Ireland has very firm laws on animal welfare when it comes to food production. As might be expected, these laws aren’t in place so much because we love our animals, so much as that they’re in place because the European Union imposed them, and because the agri-food sector is so important to the economy. Having a reputation as a country that’s cruel to animals wouldn’t help those important export markets in the US, and elsewhere.

The relevant section reads as follows (emphasis mine):

“EC Council Regulation 1099/2009, (given effect through S.I. No. 292 of 2013) on the protection of animals at the time of killing, came into effect from 1st January, 2013. Article 10 of this Regulation deals with slaughter for domestic consumption and lists the rules which apply to slaughter for private domestic consumption. These include that animals must only be restrained in a humane way and must be stunned before being killed (unless they are being killed in accordance with certain religious rites). The person killing the animal must have “the appropriate level of competence to do so without causing any avoidable pain, distress or suffering”. Failure to comply with these requirements is an offence under Irish law. For practical reasons, it may be simpler to ask a licensed slaughter man to perform this task.”

There are a couple of things there which stand out. First, the word “avoidable”. For all that those of us who care about animals but still eat meat might like to deceive ourselves, there’s always a degree of pain, distress, and suffering for an animal that is being slaughtered, often by humans that it has learned to trust. That’s something that you need to either make your peace with, or become a vegetarian.

Second, there is an exemption for “certain religious rites” which allows Irish producers to slaughter animals without stunning them. In practice this means Halal slaughter, to comply with the requirements of the Koran, and Kosher slaughter, to comply with the requirements of the Torah. Because Ireland has a very small Jewish population, and because Kosher slaughter must be carried out by a Rabbi, in practice the exemption is in place for Halal meat.

Halal slaughter is widespread in Ireland for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, you do not need to be a Muslim to carry it out. Any “person of the book” – a jew, or a Christian – can slaughter animals according to the principles of Halal, and make the meat religiously acceptable to Muslims. Second, Ireland exports vast amounts of beef to the middle east. All of this meat must be Halal. Therefore, many thousands of Irish cattle die according to the religious exemption every single year, in Irish factories and butchers.

For meat to be fit for human consumption, it must be exsanguinated – in other words, the animal must be drained of blood. Cattle that are slaughtered usually have the main arteries in their neck severed, and are then hung by the legs until they bleed to death. Mercifully, an animal that is not being slaughtered for Halal will first be rendered brain dead – usually by means of a captive bolt pistol which fires a single shot into the brain, with instantaneous effects if done properly. (Whether it is always done properly is another question).

In Halal, however, the animal is not stunned. It is fully conscious, and has its throat severed. The New Scientist suggests that the presumably excruciating pain of this can last for up to two minutes:

Brain signals have shown that calves do appear to feel pain when slaughtered according to Jewish and Muslim religious law, strengthening the case for adapting the practices to make them more humane.

“I think our work is the best evidence yet that it’s painful,” says Craig Johnson, who led the study at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Johnson summarised his results last week in London when receiving an award from the UK Humane Slaughter Association. His team also showed that if the animal is concussed through stunning, signals corresponding to pain disappear.

The findings increase pressure on religious groups that practice slaughter without stunning to reconsider. “It provides further evidence, if it was needed, that slaughtering an animal without stunning it first is painful,” says Christopher Wathes of the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council, which has long argued for the practice to end.

Two minutes is a very long time to be in excruciating pain, trying to breathe.

It is, in short, a horrible, brutal death.

So why is it legal? The intent of our animal welfare legislation in this area is to eliminate unnecessary pain and suffering. The exemption for Halal and Kosher slaugher would appear to suggest, therefore, that pain and suffering are a necessary part of those practices.

Both the constitution, and natural law, guarantee the right to religious freedom, and religious practice. It would, for example, be abhorrent to force a Muslim to eat meat that was not Halal if their conscience did not permit it. But equally, the freedom of religion does not guarantee a right to inflict pain and suffering. If a religious group in Ireland embraced human sacrifice as a core part of their faith, we would not permit them to carry it out – so why do we permit this cruelty to animals?

There is a boundary that we draw around religious freedom. A Christian who practiced some of the instructions in the old testament, for example, in relation to chastising a daughter or a son, would swiftly find themselves in prison. The law should not force anyone to violate their conscience, but neither should it allow objectively barbaric acts to be carried out in the name of religious freedom.

Of course, the problem in Ireland isn’t just the financial benefit we derive from the barbarism of religious slaughter – it’s also the precedent we would set. Some people in Ireland are more than happy to discuss Halal and Kosher, because it advances their political argument that immigration undermines our values. But those people are conspicuously silent when it comes to the other barbarisms we allow for our own “cultural” reasons. Tearing a fox apart with a pack of dogs is perfectly legal in Ireland. Choking a hare, or a fox, or a badger, or any other wild animal, with a snare is still perfectly legal, despite the fact that there are few more horrible imaginable deaths to inflict on any creature. Greyhound racing, a sport which inflicts horrible cruelty both to unwanted dogs, and to many champion dogs, is legal.

If Halal and Kosher were banned, that would be most welcome. But if your conscience when it comes to how we treat animals in this country ends there, examine it closely, for fear that it might not be the animals that you really care about.