Hate Crime Legislation in Ireland
13th July 2020
As Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have all voted in favour of the proposed Programme for Government, it appears that a coalition government between these three parties will be leading the Dáil for the next five years. Despite many Irish voters, particularly young people under 35, hoping for a left-leaning coalition who would focus on housing and public services, it appears that the tenure of the 33rd Dáil may not stray very far from the status quo of the past decade.
There are some seemingly positive aspects of the Programme for Government, particularly in the area of environmentalism; the proposal of a ‘Green New Deal’ aiming to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, the withdrawal of planning for the Shannon LNG terminal, and an increase in spending on cycling infrastructure.
There is a commitment to move away from the Direct Provision system, with an expert group producing recommendations for a new not-for-profit system by the end of this year. On other social issues the document is vague in terms of specific timeframes and spending, such as with the progression toward a living wage and the creation of increased state housing.
One aspect of the new government’s plans for the next few years is a pressing issue which will be a very welcome development to many. The drafted programme stated that hate crime will be legislated for, ensuring that those who target victims because of their identity will be prosecuted on the basis of hate crime. The current legislation for hate speech, the Incitement to Hatred Act of 1989, is also set for an update.
Currently, Ireland has no effective legislation to combat hate crime. The Incitement to Hatred Act only addresses hate speech which is specifically intended to incite violence, a narrow scope which has proved incredibly difficult to implement and has been inefficient in combating hate speech. In October 2019, the Gardaí introduced their own working hate crime definition which extends to several different identities such as race, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation; but fails to address hate crimes against some of the most vulnerable groups in Irish society such as asylum seekers and transgender people.
But even when this hate crime definition allows the Gardaí to charge individuals with hate crimes, because of a lack of substantial legislation, the ‘hate’ element of the crime is often filtered out before it comes to sentencing. As there is no official way of recording that a hate crime has taken place, there is no way of addressing this behaviour on a national level, and no way of investigating patterns or addressing the vulnerability of certain groups. When the Maryan Mosque in Galway was vandalised in July 2019, the Gardaí investigated it as a ‘burglary’, a charge which did not take into account the specific targeting of the Muslim community in the area.
“The Incitement to Hatred Act only addresses hate speech which is specifically intended to incite violence, a narrow scope which has proved incredibly difficult to implement and has been inefficient in combating hate speech.”
According to the EU Court of Human Rights, states are under an obligation to ensure that the possible ‘hate’ elements of crimes are properly investigated, in order to protect vulnerable minorities within the population. Ireland has shown to be particularly inadequate in addressing hate crime, to the point that the UN was forced to urge the Irish government to introduce hate crime legislation as recently as December 2019.
In July 2018, a detailed report by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties found that Ireland has among the highest rates in the EU of hate crime against transgender people and people from African backgrounds. Presently, there is no proper government tracking of any workable data on hate crime, and the national action plan against racism expired in 2008. The Ireland of 1989, when the Incitement to Hatred Act was created, is very different from the Ireland of 2020, and we are in desperate need of updated hate crime legislation.
In May 2019, the Irish Times reported that Ireland was among the top three countries in the EU with the worst records in terms of racial violence based on skin colour. Along with Austria and Finland, Ireland showed some of the highest rates of racially motivated harassment, at a staggering 51% compared to an average of 30% amongst the countries surveyed. The impact that our lack of hate crime legislation has on vulnerable communities is clear, as less than one-third of those who were racially discriminated against in Ireland made a complaint or reported the crimes to the Gardaí.
According to iReport, the Irish Network Against Racism’s system for reporting racist incidents, this is still an incredibly pertinent issue in 2020. The figures released by INAR from their iReport system in the first quarter of 2020, showed an almost doubling of average reporting rate compared with quarters in 2019. They stated an increase in 63% for crime and discrimination reports and a fourfold increase in relation to online content. Much of these reports from early in the year came from election literature and social media posts from far-right candidates in February’s general election.
Despite garnering a minor portion of the votes, candidates from organisations such as the National Party and the Irish Freedom Party, as well as Independents such as Gemma O’Doherty and John Waters, were able to use the nature of social media to easily circulate their harmful materials online. It is clear that rapid social changes in Ireland in recent years; equal marriage, the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, increased immigration, as well as increasingly visible far-right politicians across Europe and elsewhere, have allowed a fringe minority of the openly hateful to amplify their message. Although these far-right candidates were largely unsuccessful in this year’s general election, it was only two years ago that Peter Casey rose to second place in the Presidential election following his weaponising of anti-Traveller sentiment amongst his voter base.
In recent weeks, with the voices of the Black communities in Ireland and across the world being amplified, it is impossible to ignore the issues of inequality within our societies. With robust hate crime legislation, not only will we be able to give greater protection to those who are vulnerable because of their identity, but crucially we will have the data to judge honestly and openly how the issues of intolerance and hate manifest in Irish society, and learn to combat them. Jennifer Schweppe, Senior Law Lecturer at the University of Limerick, characterises hate crime as a ‘message crime’, a targeted incident intended to send a message to a particular group that they are unwelcome. Our hate crime legislation is a way of sending a message back; that all sexualities, races, abilities, genders are welcome in Ireland, and that hate is not.
Featured photo by Jim Nix