Junior justice minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has said it was his “expectation” that the promised referendum to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution would take place in the second half of this year.
This appears to differ with statements from the Department of Justice which, when asked by the Irish Examiner, declined to say when it would be held other than it would take place at “an appropriate date” once any further consultations and the drafting of necessary legislation was completed.
The issue has come into sharp focus following the murder of 10 journalists at the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, apparently in response to derogatory cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammad, and the continuing existence in Irish law — based on a constitutional provision — which makes blasphemy a criminal offence.
A Constitutional Convention concluded last year that the offence of blasphemy should be removed from the Constitution. The Government decided last September to put the issue to the people in a referendum.
“It would seem strange... to have all these decisions made by the Constitutional Convention, and not have a referendum to take place,” Mr Ó Ríordáin told RTÉ radio.
“We’ve prioritised the marriage equality referendum for the first half of this year. It’s my expectation that in the second half of this year a number of referenda will take place and blasphemy will be one of them.”
He said freedom of expression had to be balanced with strengthening legislative provisions to protect groups from hate crime.
“In my mind, a criticism of a religious belief is acceptable,” he said. “Catholicism is, Protestantism is, or Islam is, but when you say all Catholics are, all Protestants are, all Muslims are, that’s where you get into the area of hate speech.”
Irish Muslim cleric Shaykh Dr Umar Al-Qadri told the Irish Examiner there was a difference between criticising Islam and incitement to hatred against Muslims. “It’s perfectly OK to criticise ideology and personalities, but if inciting hatred and asking people to discriminate against Muslims, the same as Jews were, that’s not allowed,” he said.