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Controversy in Ireland over hate speech bill

Photo: Harry Nakos Associated Press The embarrassment of the Irish Prime Minister, Simon Harris, is perceptible, even if he did not wish to block the project.

When Irish author Paul Lynch won the prestigious Booker Prize last fall, the news caused a stir in Ireland. And it wasn't just because his book, Prophet Song, was the sixth by an Irish author to win since the prize's inception in 1969 The book describes an apocalyptic Ireland, where riots, clashes and vandalism are commonplace, to the point that the Daily Telegraph called the book “~60.” ~i>1984Irish”. Some saw it as a metaphor for a country torn apart for a year by numerous demonstrations, but also occupations and arson of premises intended to house asylum seekers. Some have even gone so far as to draw a parallel between the police state that Lynch describes and a new law the government is preparing on hate speech.

According to the former Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and his Minister of Justice, Helen McEntee, this bill – currently blocked in the Senate – aims to “modernize our laws against incitement to hatred” and to “adapt them to the age social media”. It was enough to provoke controversy not only in Ireland, but also abroad.

In one of his secret outbursts, tycoon Elon Musk, owner of the X network, threatened to sue the Irish government for violating freedom of expression. The son of the Republican candidate for the American presidency, Donald Trump Jr, added by describing the future law as “insane”. Former Irish Defense Minister Willie O'Dea accused Helen McEntee of “courting the wokes”.

What is “hate” ?

“But the debate also deeply tears the government,” says Eoin O’Dell, professor of law at Trinity College Dublin. “Half of the ministers and deputies are against, in particular those from rural regions, who see it as a symbolic law of the sores of the big cities, [a law] particularly supported by the Greens, who participate in the government coalition. »

Sparked by a European directive, the project aims to protect ethnic, racial, religious, disabled and sexual minorities from “hateful speech”. Its defenders believe that the current law, dating from 1989, lacks teeth, because barely 50 prosecutions have been undertaken in 25 years. While the present law considers, for example, racism as an aggravating factor, the new law would automatically transform any racist remarks into a crime.

According to the old law, racist remarks were only punished if they had a concrete effect. According to the new law, their simple utterance could result in conviction.

— Eoin O’Dell

Eoin O’Dell gives the real example of a bus driver who attacked a black woman with racist insults. The bus passengers immediately came to his defense, so the incident ended there. The driver was therefore not convicted, because his comments had no obvious consequences and did not involve incitement to racism. “Under the old law, racist remarks were only punished if they had a concrete effect. According to the new law, their simple utterance could result in conviction. »

But the main reason why this bill arouses a lot of reluctance, particularly among lawyers, is the absence of a real definition of what constitutes hate speech, explains political scientist Eoin O'Malley, of Dublin City University. “There is a definition, but it has the word ‘hate’ in it. It is therefore circular and leaves room for interpretation. The minister believes that it is preferable to remain vague and for the courts to judge on the basis of what is “normally” understood by hatred. The problem is that it will no longer be necessary to prove the intention or the motive, it will be enough to prove that it was “hate”. »

The Scottish example

The other most controversial article is the one that would criminalize the production and possession of “hate material”, including authorizing the seizure of computers and phones likely to contain such material. “Again, one wonders how this might be interpreted by the judges,” says Eoin O’Malley. “Could these lawsuits be used to prevent certain groups from making their case against, say, migration policies?”

Someone who, by example, has a copy of Mein Kampf in his library could he be prosecuted ? “It’s not out of the question,” said Eoin O’Dell. “The accused could defend himself by arguing that he needs it for professional reasons, if he is a historian for example. It would then be necessary to decide between the law and individual rights. Here, we are really in the dark. However, I have always thought that the most vague laws are the worst. » The jurist is also convinced that such a law would not pass the test of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

[The bill] allows prosecutions to be initiated on the basis of simple comments made by citizens and, even if there were not many convictions, being subjected to such a procedure can only incite self-censorship in certain key policy areas.

— Eoin O’Malley

According to him, the embarrassment of the new Irish Prime Minister, Simon Harris, is perceptible, even if he did not wish to block the project firmly supported by his minister and which has already gone through three of the five necessary steps before its adoption. But he could get out of it, believes Eoin O’Dell, by submitting it to the Supreme Court, an authorized but exceptional approach in Ireland.

Despite opposition from 68% of Scots, a similar law, the Hate Crime and Public Order Act, was recently enacted in Scotland after much controversy. Opposition was particularly evident on the right, but also in unions and authors' associations. The writer J. K. Rowling was notably threatened with prosecution under this new law because of her very critical positions with regard to gender theory. “If you sincerely believe that I am going to destroy all my tweets where I affirm that a man is a man so as not to be prosecuted by this ridiculous law, know that it will be a huge April Fool's joke,” the author of the Harry Potter series announced on March 17 to her 14 million subscribers on the X network.

The wind is turning

“It is too early to assess how Scottish law will be applied,” says Eoin O’Malley. But in Ireland, the opposition has moved up a notch since the No victory in the recent referendum on family policy. Some 73% of people surveyed by online media outlet Gript said they were opposed to it in May last year. Even if the Greens recall that this law is “a major commitment of the government”, the majority deputies James O'Connor (Fianna Fail) and Michael Ring (Fine Gael), who voted for the bill at first reading, called for its abandonment. As did former Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.

The main opposition party, Sinn Féin, has completely backpedaled, even though all its MPs had voted for the bill barely a year ago. Met in the Irish parliament, its candidate for the European elections, Lynn Boylan, flatly refused to answer our questions on the subject. A sign that the issue could not be more delicate within the party.

For Eoin O'Malley, there is little doubt that this bill is “a door open to abuse.” “It allows prosecutions to be initiated based on simple comments made by citizens and, even if there were not many convictions, being subjected to such a procedure can only lead to self-censorship in some key policy areas. »

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116