saw fit to bring forward not even ten years ago the Defamation Act 2009, which shows us that it is a sign of the times. It includes the provision, "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 €25,000". That provision is still in place. For example, it has been cited that Pakistan's blasphemy law was taken from Ireland's. This is an attack on people who are religious. People who are religious can be convicted for blasphemy, as they are in other countries. A person who is a Muslim could be deemed to have blasphemed a Hindu's customs or mores. This is about freedom of religion, but it is also about freedom not to be forced to profess a religion.

With the massive support achieved in the marriage equality referendum and also in the repeal referendum, we see that the establishment is keen to be seen to be moving on very symbolic matters. While I welcome this, we should be going much further. It is past time that we separated church and State. The mass indifference shown by the public to the Pope's visit speaks volumes about where people believe society should be going.

It was obviously expected, including by the State, that there would be 500,000 or 600,000 people in attendance. Roads in Dublin West like the Navan Road were shut down. The State was out of step again, and this Bill should go much further than it does.

I am happy to speak on this Bill. I acknowledge that the issue of removing the offence of blasphemy is a source of deep concern for a very significant proportion of the population. I share those people's view that respect for authentically held religious values has been on the decline for decades. Anti-Catholic rhetoric in particular is rampant. Indeed, some have even described such views as the last acceptable public prejudice. That said, I support the Government's Bill to repeal the blasphemy clause from the Constitution. As Our Lord said: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's".

Ever since the 1996 Constitution Review Group found that the contents of the offence of blasphemy "are totally unclear and are potentially at variance with guarantees of free speech and freedom of conscience in a pluralistic society", the end has been coming for this particular clause in Article 40.6.1o. The issue also received a substantial and detailed analysis in the sixth report of the Constitutional Convention, which was established by the then Government in 2012. As I understand it, however, 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.

I am aware that many people will see the position I am taking as some kind of concession to those who want to remove even the mention of God or the sacred from our culture and society. That is emphatically not the case. I simply hold the view that it is not tenable for the State to involve itself in the making of theological judgments, much less enforce specific theological or philosophical judgments by any one particular creed or church. I believe in the separation of church and state. I do not believe, however, that that separation should become a division, which some people would like it to be. The church has a vital role to play in our society and it works effectively in a spirit of collaboration with the State on many issues. That role needs to be respected and protected. It is not appropriate for the State to act as the guard dog of any particular church. Such a position harms both church and State, an outcome that is in no one's interests. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire.

Through the Ceann Comhairle, I thank the Deputies for their contributions and co-operation in facilitating the passage of the Bill. I acknowledge the broad welcome they have given to the proposal to proceed along the lines suggested.

The background to the proposal has already been explained. It has been emphasised that, if the offence of blasphemy is to be removed from the Statute Book, a constitutional amendment is an essential first step. This is because, as Deputy O'Callaghan has stressed, the inclusion in the Constitution of the blasphemy provision in its current form requires the retention of an offence that merits that provision in the Statute Book. It does matter that there have been no successful prosecutions of the offence in living memory of anyone here or in the memory of our parents, grandparents or perhaps even great-great grandparents.

The provision identifies Ireland, however incorrect and misleading that might be, as a country that does not value freedom of expression and one that gives constitutional protection to a concept that many would regard as completely outmoded. Its very existence gives further comfort to those in other countries where the concept of blasphemy has a real meaning, one that can entail considerable suffering for those who run foul of the law that supports it.

Deputies Boyd Barrett and Coppinger spoke about the need to amend the Constitution so as to remove religious references and religious-based oaths of office. This is a much broader question than that which is the subject matter of the Bill before us, but the intervention made by the Deputies undoubtedly touches upon matters that are of public interest. In its ninth and final report, the Constitutional Convention proposed five issues for constitutional reform that it felt could be considered by a future convention or otherwise. Included in those issues was one directly related to the separation of church and state. As the report made clear, there was a mix of submissions on this point and not all submissions favoured an amendment to the Constitution. Furthermore, among those submissions that favoured an amendment, it would seem that there was a variety of views as to the nature of the amendment. This underlines the point that, prior to any constitutional change in this area being embarked upon, the wider engagement of civic society will be required. Given the extensive programme of legislative and constitutional reform that is in prospect over the next 12 months or so, I do not have any immediate plan for legislative intervention in this particular matter.

Deputies Sherlock and Boyd Barrett queried the retention of the references to seditious or indecent matter. I agree that this language rings somewhat oddly to our modern ears. However, unlike the reference to blasphemous matter, these matters are covered by various statutory provisions. We can all agree that it is right and proper that there would, for example, be an offence relating to the production and distribution of child pornography. Equally, we can see the logic behind offences intended to criminalise acts aimed at attacking the constitutional order or the institutions of state. The same imperative to amend the Constitution does not exist in terms of these matters as it does in the context of blasphemy.

I acknowledge a point that was adverted to by Deputy O'Callaghan. The removal of blasphemy from our Constitution, should that proposal be approved by the people, is not in any way to be construed as an attack on our belief or unbelief. Nor is it intended to privilege one set of values over another. It is a simple acknowledgement that a concept that it is agreed is uncertain in meaning and rooted in a past where fealty to the State was conflated with fealty to a particular religion has no place in a Constitution that must provide shelter for all who live in this Republic. As Deputy Ó Laoghaire stated, we are a country of increasing diversity. The right to express differing viewpoints in a forceful and critical manner is one that must at all times not only be upheld, but be cherished.

I acknowledge the support of Deputy Mattie McGrath, which allows me to say how heartened I am that no Deputy has spoken in favour of retaining the offence of blasphemy in our Constitution. I also acknowledge the importance of cross-party support in the House for the action that the Government is taking. I hope that, when the people vote on this proposal, they will see the merits of the proposed deletion. I acknowledge that it may have taken more time than many of us would have wished to introduce the necessary proposal. However, we now have the opportunity to deal with this issue in a way that reflects the values we espouse as a modern democratic society.

Cuireadh agus aontaíodh an cheist.
Question put and agreed to.