This is not quite the novelty that the Irish Times article suggests.
Blasphemous libel is already an offence at common law in Ireland. Along with many other former British possessions, we inherited it from our colonial overlords. So far as I can find out there has never been a single prosecution in the history of the state for blasphemous libel. Nobody really knows exactly what a “blasphemous libel” is, but most commentators agree that it involves an attack on Christian beliefs, rather than on the beliefs of any religion. (Though, as the Irish Times article points out, the Supreme Court has suggested that a law privileging Christian beliefs over others would be repugnant to the Constitution.) In 1961 the government of the day legislated to set the penalties for blasphemous libel (£500 or 2 years or both), still without defining the offence, but also to provide that newspaper editors and publishers could not be prosecuted for blasphemous libel without first getting a High Court order.
This looks like a typically Irish arrangement; a law which, in principle, gratifies the feelings of a certain section of socially conservative religious opinion but which, in practice, is never enforced. And nobody really knows what it means anyway.
It’s not, though, a uniquely Irish arrangement; Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other former British possessions, and of course England itself, were all in a similar situation for many years.
It’s obviously anomalous, but there are two different ways of correcting the anomaly.
England abolished the offence entirely a couple of years ago. They have other legislation which targets hate speech directed at people on the grounds of race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, etc; this extends to hate speech targeted on the basis of religion. They reckon that provides sufficient protection.
Canada, New Zealand and other countries have legislated to define the offence, and to introduce a defence of expressing an opinion on a religious subject in good faith and in decent language.
The Irish government seems to be going down the second route, defining and limiting the offence. On the one hand, they are broadening it so that it protects all religions equally (as they must, if they are going to keep the offence). On the other hand, they are narrowing it; a person must intend to cause outrage by what he says in order to commit the offence. It’s not enough that he says something that outrages people.
We’ll have to wait until the government explains its thinking in the parliamentary debate, but I presume they have considered the alternative of simply abolishing the offence. Their problem, I suspect, is that the Constitution says that blasphemous libel is to be an offence, and if they attempt to abolish it entirely they run the risk of the legislation being found to be unconstitutional. They can only solve this problem with a referendum, and they’re not going to do that.
Somehow, I doubt that New Improved Blasphemous Libel will be prosected any more often than Original Blasphemous Libel was.