Why is Ireland’s hate crime bill attracting so much hate of its own?

Critics say the bill could have a ‘chilling’ effect on the freedom of speech and stifle debate about important issues.

Activists from the CitizenGO advocacy group stage a symbolic protest outside Leinster House, the Irish parliament building, demanding the immediate scrapping of the 'Woke Hate Speech' bill, on May 22, 2024 [Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Dublin, Ireland — In Ireland, a proposed hate speech law has become the focus of fierce debate among citizens, activists and politicians. The bill, which is currently being considered by the Irish senate, has attracted both strong support and criticism in Ireland and beyond, even drawing the attention of Elon Musk who is embroiled in separate legal battles with the governments of Brazil and Australia over their attempts to curtail content deemed to be harmful, such as misinformation, violent material and racist speech.

Critics say the definition of hate contained in the bill is vague and worry it signals a crackdown on free expression, while the bill’s supporters say the legislation will help protect certain groups which have been overlooked before now.

Political party Sinn Fein recently called for the bill to be scrapped, despite earlier supporting it. Some TDs (Teachtai Dala – or members of the Irish parliament) and the former minister for justice, Charlie Flanagan, have also called for the bill to be scrapped and urged new Irish leader Simon Harris to focus on issues such as housing, health and the justice system instead.

Meanwhile, figures from the Irish police (Gardai) in May revealed that 651 hate crimes occurred in 2023 – a 12 percent increase from the previous year. The most prevalent discriminatory motives in those recorded crimes were classed as anti-race, anti-nationality and anti-sexual orientation.

Responding to the figures, senior policy officer for the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Luna Lara Liboni, said hate crimes and hostility towards some vulnerable communities are “a growing reality in Ireland”. “These numbers should serve as a wake-up call for all public representatives and political parties as to date, Ireland still has no hate crime legislation.”

Why is Ireland introducing a new hate crimes law?

Ireland currently does not have any specific laws concerning hate crimes, making the country an outlier in the European Union.

As its name suggests, the new bill – called the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022 – has been some time in the making.

A new law would overhaul the 1989 Incitement To Hatred Act. This existing act, which predates social media, does not cover issues such as gender expression or identity, disability or ethnicity. It also allows those who have been charged with “stirring up” hate via abusive, insulting or threatening material to use “ignorance of content” as a defence.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, who introduced the bill in October 2022, said unlike other crimes, hate crimes tell the victim they are “not safe, simply because of who they are”, adding that crimes motivated by prejudice lead to “divided” communities.

Helen McEntee
Helen McEntee, Ireland’s minister for justice, who introduced the new hate crimes bill in 2022, said hate crimes lead to ‘divided’ communities [File: Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images]

Adam Long, a board director with the National LGBT Federation (NXF) who is based in Tipperary, western Ireland, said the legislation needs to be enacted as a priority to respond to a recent “scourge of hate and extremism”.

“The legislation is too important to be derailed,” he said. “Despite the highly popular gay marriage referendum 2015, the LGBT+ community still experiences hate crime. There has been a 30 percent increase in recorded hate crimes according to 2022 figures.”

Long said most hate crimes are not recorded, adding that victims of hate are 12 times more likely to be traumatised than victims of other crimes. The Council of Europe found just 14 percent of LGBTQ victims report a hate crime.

Currently, the European Union does not require member states to enact legislation relating to hate crimes, but member states are expected to adhere to certain principles outlined in EU law, including those related to combating discrimination and promoting equality.

What does the Irish hate crimes bill say?

The new law would make a person liable for a hate crime, even if they claim it wasn’t intentional. If prosecuted, offenders’ records will state they committed a hate crime. The bill will allow prosecutors to rely on a person’s use of gestures, symbols or slurs when bringing a case under the new law.

In the proposed legislation, hate crimes are identified as acts perpetrated against people that fall within the following 10 protected characteristics: race, colour, nationality, religion, national or ethnic origin, descent, gender, sex characteristics, sexual orientation and disability. The Bill also criminalises genocide denial.

The bill would also grant more powers to the police. Section 15 of the legislation, for example, gives the Irish police (Gardai) extensive powers of search and seizure in relation to hate crimes According to the Bill. People found guilty of hate crimes could face fines or imprisonment.

Having passed through the Dail, which is the lower house of the Oireachtas (Irish legislature) in April 2023, with 110 votes for and 14 votes against, the bill is currently being considered in the Irish Senate.

Why has the new law drawn criticism?

Most criticism of the bill centres around freedom of speech and freedom of religion. In late May, the advocacy group, CitizenGO led a protest outside the parliament building in Dublin, demanding the immediate scrapping of what it called the “Woke Hate Speech” bill.

Among the bill’s foreign critics are tech millionaire Elon Musk, who has promised to finance legal challenges to the law; Donald Trump Jr, the former US president’s son; and JD Vance, a Republican Ohio senator who likened it to “censorious conduct from China, Myanmar, or Iran”.

Peadar Toibin, leader of the socially conservative political party Aontu and a member of the Irish parliament, denounced it as a “censorship bill that must be binned”. He told Al Jazeera that he believes the government is “seeking to shut down free expression and debate”.

