Thursday, 5 July 2018

Questions (5)

Róisín Shortall


5. Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if hate crime legislation will be introduced; the steps he is taking to improve the recording of such crimes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29838/18]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Justice)

A report by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties published yesterday has found that the lack of specific hate crime legislation has given rise to what is termed a policy vacuum. The hate aspect of crimes is gradually filtered out as complaints make their way through the criminal justice system. How does the Minister intend to respond to the report and address the issues raised therein?

Equality and the protection of minorities form important components of the work of my Department. The Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, and I are very committed to ensuring Ireland is a safe and secure country for everybody.

I acknowledge and welcome the research launched yesterday by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. A wide body of criminal law is used to combat racism and xenophobia. Criminal offences such as assault, criminal damage and public order offences that are committed with a racist motive are prosecuted as generic offences through the wider criminal law. The trial judge can take account of aggravating factors, including racist motivation, during sentencing. It is clear that hate crimes could be considered in the context of the Judicial Council Bill 2017, which includes provisions relating to sentencing guidelines.

Under the provisions of the Prohibition of Incitement to Racial Religious or National Hatred Act 1989, which sets out offences of incitement to hatred on account of race, religion, nationality, ethnic or sexual orientation, it is an offence to use words, behave, publish or distribute written material, or broadcast visual images or sounds which are threatening, abusive or insulting and are intended or are likely to stir up hatred. The provisions of the 1989 Act, which defines "hatred" as "hatred against a group of persons in the State or elsewhere on account of their race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origins, membership of the travelling community or sexual orientation", are under review in the Department of Justice and Equality. I would welcome the views of the Deputy and other Members of the House in the context of this review. The work of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties is particularly useful in this regard. My officials will engage with all interested parties with the aim of addressing the findings in the context of the review that is under way.

That is not a very satisfactory response. As the Minister knows, the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 applies only to what is regarded as hate speech and is completely unsuited to addressing crimes motivated by hate such as horrific acts of violence, criminal damage and petty vandalism. The Minister must accept that the impact of such crimes, even at the lower end of the spectrum, can be devastating for victims. Just this week, reports emerged of a young man posting on an online forum in real time as he prepared to throw a rock with a homophobic message attached to it through the window of a gay bar in a petty and cowardly act of violence. The chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Emily Logan, has explained that such an act serves as a "message crime" by sending reverberations through minority communities. Hate crimes make people think twice about their place in Irish society and embolden those who harbour views which most of us find abhorrent. What is the Minister's response to the increasing level of hate crime we are seeing in this country?

I assure the Deputy that I regard the research in the report that was published yesterday as hugely important. It will contribute greatly to the understanding of how hate crimes are dealt with across the State. I recognise that the report identifies a number of issues that need to be addressed if we are to ensure hate crimes are dealt with in an effective, rigorous and robust way. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I are committed to this. The Department of Justice and Equality is examining the recommendations and will make proposals in response to them in due course. I will be happy to keep the House informed of developments in that regard.

The Minister has said that he and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, are committed to this. What actions do they intend to take? There is no evidence that the Minister is taking this issue seriously. It is as if this problem was brought to his attention yesterday in the Irish Council for Civil Liberties report. The migrant integration strategy, which was published over a year and a half ago, commits the Government to a review of the current legislation. Equally, the recent LGBT youth strategy talks about the need to review the legislation in this area to identify if any gaps exist. Will the Minister give a commitment to do anything other than review the situation? This is a pressing issue and a growing issue. Rather than talking vaguely about being committed and looking at the report, the Minister needs to come up with a practical and urgent response. The least the Minister should do is require the courts to take account of bigoted motivation when sentences are being considered. At the moment, it is completely discretionary. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has observed that its application is inconsistent in sentencing. Will the Minister give a commitment to introduce legislation to tackle this most pressing issue?

I reject the Deputy's hollow criticism. She knows, having served in government as a Minister of State, that any legislation must be informed legislation. If we are to ensure this is the case, the starting point must be a review. I assure her that a review is under way in this instance. I expect that the review will result in legislation. I accept that this is an important and urgent matter.

The House will be aware of the existence of the Garda racial, intercultural and diversity office, which is responsible for co-ordinating, monitoring and advising on all aspects of policing Ireland's diverse communities. The office monitors the reporting and recording of hate and racist crime on a continual basis. The ethnic liaison officers who have been appointed by An Garda Síochána, which is currently receiving unprecedented resources from the Government, work with their counterparts in the racial, intercultural and diversity office to play a fundamental role in liaising with minority groups. The ethnic liaison officers around the State and the staff of the racial, intercultural and diversity office work in partnership to encourage tolerance, respect and understanding within communities, to help to prevent hate and racist crime and to provide advice and assistance to victims of hate or racist crime, as required.

With respect, that is complete waffle.