NI hate crime reviewer: People should not be free to abuse Islam and Christianity

A retired judge who was tasked with reviewing Northern Ireland’s “hate crime” laws has indicated that people should not be at liberty to “abuse” religion.

Monday, 12th July 2021, 8:35 am
Updated Monday, 12th July 2021, 3:13 pm
Desmond Marrinan

Desmond Marrinan had last year examined the idea of expanding such laws, and his nearly 1,000-page report made 34 recommendations.

These included creating new categories of “hate crime”, setting up a Hate Crime Commissioner, and requiring social media firms to collect “verifiable personal information” from users (so they could no longer be totally anonymous).

The Criminal Justice Order of 2004 means that someone’s sentence can be increased “where it is proven that the basic offence of which a person has been convicted was motivated by hostility against one of the currently protected characteristics”.

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These protected characteristics are race, religion, sexual orientation or disability.

Mr Marrinan recommended expanding this to include age and sex / gender.

He also said that in addition to “hostility”, hate crime should also be defined as something motivated by “bias, prejudice, bigotry or contempt”.

Setting out his position in a meeting of Stormont’s justice committee on Thursday, Mr Marrinan stressed how important it is to ensure freedom of speech and religion are protected in any re-writing of the law, saying he is sensitive to the fears of faith-based groups that their rights could be curbed.

He went on to say that the European Court has said “everyone should have the right to shock, offend and disturb”.

But he continued: “I would have thought one could make a criticism of another religion quite easily, by shocking, offending and disturbing, without going the extra mile.

“What do I mean by the extra mile? Well, it may interest you to know that in England and Wales the so-called ‘religious defence’ allows those who wish to criticise other people’s religions not only to do that – to shock, offend, disturb – but to actually abuse other people’s religion.

“Now that’s a word that particularly in Northern Ireland I find a bit chilling.

“If you want to criticise someone else’s religion – say that Islam is wrong, idolatrous, whatever you want to say, or make similar criticisms of Christianity – good luck to you.

“That’s what living in a free democratic society means.

“But to go further and abuse someone else’s religion is too far... and I don’t really understand why it’s there in the law in England and Wales.”

He said the word “abuse” in the Oxford Dictionary can mean “to vilify another person” and that “the last thing we need in Northern Ireland is people going around vilifying”.

Mr Marrinan’s review was completed last November.

At the time, justice minister Naomi Long hailed his work as “thorough” and the product of wide consultation.

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