He argued that the law is too vague about what constitutes “hate”. “There is no definition of ‘hate’ and no definition of ‘gender’,” Toibin said. “If the government is going to criminalise a citizen, they have to set out clear legal parameters.

“Most people are happy with respecting how people are presenting. But this is social engineering. A chasm exists between the people and political classes and NGOs here.” He claimed that the people of Ireland don’t want a bill which “punishes them for articulating different views on certain issues”.

Peadar Toibin
Leader of the socially conservative Irish political party, Aontu, Peadar Toibin has described the proposed Irish hate crimes law as ‘a censorship bill that must be binned’ [File: Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images]

Barrister Laoise de Brun, who leads The Countess, a nonprofit organisation that advocates for the rights and interests of women and children, said the bill would have a “chilling” effect on society, as it could stifle healthy debate.

“The possession of a poster, placard, meme or tweet is enough for an offence to be made out,” de Brun said.

“The argument for this draconian, oppressive and chilling provision would appear to boil down to, ‘Hate is bad, hate is whatever you feel, trans people experience a lot of hate and we need to do something’.”

Which aspects of the new law have caused the most concern?

De Brun said the law could have serious consequences for anyone wishing to discuss the issues of transgender rights and immigration. “It is attempting to quash and indeed criminalise conversations in the public sphere about trans ideology and about immigration,” she said. “Whilst it is obvious to any sane person we need to have a measured, grown-up conversation about these topics this bill would make dissent from the official narrative and the orthodoxy, unlawful.”

Colette Colfer, a lecturer in world religions and social ethics at South East Technical University in Waterford said she had “serious concerns about the [the bill’s] definition of gender”. The proposed legislation defines “gender” as the gender someone who identifies with or expresses as their preference, and encompasses transgender identities and genders.

“This suggests that gender identity, rather than biological sex should take precedence in matters of law, society and culture,” said Colfer. “The theory is, for example, that biological males who identify as women should compete in women’s sports.” Many people believe this is deeply unfair to women and girls who are naturally disadvantaged by not having undergone male puberty.

Colfer said that, therefore, while discrimination against transgender people must be tackled, debate about gender identity must also be permitted without people fearing personal attacks or the loss of their livelihoods.

She highlighted the case of Roisin Murphy, the Irish singer, who was lambasted as “transphobic” by activists for trans rights when she suggested on social media that puberty blockers might be harmful to children, calling them “absolutely desolate” and stating: “Big pharma are laughing all the way to the bank.” Many LGBTQ fans disavowed their support of her as a result.

Criminologist Trina O’Connor, who is based in Dublin, said she also believes legislation is required to tackle sexist hate speech. “Words can be very damaging to people’s psychological and emotional wellbeing. When it becomes regular or systematic, it becomes dangerous.”

She added, however, that she fears the bill would make it harder for people to air their concerns about important issues such as immigration, and “cancel culture makes conversations difficult”.

“We need a campaign around education and dialogue in our multicultural society. Victims need voices, perpetrators need to hear the harm they are causing. We need to be allies and support people and make people feel safe.”

Rather than just “cancelling” people whose views we do not agree with, therefore, she said: “We need infrastructure and integration to deal with mass immigration. Otherwise there will be ghettos and communities will turn on each other as hate speech becomes hate crime.”

How has the government responded to criticism of the bill?

Fine Gael party Senator Barry Ward denied that the bill would pose a threat to freedom of speech. “Under the Irish Hate Speech law, you can express your views and are entitled to them,” he said.

He added that freedom of expression “is a protected right in both the Irish constitution and European Convention of Human Rights”, and was therefore not in danger.

He also denied that the definition of “hate” was insufficiently precise. “Everyone knows what hate means. You don’t have to define it.

“The Irish bill does not outlaw people from being offended or offensive. You can say a trans woman is not a woman. What you can’t do is take your view and extrapolate and incite hatred.”

However, in a sign that the government is taking concerns on board, prime minister Simon Harris said he hopes to pass an amended version of the bill with “constructive amendments and clarification”.

For the bill to become law, it must be passed in parliament (the Irish Dail) and the senate.

How have hate crime laws fared in other countries?

In Scotland, the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act came into force on April 1, 2024. It states that anyone who incites hatred on the basis of trans identity or sexual orientation among other protected characteristics, could face prison.

Critics, again, say the law is too vague about what constitutes “hate”, however.

“Harry Potter” author JK Rowling challenged the bill as soon as it was introduced, by describing several transgender women as “men” – an act deemed “hateful” by many in the United Kingdom – in a string of posts on X and dared police to arrest her. The Scottish police later issued a statement that Rowling had not committed a crime.

Rowling has been strongly criticised – and has endured death threats and threats of violence against her – for her belief that womanhood hinges on biological sex. She regularly publicly discusses her concerns about how the push for greater rights for transgender people could harm single-sex provisions for women and girls.

In Finland, the former interior minister, Paivi Rasanen, a practising Christian, was criminally prosecuted for hate speech against gay people when she made comments in 2019 that she said were backed up by the Bible. The state prosecutor took action against her, saying her comments, one of which questioned why the Finnish Lutheran Church was supporting Pride Week, were likely to cause intolerance, contempt and hatred towards gay people.

Rasanen was found not guilty in 2022, but the public prosecutor has lodged an appeal which may lead to years of legal process.

Source: Al Jazeera