ANYONE who insults another person about a matter held sacred by their religion can now be found guilty of a criminal offence and fined €25,000 under new laws that came into effect yesterday.
The controversial blasphemy provision is contained in the 2009 Defamation Bill, which has been signed into law after President Mary McAleese declined to refer it to the Supreme Court.
Under the new law, anyone who says, publishes or otherwise makes public comments that are found to be grossly abusive or insulting to matters that are held sacred by any religion are guilty of blasphemy if such material causes offence or outrage to a "substantial" number of people who follow the religion.
Until now there has never been a blasphemy law in Ireland, although blasphemy is prohibited in the Constitution.
The need for the law stems from a so-called 'constitutional gap' resulting from a 1999 Supreme Court decision that ruled it was impossible to say "what the offence of blasphemy consists" of.
This followed a landmark case, Independent Newspapers v Corway, over a cartoon published in the 'Sunday Independent'.
While the long overdue reform of Ireland's libel laws has been welcomed, the blasphemy provisions have been roundly criticised as unconstitutional.
The law states that material must be considered to be grossly abusive and insulting to a significant number of people to be deemed as blasphemy. But unlike similar laws elsewhere, the new provision does not have the requirement that such material can lead to dire consequences, such as rioting or mass protests.
Trinity College law professor Eoin O'Dell last night warned the new law could be "too widely interpreted".
"It's not a crank's charter, but there's a problem with it," he told the Irish Independent. "The absence of consequences is the real problem."
Atheist Ireland is also opposed to the new law. Supporters, including 'I Keano' writer Micheal Nugent and 'Father Ted' creators Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan, said they intended to mount a campaign "to repeal this anachronistic and dangerous blasphemy law, as part of our wider campaign for an ethical and secular Ireland".