A consultation paper was launched on Wednesday, January 8 to give the public the opportunity to have their say into the review of hate crime legislation in Northern Ireland.

The first public outreach event in relation to the consultation paper will be held in Fermanagh House, Enniskillen on Thursday, January 16 at 6.30pm.

The Hate Crime Review, was set up in June, 2019 and is being led by Judge Desmond Marrinan and is to consider whether existing hate crime legislation represents the most effective approach for the justice system to deal with criminal conduct motivated by hatred, malice, ill-will or prejudice, including hate crime and abuse which takes place online.

The review follows a commitment by Claire Sugden, who was then the Minister of Justice, to review all hate crime legislation in Northern Ireland because there had been a number of questions and criticisms of it with Judge Marrinan saying the time was ripe for a review as the legislation here was never designed as a “specific suite of hate crime laws”.

In Northern Ireland there is a higher number of hate crime incidents than there is compared to England, Wales and Scotland with a hate incident reported eight times a day here.

“The aims of the review are essentially set out in the remit for the review, for example, to consider and provide recommendations on a workable and agreed definition what is a hate crime,” explained Judge Marrinan. At present there are technically no hate crime laws in Northern Ireland as well as no workable and agreed definition of what a hate crime is.

“What we have is any offence that there is an indication of hostility based on any of the protected characteristics which are race, religion, sexual orientation and disability can be enhanced if the judge takes the view there was a an aggravation caused by the attitude of dislike based on one of these characteristics and can increase the sentence but that’s very much after the case has been decided. We have been specifically asked in our remit to consider a workable and agreed definition what is a hate crime. The definition that I have fixed on tentatively for consultation is ‘a hate crime is an act of violence hostility or intimidation directed towards people because of their identity or perceived difference’.”

The review is timely according to Judge Marrinan as he says hate crime has taken on a “new lease of life” with the emergence of social media a major contributing factor. He also says the types of hate crimes in Northern Ireland have changed in recent times with racial incidents of hate crime overtaking sectarian hate crimes here.

Judge Marrinan points to PSNI statistics over the last three years which show racial hate crimes are as likely as one in every 31 while sectarian hate crimes are 1 in every 1,700. “The face of hate crime has changed. What we see reported to the police is the tip of a very large iceberg. It is estimated something like 80 per cent of all hate incidents and crimes go unreported for all types of reasons. It is much easier for people of a hateful disposition to stir up false propaganda. There is a real problem with social media. Unfortunately it’s not just loners who sit in their attics and put things online but also politicians it seems generally throughout the world use more strident nationalistic and hateful language than has perhaps been the situation in the past. People take their cues from that and one thing feeds on the other.”

One of the most important questions of the review will be if the legislation her is sufficient to deal with hate crime and Judge Marrinan says serious questions have been raised over the efficiency of laws in Northern Ireland, but he also says something needs be done from a societal and educational standpoint.

“Criminal law can only deal with a certain part of crime and hate and clearly there is a lot of work to be done in other aspects of this problem.”

And the review will see what can be done to make sure legislation in Northern Ireland is strong enough with the findings expected to be delivered in the summer of 2020. Registration is not essential for the outreach events but it would be helpful if you could indicate your interest in attending any of the events by emailing your contact details and preferred event location to registration@hatecrimereviewni.org.uk