A Life Free from Fear

A Life Free From Fear – James Carr, Jennifer Schweppe and Amanda Haynes

Jennifer Schweppe

Jennifer Schweppe

In an earlier post, Piotr Godzisz raised the question of an east-west divide in understanding and challenging hate crime. Piotr’s blog highlights significant differences between East and Western Europe in the lens through which hate crime is understood, and consequently the manner in which it is addressed. The example of Ireland highlights the degree of dissimilarity that can exist even within those territories.

In May of 2014 the Hate and Hostility Research Group based at the University of Limerick published a report on the legislative landscape concerning hate crime in Ireland. The Life Free From Fear Report provides important insights into manifestations of hate crime in Ireland. More than this though, the Report has become an important platform from which to argue for legislative change when it comes to addressing hate crime in the Irish context.

As is stated in the Report “the absence of hate crime legislation on our statute books [in Ireland] is glaring”. While at both national and international levels attention has been drawn to the need for hate crime legislation in Ireland, the Report is unique in the manner in which it brings together a diverse range of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), representing a range of identity groups, to examine their experiences as key stakeholders in relation to hate crime. The Report also provides insights into the degree of consensus across CSOs regarding the need for legislative remedy in the area of hate crime in the Irish context. In all, fourteen unique bodies participated in the research. These included major national networks and umbrella groups. The insights provided through engagement with these representative organisations offer a contemporary view of hate crime in Ireland ‘from below’ and of the grassroots momentum for hate crime legislation. Although primarily focusing on these important CSO perspectives, the Report also includes an overview of legislative options employed in other jurisdictions which may usefully be applied here.  Focussing on hate crime as opposed to incitement offences, the Report notes how internationally, hate crimes can be addressed through the criminal law – that is, as specifically defined aggravated offences or through sentence enhancement measures.

The Report notes that in the current context, the judiciary in Ireland may recognise the ‘hate’ aspect of a criminal act at the point of sentencing and use their discretion to treat that element as an aggravating factor. However there is no obligation on them to do so. Explicit guidance in the area of sentencing ‘hate’ is also absent in Ireland. In this sense, the Report gives substance to the CSO’s position that the “Irish legal system is largely incapable of punishing hate crimes adequately” and is inconsistent and haphazard when it comes to dealing with hate crime.

It is well noted in the literature that hate crimes are message crimes, essentially telling those individuals targeted, and the communities with which they are identified, that they do not belong. Hate crime legislation can also send a message. Such legislation can communicate to those who engage in hate crime that society values and will protect difference and authenticity. Recognising hate crime through the introduction and implementation of legislation also sends an important message of support to those who have been the target of ‘hate’.

Participating CSOs represent people from LGBT communities, the Traveller Community, migrants, people with disabilities  and the anti-racism sector. These community advocates noted how their service users experience hate crime – targeted on the basis of who they are or are perceived to be, in isolation or at intersection. Hate crimes manifested as assault, harassment and sexual assault among other offences. The CSOs reported, dishearteningly, how normalised experiences of hate crime are for their service users in Ireland. The impact of normalised ‘hate’ on individuals and communities is a life of fear wherein safety and security are compromised and victims and potential victims are charged with managing their behaviours; their personal and social space; their lives; their expression to limit risk.

In terms of legislation, not one of the participating CSOs felt that the current legislative context in Ireland was sufficient to support the needs of their service users – regardless of their identity.  While a diverse range of identity groups are represented in the Report, it is striking to see the similarities of experience. The commonality of experiences and the shared frustration with current legislative provisions prompted the current large-scale research being undertaken by the Hate and Hostility Research Group (HHRG) in the University of Limerick.

Arising from the successful and highly publicised launch of the Report in September of 2014, Minister of State at the Department of Justice Aodháin Ó Ríordáin made a formal approach to the HHRG requesting the formulation and submission of draft hate crime legislation. Work on draft legislation commenced in earnest in October 2014. The comparative evaluation of international legislative policy and practice in the area of hate crime presented in the Report has been developed extensively (includes Canada, England and Wales and Northern Ireland); providing unique insights and understandings which have been used to inform the current draft legislative proposals.

Fundamental to the development of such legislative proposals is the involvement of key stakeholders from the CSO sector and from across the criminal justice system (CJS). Commencing in February, researchers from the HHRG have been presenting these draft proposals to those individuals and organisations who are best placed to constructively critique what is currently on the table. This process permits stakeholders who will be impacted by any new legislation to feed into its development. More fundamentally, this phase of fieldwork is essential to further establishing the case for legislative reform.

Fieldwork continues apace at time of writing and the HHRG is on schedule to present draft legislation, informed by the aforementioned groups, to the Minister. If accepted, we aim that the final draft proposals will move Ireland from being an international ‘outlier’ to a state referred to as a model of best practice when it comes to challenging hate crime through legislation that is fit not only for today but future proofed for tomorrow

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