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Love over hate

Ireland is delinquent on hate-crime legislation and should now enact the bill published last year

On March 8 this year – International Women’s Day – Dubliner Victoria Curtis posted a photograph of her recently bruised face on Facebook, and wrote:

“This is what misogyny looks like. This is what being a faggot looks like. This is what happens women on Saturday nights walking home with their friends. This is what a man did to me after I told him it wasn’t cool for him to tell us to take off our trousers, pull down our knickers and show him our arses …This is Ireland 2016”.

Curtis’ post went viral, grabbing the attention of national radio, momentarily re-opening the much needed national conversation about hate crime. The discussion provided a sober reminder, after marriage equality, that in spite of formal equality before the law Ireland in 2016 isn’t yet an equally safe place for all who live here.

Almost uniquely among members of the European Union (EU) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Republic of Ireland lacks effective hate-crime legislation (not counting the inoperable 1989 Incitement to Hatred Act). In this regard our government has come in for multiple criticisms from the Council of Europe’s Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), and the United Nation’s Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). It is likely also that the State will be deemed in breach of the 2008 EU Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia, and the 2012 Victims Directive.

For some years a coalition of NGOs representing, migrants, Travellers and other ethnic minorities, lesbian, gay and transgender communities, and disabled people, has been working closely with members of the Oireachtas, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and academics at the University of Limerick who produced ‘Out of the Shadows’, an evidence-based roadmap for addressing hate crime. It was hoped that at its launch there would be an announcement by government that it would present the accompanying Criminal Law (Hate Crime) Bill 2015 for enactment. The bill provides a solid formal mechanism for gardaí to identify a racist or other bias-motivated element in a crime, and for the courts to consider this at sentencing. It promised to be a very welcome first step for groups most likely to be the targets of bias-motivated violence. To the surprise of the groups involved, this anticipated move by the government did not happen.

Only days later, on July 22 2015 – International Day Against Hate Crime – The Examiner broke the story about “Jane”, a working mother living in west Dublin whose young family had been subjected to a years-long and escalating campaign of racist bullying, harassment, threats and criminal damage, culminating in two masked men spraying “Blacks Out” on her living-room window and front door, and slashing all the tyres on her car. After six years of investing in relationships in her local community Jane threw in the towel, took her children out of school, and fled to stay with relatives in Donegal. In spite of some of the best will, Gardai and the local authority were powerless to protect Jane and her children.

Jane’s experience is not unusual. The confidential racist incident reporting system, administered by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) Ireland, records around 140 criminal acts motivated by racism each year, while the State with all its resources logs fewer than 40. Action Against Racism (AAR) is an ENAR-Ireland-supported campaigning group comprising people who have experienced racism and who are determined that our Republic should – as the name requires – promotes a safe sense of belonging and participation for all who live here. This year AAR launched the Love Not Hate campaign to push for the enactment of Hate Crime legislation by the nex government. The campaign has produced promotional material, including brochures and a video that has gone viral, explaining how hate crime works. On March 19, to mark European Day Against Racism, members of AAR dressed as love-hearts and offered free hugs to amused shoppers on Dublin’s Grafton Street. The tactic was very effective in supplementing the online petition that has already collected thousands of signatures. There will be a strong Love Not Hate contingent at this year’s Dublin Pride march.

Hate-crime laws are not a panacea, and on their own will not eliminate the structural and institutional racism (and other forms of bias) of which hate crimes are a violent manifestation. But in the UK, Sweden and Finland, where such laws have been embedded for longest, the data show that they can provide a criminal justice system with a range of instruments that can facilitate the targeting of behaviours, and the promotion of a culture where in future Victoria Curtis will be able to challenge bigotry, and “Jane” will be able to live and work in a neighbourhood and raise her children, without fear.

Shane O’Curry is the director of ENAR Ireland, a network of 50 organisations campaigning for political and cultural change on racism. ENAR Ireland manages, Ireland’s independent racist-incident-reporting mechanism.

By Shane O’Curry