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Ireland: Sinn Féin drops its support for “hate speech” bill

Ireland: Sinn Féin drops its support for “hate speech” bill

The largest opposition party in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Féin, has changed its stance on proposed hate speech laws, which signals a political shift in the country and means the bill is unlikely to be passed this side of a general election.

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The government of the Republic of Ireland is currently proposing a new hate speech law as part of the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill.

The aim is to give more power to prosecutors to make the issuing of convictions easier.

Currently, defendants can appeal their charges by proving they did not have the intention of transmitting hatred.  The new legislation will hold defendants accountable, even if their actions were unintentional.

The problem is that the terms “hate” and “hatred” are not actually defined in the bill.  Effectively, it is left to the courts to decide what is a “hate speech” crime.

If someone is found guilty of an offence, they could potentially face five years in prison.

Former Justice Minister Michael McDowell has argued that we must “ensure it does not have the effect of having people being dragged before courts by citizens and members of An Garda Síochána [the national police force] who have a particular view of what is or is not hatred, because we were too lazy to define our terms.”  It has the potential to encourage people to take offence and use the legislation to silence political adversaries.

McDowell also expressed concern that the legislation will create a broad chilling effect on freedom of expression as people “take many steps to avoid the danger of being prosecuted and shut their mouths.”

One academic, Tim Crowley, has expressed concern the bill could put pressure on academics and researchers to publicly accept state-mandated accounts of historical events.

One draconian section of the bill states that preparing or possessing material that is likely to incite hatred or violence could be a criminal offence. This would make it a crime, for example, to possess allegedly hateful material on an electronic device that might then be publicly shared by the person in possession of it or somebody else. The person in possession will be “presumed, until the contrary is proved,” to have committed a crime. This essentially presumes one is guilty until proven innocent.

Socialist Member of Parliament Paul Murphy said “It is extremely problematic to create this new category of thought crime,” and that “[p]ersons can be criminalised for having hateful material on their computer but without having published it or caused incitement to hatred or a consequence for anybody else.”

The protected characteristics in the new legislation include race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability. It will also be an offence to publicly communicate material that condones, denies or trivialises genocide, war crimes, as well as crimes against humanity.

The Irish government used the riots in Dublin last November as a reason to fast-track the new legislation. The day after the riots, Leo Varadkar said: “It’s now obvious to anyone who might have doubted it that our incitement to hatred legislation is just not up to date for the social media age.”

Referring to influential social media accounts that uttered racist and anti-immigration rhetoric, Varadkar announced that “[w]e need laws to be able to go after them individually … They’re to blame and we’re going to get them.”

The bill has been approved by the government and is currently proceeding through the Seanad Éireann (the upper house of parliament or Senate). Despite calls to abandon the legislation after the government badly lost two referendums this month, Varadkar’s decision to step down as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and the country’s prospective new leader, Simon Harris, facing an uphill battle to be officially crowned his successor, they plan to proceed with it, albeit with possible amendments. 

Last week, Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the IRA paramilitary group, was criticised by politicians on both the left and the right as it signalled that it would drop support for the controversial hate speech legislation. This comes despite previous support for the very same legislation in the Irish parliament (Dáil Éireann or Dáil).

Sinn Féin’s change of heart on hate speech legislation means that the Republic will likely be without UK-style hate speech laws this side of a general election.

On Monday, Irish Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail Neale Richmond admitted on The Tonight Show that Ireland’s hate speech legislation is “unlikely” to pass through the Dáil “in its current format,” and that many proposed amendments are being reviewed.

“Realistically, I think there is a review process underway … there’s an awful lot of amendments to review,” he said and explained how it’s hard to see the hate speech bill progress through the Dáil in its current format.

Teachta Dála (Member of Parliament) Barry Cowen agreed.  “I think it’s going, going, gone,” Cowen said.  “In its present form, it’s going nowhere.”

Sources for this article include:

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