Those who followed last week’s confidence debate could be forgiven if they thought the government and opposition couldn’t agree on the time of day, let alone something more important.
The coalition, it was repeatedly said, was “weak, ineffective…confused, directionless…out of touch” – and that was just the input of Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. It was not without reason that she accused him of “repeated incompetence”.
It is therefore surprising that there is such broad bipartisan support in the Dáil for the forthcoming incitement to hate and hate crime bill.
What do left/right politicians like so much about legislation that would allow them to control speech they don’t like? It’s a puzzle in order.
In fact, Attorney General Helen McEntee said last week that she intends to strengthen the bill to give it “teeth”.
By this she means that it will be easier to prosecute people found guilty of inciting hatred against people, either in traditional media or online because of their race, colour, national origin, religion, ethnic or national origin, sexual orientation , gender (including gender expression and identity), and disability. That all sounds very admirable.
Why should hate be tolerated?
But, as always, it depends on how “incitement to hatred” is defined and who gets to define it. The current challenge is to prove that words were actually “motivated” by hate.
Now a statement from the Justice Department has confirmed that people are prosecuted because their words or actions are seen as “proven” hatred, which in turn brings one squarely back to the question of who gets to decide when hate has “been demonstrated”. The answer, defenders of the bill might say, lies in the courts.
They will, however, be relying on the laws passed by the Oireachtas, which is why it’s so important to get them right from the start.
There’s a good reason why there’s always been a high legal bar before convicting people, and that’s because of the potentially devastating impact law enforcement can have on the individuals involved.
People have lost jobs because something stupid was said in the heat of the moment, either in real life or online. Some have killed themselves. In many cases, these are vulnerable, damaged people with low self-esteem and impulse control, who often suffer from depression or substance abuse.
A Welsh teenager was recently convicted of allegedly shouting “is it a boy or is it a girl?” when passing a transgender police officer in the street.
Despite suffering from Asperger’s, anxiety and depression, his offense’s category was raised from “low” to “moderate” because it was deemed transphobic by police.
He was fined, ordered to pay compensation to the victim and given a 12-week curfew – the definition of taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
The justice minister insists there will still be a high bar for law enforcement, but evidence from other countries suggests otherwise. Taking maladjusted people to court for being found guilty of “hate” is not a progressive dream, but an authoritarian nightmare.
The really worrying thing Helen McEntee said last week was this: “We all have the right to be safe, to feel safe.”
To be on the safe side. But “feeling safe” is an entirely subjective state of mind.
The government is effectively declaring that in the future it will ignore what a suspected perpetrator of a hate crime imagines, while at the same time granting full legal protection to what someone imagines when they are on the receiving end of certain words.
The Welsh teenager was convicted because the police officer he spoke to was “upset and embarrassed”.
Is that really a high bar?
Shockingly, this is all happening with very little debate because politicians in a mutually affirmative bubble have decided it makes them look good — or, in McEntee’s case, arguably boosts their leadership aspirations.
When laws are introduced without scrutiny – as was the case with the Gender Recognition Act 2015, which allowed anyone in Ireland to ‘identify’ unquestioningly as any gender, it simply fuels suspicions that politicians are intent on conspiring with one another to impose radicals Social change under the radar.
Where are the voices in Ireland willing to declare, as Tory lead candidate Kemi Badenoch did in the UK, that “we shouldn’t legislate on hurt feelings”?
Instead, anyone in Ireland who raises concerns about introducing new legislation without proper debate is dismissed as an extremist who wants to enable hate speech against minorities when it is supporters of the forthcoming bill who are exploiting people’s fears for political gain.
You have form in this department. Following the killing of two gay men in Sligo in April, the Tánaiste shamefully wondered aloud if the crimes represented “a backlash against the progress we’ve made as a country”.
Activists still cynically cite such horrific incidents as reasons why hate crime legislation is needed.
The Incitement to Hate and Hate Crime Act will become law. This is inevitable. Politicians of all stripes have lashed out in such justifiable outrage at the horrible things being said online that they will back any legislation put to them as long as it can be described as progressive and “friendly”.
It is also the will of the EU that such legislation be introduced across the bloc. Nobody will challenge it.
But it is a lot of politicians who, on the one hand, lament the toxic culture wars allegedly being imported into Ireland by those they disagree with, while themselves fomenting a larger culture war by introducing laws restricting and criminalizing free speech.
The only reason opposition politicians who hate the government are in it is because they are playing the long game. They simply hope that one day they will be able to silence dissenting voices as well.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/legislating-for-hurt-feelings-is-a-dangerous-move-41845217.html Legislating hurt feelings is a dangerous move