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Senators discuss “chilling” implications of Hate Speech bill as fight to amend controversial law reaches Seanad

Senator Sharon Keogan has described the implications of proposed hate speech legislation as “chilling” at a meeting hosted by advocacy group Free Speech Ireland in Dublin this afternoon. 

Keogan, who attended the meeting along with Senator Rónán Mullen, said that the law unamended would give Gardaí  powers to remove personal devices from not only named individuals but also anyone sharing an address with them for an ‘unspecified’ amount of time. 

She said she was “really concerned” about what she described as “Garda overreach” adding that this would be something she would be “focusing on” as the bill passes through the Seanad. 

Describing the media’s reaction to the bill as ‘slow’ she urged citizens who oppose the legislation to contact their Senators saying that heavy amendment was needed to ensure the protection of freedom of expression, or failing this, that the bill should be thrown out altogether. 

Keogan said she had been receiving a large volume of correspondence in relation to the bill. 

Free Speech Ireland’s Alex Sheridan pointed to the role of NGOs in pushing the legislation saying that the lack of engagement from TDs regarding a recent vote on amendments to the bill was “ridiculous,” 

He pointed to the voting down of amendments including one which would have enshrined freedom of speech as a basic human right in the absence of 156 TDs who failed to attend the vote. 

Sheridan said that the onus was now on the Seanad to “serve its function” saying that the Dail alone cannot be trusted to pass legislation adding that an upper house was needed “to correct deeply flawed legislation,” 

Examples of how similar laws in the UK have led to ‘worrying’ outcomes, Sheridan spoke of how a pub in Essex was raided by police after they received a report that there were golliwogs on display, and how this had ultimately led to the business closing its doors even in the absence of a conviction. 

“Even just accusing somebody of a hate crime or hate speech can destroy their lives or destroy their business,” he said. 

He also pointed to the prosecution of a 19 year old British girl who has posted rap lyrics online in tribute to her dead friend only to be prosecuted for hate speech, given an eight week community order. and forced to pay a fine of over £500

Senator Rónán Mullen said that the relative lack of interest of the “powerful” media in Ireland had been “very enabling of the government’s ambitions” in relation to the bill. 

He criticised the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the Irish Council for Human Rights who he said addressed the bill with “a tone of acquiescence”.

Adding that despite “reasoned objections” from the two bodies he “got the sense that they were happy enough for this to go through,”

Both Senator Mullen and former diplomat Ray Bassett, who was also in attendance, questioned why certain NGOs seemed to be lamenting that under the auspices of the existing Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 there have ‘only’ been 50 convictions. 

Bassett reflected on growing up in the Ireland of the 50s and 60s saying that the country is “far less racist” now than it was then. 

He suggested that those employed by well funded powerful NGOs and representatives of special interest groups see race based discrimination as being ‘a much bigger issue that it actually is’ in the Ireland of today. 

Senator Mullen pointed to Garda statistics saying that there were only 74 ‘non-criminal hate incidents’ in 2022, “bearing in mind that the threshold for Gardaí to become involved is very low,” 

He emphasised that for Gardaí to become involved there only needed to exist a “perception” of hateful conduct, and that people’s freedom was being ‘endangered on the back of very low figures’ noting that the legitimacy of the registered complaints was unclear, describing the situation as “problematic”. 

Mullen pointed to public order legislation as well as the 1989 Incitement to Hatred Act as a means of pre existing protections. 

He said that the EU directive from which the bill emerged does not contain the same long list of protected characteristics written into the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022, but was intended to deal with issues like “severe racism” and “holocaust denial”. 

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