Editorial – The consultation on Ireland’s hate speech law is an opportunity to create a safer and more inclusive country

With the announcement that the government is launching a public consultation regarding Ireland’s law on hate speech there is now a chance that it might take it seriously. A consultation such as this is a prelude to an updating of the law in question or to new legislation being introduced. 

Ireland’s constitution does guarantee free speech. But it is supposedly tempered by an addendum not to incite violence or hatred. In spite of this, it’s been a case of anything goes for the extremists and racists in Ireland. 

They have consistently gotten away with saying and doing the most vile of things. This is because the law that’s already in place is simply not good enough. And it’s because the gardaí simply don’t enforce it regularly and consistently. As mentioned in a previous editorial, there have only been 5 convictions for hate speech in Ireland in the last 19 years. Something clearly has to change. 

Given that the consultation is open to the public, it also means that the aforementioned extremists and racists get to have their say too. Thus far their reaction to the consultation has been overwhelmingly negative. This is hardly surprising. For them, they see it as an attack on their freedom of speech. And it’s seen as another part of the global conspiracy to stop any criticism of immigration. 

But what’s underneath all of this hysteria is a very real concern that they soon might actually be held to account for what they say online and in public. Freedom of speech does not give a person carte blanche to denigrate entire groups of people on the basis of mythological and perceived racial differences. Some of these same people are more than happy to insist on their right to freedom of speech while at the same time suing or threatening to sue anyone who dares utter anything remotely critical of them. The hypocrisy is astounding. 

Yet the fact of the matter is that Ireland is suffering from a hate speech problem. It’s a daily occurrence. And something has to be done. A public consultation with those who have been most affected by hate speech is a means of hopefully influencing the legislative outcome in a positive manner. It will, with any luck, personalise the law in a way that will make it adaptable and in keeping with the nature of hate speech in a world dominated by social media and the internet.

With rights there are concomitant duties. This is will understood in political philosophy. But many either forget this or simply don’t care. With freedom of speech it is doubly important to be aware of our accompanying duties. In this case we have a duty not to attack the vulnerable just for the sake of it by virtue of our right to freedom of speech. When this kind of duty is ignored, it puts people at a very real risk of harm. It undermines their right to lead a dignified existence. 

For this reason a more appropriate law against hate speech is needed. Considering that the far right is currently in a tailspin regarding the consultation, it’s clear that any new or updated law will target the correct people and groups. It’s sorely needed. Because right now, the extremists in Ireland can say and do whatever they want. And that has to change.

Members of the public can make a submission as part of the consultation process here.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons – Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team

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