The Power of Speech


Blasphemy is prohibited in Ireland by Article 40 of the 1937 Constitution. Originally intended to apply only to Christianity, in 1999 this was deemed incompatible with the Constitution’s guarantee of religious equality. Sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009 were therefore introduced to redefine the offence of blasphemy as punishable against any religion. The crime of blasphemy was last prosecuted in 1855, and today it is punishable by a fine of up to €25,000. Ireland is the only Western country to introduce a blasphemy law in the 21st Century.

How does this affect me?

The law takes away each and every citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression by taking away the right to express beliefs for fear of uttering what can be perceived as an offence, therefore breaking the law. This law clearly discriminates against citizens of no religion who, as we know from the most recent census, represent a substantial section of the population.

What’s happening now?

Early in 2017, the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, indicated that there may be a referendum put to the people of Ireland which would include a vote to repeal Sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act. He later retracted this.

In May 2017, the law was highlighted again in the media when a complaint was made against a well-known public figure for uttering what was considered a blasphemous offence on television. The investigation was dropped when Gardaí could not find a significant number of complainants.

In July 2017, the Social Democrats presented two Bills to the Dáil – the Thirty Fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Blasphemy) Bill 2017 and the Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2017. These would allow for the removal of the blasphemy law from the Constitution. At the time of writing, the current Taoiseach has indicated there will be a number of items put to referendum in 2018. It is hoped that these bills are included.

Recently, a report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedoms on countries with blasphemy laws found that out of 71 countries, Ireland has the least restrictive laws. On the other end of the list were Iran and Pakistan, countries that impose the death penalty for blasphemy. Surely it is time to take ourselves out of reports that place our laws on a scale with such violations of human rights? An author of the report recommended: “Ireland should repeal its blasphemy law to reaffirm that debating ideas, or even criticising religions, is not equivalent to inciting to hatred”, and to show solidarity with those who continue to be “persecuted in the name of blasphemy”.

What is the Humanist Association of Ireland doing?

Blasphemy Image


The Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) is part of the World Humanist Congress, which, in 2014, reiterated its position on freedom of thought and expression, “The Oxford Declaration”. This declaration largely conforms to the United Nations Principles of Human Rights by stating that “All laws that criminalise language on grounds of ‘blasphemy’ or of offence to beliefs and values impede human freedom and should be abolished”.

The HAI are a national partner of the International Coalition Against Blasphemy Laws which represents organisations campaigning in countries that have laws against blasphemy or similar restrictions.

The HAI is committed to keeping its members and the public up to date, engaged and educated on the progress surrounding the blasphemy law in Ireland.