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 Header Item Thirty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution (Repeal of offence of publication or utterance of blasphemous matter) Bill 2018: Second Stage (Continued)
 Header Item An Bille um an Seachtú Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (Cion a aisghairm arb éard é ní diamhaslach a fhoilsiú nó a aithris) 2018: Céim an Choiste agus na Céimeanna a bheidh Fágtha
 Header Item Thirty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution (Repeal of offence of publication or utterance of blasphemous matter) Bill 2018: Committee and Remaining Stages

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 972 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Ruth Coppinger: Information on Ruth Coppinger Zoom on Ruth Coppinger] 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.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath 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.

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Charles Flanagan): Information on Charles Flanagan Zoom on Charles Flanagan 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.

Deputy Jim O'Callaghan: Information on Jim O'Callaghan Zoom on Jim O'Callaghan Great.

  Cuireadh agus aontaíodh an cheist.

  Question put and agreed to.

An Bille um an Seachtú Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (Cion a aisghairm arb éard é ní diamhaslach a fhoilsiú nó a aithris) 2018: Céim an Choiste agus na Céimeanna a bheidh Fágtha

Thirty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution (Repeal of offence of publication or utterance of blasphemous matter) Bill 2018: Committee and Remaining Stages

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Amendments Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, in the names of Deputies Coppinger, Barry and Paul Murphy are out of order.

  Níor tairgeadh leasuithe Uimh. 1 go 5 a huile.

  Amendments Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, not moved.

  Aontaíodh alt a 1.

  Section 1 agreed to.


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