The Free Speech Union says expanding reach of hate crime law in Northern Ireland risks ‘empowering the easily offended and endangering the peace process’
The London-based lobby group made the claim in a report it has produced into the Marrinan reforms – changes to the law which were recommended by former judge Desmond Marrinan in late 2020.
He produced those recommendations after being asked to look into an overhaul of current “hate crime” law by the Department of Justice (DoJ) in summer 2019 (a decision that its civil servants took without a minister being in place).
Out of the 34 recommendations, by this time last year the DoJ had accepted 22 of them, either fully or “in principle”, and pledged to mull over many more.
> Among the things the DoJ accepted was that “the current protected groups (racial, religious, sexual orientation, disability) should continue to be included in legislation, and that transgender identity should be included as a protected group”.
> The DoJ added that “further work will be required on the inclusion of age and sex/gender” – in other words, making “misogyny” a hate crime.
> It also accepts that “there should be a new statutory aggravation for sectarian prejudice”, meaning if a crime was committed with a sectarian dimension to it, the sentence could be higher than if it was an ordinary crime.
> The DoJ also accepted that the proposals in the UK government’s 2019 ‘Online Harms’ White Paper (2019) should be implemented in full; this included the idea of a regulator enforcing a rule that web firms must “do what is reasonably practicable to counter harmful activity or content”, not just illegal content.
> The DoJ also accepted that any new laws should recognise “the importance of intersectionality”.
This is one of the key pieces of jargon used by activists such as feminists, advocates of transgender ideology, and racial campaigners, and essentially means that if someone is a woman, transgender, and black, then they are multiply oppressed across each of these dimensions.
In setting out the terms-of-reference for the Marrinan review, the DoJ had said: “Momentum for a review of this piece of legislation, and the wider legislative framework for the prosecution of incitement to hatred offences have been heavily influenced by wider societal concerns regarding the display of offensive materials at bonfires, and the proliferation of paramilitary flags displayed across Northern Ireland.”
At present the DoJ is understood to be preparing a bill to give effect to the Marrinan recommendations.
Among the things which have alarmed free speech activists is that the DoJ is believed to be eyeing the elimination of the legal defence for “hate speech” on the grounds that it took place in a private dwelling, and aims to replace it with “a private conversation defence”.
The DoJ has previously said it recognises “the importance and challenges around freedom of expression” (and Mr Marrinan has also acknowledge in his own work “the importance of freedom of expression in a modern democratic society”).
WHAT ARE THE FREE SPEECH UNION’S COMPLAINTS?:
The Free Speech Union’s new report into the planned hate crime reforms warns: “Increasing the number of ‘stirring up’ offences, and criminalising expressions of ‘sectarian prejudice’, will harm public debate and risk inflaming existing political tensions in NI by creating a censorious atmosphere that empowers the easily offended and facilitates vexatious complaints. That, in turn, may endanger the peace process.
“The proposals do not take seriously the primacy of the right to freedom of speech in democratic societies or recognise its importance as the chief mechanism by which political division, bigotry and intolerance are addressed without recourse to violence.”
It went on to add that whilst there have been recent annual rises in recorded hate crime in Northern Ireland, “the data used to evidence the extent and seriousness of that problem is unreliable” and any attempt to justify reforms on the basis that hate crime is rising “does not stand up to scrutiny”.
“In fact, it is not clear that the claim that hate crime is rising in Northern Ireland can be straightforwardly evidenced,” the Free Speech Union’s report says.
“An increase in officially recorded ‘hate crime’ does not necessarily mean that individuals are experiencing increased levels of hatred and prejudice in their day to day lives.
“The Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) surveys a very large sample of individuals about their experiences of crime, capturing data that may not have been officially reported to police. It therefore provides a more granular view of people’s actual experiences of crime than official police data.
“In 2018 David Goodheart compared CSEW data with officially recorded police hate crime statistics and found that individual CSEW respondents reported a decrease in experiences of hate crime at the same time that official police records of hate crime increased.
“This mismatch is likely due to the increased seriousness with which the police treat reports of hate crime, but it is not evidence that individuals are experiencing rising levels of hatred in their day to day lives.
“Writing for Policy Exchange, Goodheart [who became one of England & Wales’ Equality and Human Rights Commissioners in 2020] stated ‘it is important to point out that the figures just published do not signify an actual increase in incidents of hate... reports are rising, because there is more encouragement to do so and the police take it far more seriously than they used to, but actual numbers are almost certainly falling”.
LUCID TALK SURVEY:
The Free Speech Union report was accompanied by a survey, conducted by Belfast firm Lucid Talk, which (as the News Letter has reported many times) uses a self-selecting bank of volunteers to complete its polls online, rather than using randomised addresses or phone numbers.
The poll was done between March 31 and April 4, and involved 1,880 responses.
> Among the headline findings were that 61% “feel less free to express themselves than they were 10 years ago”;
> 22% of respondents felt that not using a transgender person’s preferred pronouns should be a hate crime (rising to 38% among 18–24-year-olds);
> 35% said “the law should be changed so people can be prosecuted for stirring up hatred against a protected group even when it cannot be proven that they intended to do so”;
> 63% said that “criminalising ‘sectarianism’ would result in the police being bombarded with complaints about political/religious opponents”;
> 25% of respondents thought people in Northern Ireland “are too free to say what they think”;
> 65% of respondents “agreed that freedom of speech is hindered by political correctness”;
> And 54% “worry that I could get into trouble because of the new hate speech laws by saying something which is misinterpreted”.
One of the most striking findings in the LucidTalk poll was that 17% of respondents “have witnessed or been victim of a hate crime in the last 12 months”.
The News Letter decided to look at how that measures up against the rate of “hate crime” in the general population based on police statistics.
In total, from April 2021 to April 2022 there were 2,236 “hate crimes” recorded by the PSNI.
Added to that were 3,119 “hate incidents” recorded by the PSNI (which police describe as “hate motivated” acts that “may not be of the level of severity that would result in a crime”).
That makes 5,355 “hate incidents” and “hate crimes” out of a Northern Irish population of 1.9 million people.
Assuming each of the 5,355 “hate crimes” and “hate incidents” happened to different people, that would mean roughly 0.28% of the population were victims of such acts in the last year.
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