I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter and I appreciate the urgency of this issue.
The Programme for Government commits to introducing, within 12 months, legislation to address those who target victims because of their association with a particular identity characteristic, and to revise and update the Incitement to Hatred Act. I can assure Deputies that my Department is working to prepare this legislation on hate crime and hate speech as a priority.
As part of this work a comprehensive public consultation has been carried out which included a public survey and an opportunity for stakeholders to make formal submissions. This consultation was conducted to ensure that the Department fully understands the lived experience of those impacted by hate speech and hate crime as well as the views of professionals and other stakeholders in the field. This is necessary to ensure the laws developed are robust, clearly understood and effective in dealing with unacceptable incidents.
I was delighted with the high level of engagement by the public with this topic and can inform the Deputy that my Department received in the region of 3,800 written responses to the consultation, including approximately 175 detailed written submissions.
In addition to this widespread public consultation and in order to ensure we draft legislation that is effective, my Department carried out comparative research on international best practice on hate crime legislation. This research is currently being finalised and I expect it will be published in the coming weeks.
My officials are continuing to analyse all of the materials gathered, as well as other relevant legal and policy information, to ensure that the legislative proposals presented are evidence-based, proportionate and effective, while respecting freedom of expression. There will be a further opportunity for stakeholders to share their views when the legislative proposals on this important issue are published for discussion
As the Deputy may be aware, the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 already prohibits threatening, abusive or insulting conduct that is intended or likely to stir up hatred against a group of persons on account of their sexual orientation, race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origins, or membership of the travelling community. In addition, a hate motive may be considered by sentencing judges as an aggravating factor increasing the sentence imposed, where a person has been found guilty of a crime such as assault.
I am confident that the approach taken to the reform of our legislation in this area - including through the research conducted and providing the opportunity for experts and members of the public to provide their views through consultation - will ensure that the legislation we develop plays a significant part in delivering a safer, fairer and more inclusive Ireland for everyone, now as well as into the future. This is the mission of my Department and as Minister I am fully committed to the fight against racism and prejudice as a key part of this.
I am aware of the horrific attacks referred to by the Deputy which happened in separate incidents in both Cork and Dublin last month. These were truly shocking and I condemn the perpetrators of any violent attack. However, as the incidents are the subject of ongoing Garda investigations, the Deputy will appreciate that I cannot comment further, to avoid prejudicing the investigations or any subsequent prosecutions.
That said, it is worth noting that work on reforming our legislation in this area is complementary to other cross-Government initiatives to tackle racism in Ireland, including the Migrant Integration Strategy 2017-2020 and the recent establishment of the Anti-Racism Committee.
The Committee, chaired by Professor Caroline Fennell of UCC, is tasked with reviewing current evidence and practice and making recommendations to Government on how best to strengthen its approach to tackling racism in all its forms, and provide a draft anti-racism strategy, containing a clear action plan within a year. It is to produce an interim report within three months of first meeting and I look forward to receiving this in due course.