Irish Blasphemy Referendum – Micheal Martin asks government

Dáil debates Tuesday, 20 January 2015 from KildareStreet.com (all rights acknowledged)

Micheál Martin asks questions on the the government commitment to the Irish Blasphemy Referendum

Ceisteanna – Questions (Resumed) – Taoiseach’s Meetings and Engagements

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4:25 pm

Micheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)

I ask the Taoiseach to revert to me on when he last met representatives of the churches as part of a structured dialogue. Will he also indicate the philosophical bodies to which he referred?

It is clear from my discussions with many parents and school representatives that resources, rather than patronage, are their main concern. Early in the lifetime of the Government an announcement was made that 50% of schools would change from religious patronage to other models of patronage. Of the 1,500 schools affected by this issue, only one, a Church of Ireland school in the Taoiseach’s constituency, has changed its model of patronage. A great deal of time has been wasted and much doubt created on this issue. We would have greater diversity if the previous Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, had not taken such a confrontational and non-consultative approach to patronage, which was never a boiling issue on the ground. The issues continue to be resources, the viability of schools and the provision of supports for schools in terms of teacher numbers, curriculum development and so forth. Will the Taoiseach engage with the patrons of a significant number of schools in his dialogue with the churches in terms of outlining his priorities vis-à-vis schools and education? Is the introduction of tax cuts for the highest earners a greater priority for the Government than the provision of resources for schools and the education of children from the earliest age?

On structured dialogue with representatives of the various faiths, the Paris attack on Charlie Hebdomagazine and demonstrations in Germany on similar issues have brought to a head a public debate about Islam in Europe and the idea of a clash of cultures and civilisations. As I stated last week, it is unacceptable to blame Muslims in general for the actions of an extreme minority group, as certain movements are trying to do. We must stand united against attempts to blame an entire religion or group for the actions of extremists. We must also be vigilant in condemning such extremists who must not be given any quarter by some who may be sneaking regarders or provide some rationale for the base and unacceptable murder of innocent citizens across Europe and the globe. The threat posed by ISIS and returned jihadis has created significant concern among the general population in many European countries. We need to increase our vigilance against extremist violence, while reasserting our belief in a diverse and inclusive society in which all religions are respected.

The Government has been sending mixed messages on the blasphemy laws. The Taoiseach has indicated that he will meet leaders of the Islamic faith. Many people were concerned by the suggestion made by an Imam that newspapers would be sued if certain articles were written or certain cartoons reprinted. The Constitution needs to be amended to remove the provision on blasphemy. However, the Government appears to have made a decision not to hold a referendum on blasphemy. This is the only conclusion one can reach, given the timelines of the Government. The Taoiseach stated in the House that a referendum on blasphemy would not be held in 2015. Speaking on Newstalk last week, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, stated that while the Government had taken a decision to hold a referendum on blasphemy, it had not yet decided on the timing. We must be honest about this. If a referendum is not held in 2015, none will be held during the lifetime of the Government as it will go to the country in early 2016. Clearly, there will not be the wherewithal or capacity to hold such a referendum in 2016. Will the Taoiseach confirm that is the position? This is a mistake and the matter should be reviewed and reconsidered. The question of whether a referendum on blasphemy will be held in the lifetime of the Government is a fair one which deserves a transparent answer.

While I realise this will be a difficult challenge, will the Taoiseach outline his proposals to ensure a fundamentalist minority is not allowed to develop here? We must guard against intolerance towards a religious minority.

Enda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I take the Deputy’s point about the education system and schools. When I next meet the school patron, I will be happy to engage on this matter. I will also bring the Deputy’s point to the attention of the Minister for Education and Skills who may meet the patron before I do.
The atrocities in Paris were atrocious and shocked the world. I was privileged to represent the Irish people in Paris where the leaders of the countries of Europe and beyond walked in demonstration of the right to liberty and freedom of speech. It was a demonstration of the “Why?” of the European Union.
I agree with the Deputy. To equate what happened in Paris with the Islamic faith or the Muslim religion is the same as blaming Rome for the atrocities of the IRA or the Church of England for loyalist atrocities. The Islamic faith is one of compassion and peace. What more evidence can we obtain of terrorism than when a policeman – a Muslim – is shot in cold blood and murdered on the street?
It is true to say there is a great need for vigilance and very careful monitoring of absolute terrorism as distinct from anything to do with religious beliefs. Clearly, the authorities here – the Minister for Justice and Equality, the security committee and the Garda – are constantly monitoring the situation. The Deputy is aware that the Minister pointed out that 30 people from Ireland had travelled to Syria and other places in that region. I understand three of them were killed, although I cannot speak about what the other 27 were up to. This is an issue that concerns us in a non-aggressive, non-militarised country. Let me assure Deputy Micheál Martin that, in terms of the security of the people and the State, this is something that is monitored very closely. Obviously, if it is necessary to talk to the Deputy about it, we will do so.
On the question of blasphemy, the Constitutional Convention made quite a number of recommendations and the Government has accepted that there should be a referendum on removing blasphemy from the Constitution. In the month of May there will be two referendums, one on marriage equality and other on changes to the constitutional age limit for eligibility to stand for the Presidency. In respect of Carlow-Kilkenny where a by-election is pending, it will be held on the same day. To be honest with the Deputy, I do not expect another referendum in the lifetime of the Government. I said last week that there would not be and while there has not been a final decision by the Government, I do not expect that there will be. What we did say was that when the Constitutional Convention issued its reports, if the Government accepted the recommendations of the convention, it would indicate its intention to hold a referendum on whatever the issue might be. That stands; it was not the intention to have an indicative timeline for all of these issues. I think six referendums have been held in the course of the term of office of the Government to date, with some being approved by the people. The position is that the intention is to remove blasphemy from the—–

4:35 pm
Micheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)

But not in the lifetime of the Government.

Enda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)

I do not see it, although, to be quite honest with the Deputy, the Government has not made a final decision to say: “That is it for the lifetime of this Government.” I do not think there will be another referendum, but I will put it to my colleagues in due course in the Cabinet. We have a lot of work to do. However, that does not mean that we are not very clear on accepting the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention that a referendum will have to be held to remove blasphemy from the Constitution. Nonetheless, as I said, we did not indicate any indicative timeline as to when that would actually happen.

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