The chairperson of the Referendum Commission has reminded voters to ensure they are on the electoral register if they want to vote in the upcoming referendum on blasphemy.
Below are the questions Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy answered on RTÉ's Morning Ireland:
What is the role of the Referendum Commission?
Whenever referenda may be held, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government may establish a Referendum Commission and the minister obviously did so pending this upcoming referendum on blasphemy. And we are an independent body and we have certain functions under our legislation. We have a number of functions. One of those is to ensure that people are aware that a referendum is due to take place.
We have a date for the referendum on blasphemy and that's Friday 26 October. It’s the same date as the Presidential Election.
Our role is also to explain the subject matter of the proposal and to encourage people to vote.
So what is this referendum about?
The proposal in this referendum concerns the issue of blasphemy. The Constitution says that publishing or saying something blasphemous is a criminal offence. And so to give effect to this Constitutional requirement publishing or uttering something blasphemous is a criminal offence under our law with a fine of up to €25,000 if a person is convicted of that offence. And that is under the 2009 Defamation Act.
The proposed amendment in this referendum is to remove the word blasphemous from the Constitution.
What is the definition of blasphemy?
There is no definition contained within the Constitution. But the definition of the offence of blasphemy is set out in the 2009 Defamation Act.
That says that a person publishes or utters something blasphemous if they publish or say something that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, and thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of followers of that religion, and that the person in publishing or uttering intends to cause such outrage. That's the legal definition of the offence of blasphemy.
This referendum concerns Article 40.6.1. What is the content of that article?
I will just give the relevant portions for the purpose of this particular referendum. By way of brief background, the Constitution says that citizens have the right to freely express their convictions and opinions but there are certain limitations on this right.
And for example, the Constitution says that the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law. And that’s Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution and the paragraph that I just referred to there is paragraph one where the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.
The proposal in this referendum is to remove the word blasphemous from the Constitution.
If there is a Yes vote?
If there is a Yes vote the Constitution will no longer require the publishing or saying something blasphemous is a criminal offence and then the Oireachtas would be allowed to change the law so that it would not be a criminal offence.
If there is a No vote?
In the event of a No vote, that is if the majority votes No, then the Constitution remains unchanged. That is Article 40.6.1, sub paragraph one, remains unchanged, and the Constitution would continue to require that publishing or saying something blasphemous is a criminal offence.
Who is entitled to vote?
Irish citizens who are aged 18 years or over on polling day and ordinarily resident in Ireland can vote.
How do you know if you are on the electoral register?
If you have access to the internet, go to www.checktheregister.ie.
If you don't have internet access, then check with your local authority, your garda station, your public library or your post office to see whether or not you are on the register.
If you are not on the electoral register, or if you have moved address, then you can either download the relevant form from checktheregister.ie or you can obtain the form from your local authority. Complete that form, have your signature witnessed by a garda in your local garda station, and your local authority must receive the form by 9 October. That’s a very important date. If you want to get on the electoral register, you must do so before 9 October.
What about postal votes?
The date for that is even earlier. If you are eligible to vote by post, go to checktheregister.ie, download the relevant form, complete the form, and the form must be received by the relevant local authority by Monday 1 October.
Who is entitled to a postal vote?
There are a number of different categories. But for example, it includes members of the Defence Forces, gardaí, Irish diplomats and spouses posted abroad. It also includes students studying full-time at an educational institute in Ireland away from the address where they were originally registered to vote. There are other categories of persons also. We recommended that you check with your local authority or the website to see whether or not you are eligible.
Who can be on the Special Voters List?
The Special Voters List is for persons who are unable to vote in person because they have a physical illness or a physical disability and who are resident in a nursing home, hospital or some similar facility. They may qualify for the Special Voters List. That form may be obtained from the local authority or downloaded from the checktheregister.ie website.
More information from the Referendum Commission is available at www.refcom.ie