Here's How the Gardaí Could Tackle Hate Crime Better

Doireann Ansbro

Doireann Ansbro is the senior research and policy officer with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. She studied English and history at Trinity College Dublin and law at Nottingham Law School. She has an LLM in human-rights law and was called to the bar of England and Wales in 2009. Prior to working for the ICCL, she worked as a legal adviser to the International Commission of Jurists and a consultant to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.


Dublin is cosmopolitan: residents hail from diverse national, religious, racial, political and social backgrounds, making our city more culturally, socially and economically vibrant.

But it is not immune to the rise of far-right nationalists who are gaining traction so visibly elsewhere. We’ve seen a steady stream of revelations that far-right movements are pouring money into European elections to exert control over our democracies.

In the last couple of months, we have seen a mosque in Galway attacked, a teenager’s hijab snatched in Dundrum, a lecturer in Cork subjected to Islamophobic death threats, and racist flyers stuck to the windshields of cars around Dublin’s Dorset Street. This is alongside a dark and long history of racism and hate speech against the Traveller and Roma communities.

These high-profile incidents, and many less visible but no less harmful, have led to renewed calls for the government to take action on hate crime.

No Law

Hate crime is not just a crime against an individual. It is also a “signal” crime. We have to take it particularly seriously because it is intended to send an ugly and intolerant message to an entire community – usually “you don’t belong here’’.

Yet in Ireland there is no appropriate law to deal with hate crime. Our law prohibits incitement to hatred – in other words, actions intended to stir up hatred – but not actions motivated by hatred. The law rarely results in successful prosecutions, in part because an intention to stir up hatred is hard to prove.

Legislating against hate crime is, however, more difficult than it sounds. If you add an extra element to prove in a prosecution – in this case, motivation of hate, hostility or prejudice – it becomes more difficult to prosecute crimes.

If you add hate as a sentencing feature, the offender might get a harsher sentence. But at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), we’d question whether this can effectively address the problem.

New legislation is needed but it won’t reduce hate crime on its own.

Gardaí’s Role

One body that has a significant role to play in addressing and preventing hate crime is An Garda Síochána.

Gardaí are on the front line of the state’s response to racist incidents and hate crime. Not only that, but human-rights law requires them to respond effectively.

This can’t be done unless data and statistics on hate crime are properly gathered so we know the who, what, where, and when of these incidents. Gardaí are not currently doing this effectively.

Better data-gathering is a key recommendation of the Commission on the Future of Policing, which says that “[i]mprovements in data collection and analysis will enable the police to develop better strategies to reduce crime”.

Gardaí have a Victims’ Charter that states that racist crimes will be accurately recorded. But research conducted for the ICCL in 2018 suggested that the Gardaí are not routinely recording hate crime.

In fact, it seems they are requiring independent evidence of a hate motivation rather than believing victims. This is contrary to a requirement under the law on the rights of victims to put victims at the centre of an investigation.

The Gardaí’s Victims’ Charter promises that all complaints will be investigated and victims will be put in touch with a local Garda Ethnic Liaison Officer (ELO). ICCL’s research in 2018 suggested that the Victims’ Charter had not made a particular difference to how gardaí dealt with hate crime. There was a disconnect between these ELOs and Garda Victim Service Offices, it also found.

ICCL was unable to identify garda training on the treatment of victims of hate crime specifically, or training on any special measures that should be in place to assist.

The Commission on the Future of Policing did note at the end of 2018 that_ new_ Garda recruits were being trained in victims’ needs and rights, but not existing members. They recommended that such training “should be extended to all members of the police service as soon as possible”. It’s not clear from their report whether this training includes how to deal with hate crime.

They also emphasised that services for victims and victims’ rights should be embedded across An Garda Síochána, that all members should fully understand their obligations towards victims, particularly “victims who have been traumatised by the crime, or who are marginalised in a community, for example some ethnic or other minorities”.

It’s unclear yet what measures the Gardaí are taking to implement this recommendation.

Physical Attacks?

The Gardaí’s role in combating hate crime takes on a particular importance when there is violence against a person. Human-rights law requires that additional efforts be made to respond properly to such crimes, including providing proper supports to victims, investigating effectively and taking effective measures to prevent such crimes from happening again.

The European Court of Human Rights has said that official investigations must be “pursued with vigour and impartiality, having regard to the need to reassert continuously society’s condemnation of racism and ethnic hatred and to maintain the confidence of minorities in the ability of the authorities to protect them from the threat of racist violence”.

Put simply, the targets of hate crime need to believe that when they are attacked simply for being members of their community, the police and legal system will protect them and work to ensure that others will not be targeted in the same way.

At ICCL, we fear that many people from marginalised communities in Ireland – Travellers, immigrants, religious and racial minorities, and trans people – do not feel protected.

The Solution?

Each significant minority group in Ireland should have a specific liaison officer within An Garda Síochána, trained in hate-crime investigation, and special units staffed by these trained gardaí should be established across the country.

Every crime with an element of hate should be recorded as such on the crime database, PULSE. Analysis should be done on the number of hate-motivated incidents and crimes reported, the number of arrests, charges and prosecutions, and the number of complaints arising from the handling of reports of hate crime.

The Gardaí need to look into risk factors to identify and prevent pressure points. Further, An Garda Síochána needs to urgently develop comprehensive rules for responding to hate crime.

More broadly, An Garda Síochána needs written, public policies on a range of issues. When their policies comply with human rights, (we would hope) their culture, training and treatment of victims will also become rights compliant. And a written policy that is publicly available contributes to public confidence – knowing what can be expected of Gardaí helps individuals to know their rights.

The Gardaí should be playing a more active role in responding to hate crime. If the organisation and its members do not step up and respond effectively, the targets of these attacks may be left without justice or protection. And the small corners of our city that racists currently possess may expand.

Author:

Doireann Ansbro: Doireann Ansbro is the senior research and policy officer with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. She studied English and history at Trinity College Dublin and law at Nottingham Law School. She has an LLM in human-rights law and was called to the bar of England and Wales in 2009. Prior to working for the ICCL, she worked as a legal adviser to the International Commission of Jurists and a consultant to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Reader responses

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Pat Coyne
at 10 September at 13:03

Every individual should be treated equally before the law; this writer is proposing a two-tier legal system with the scale of justice weighed in favour of the accuser. We had a two-tier legal system of justice before Catholic Emancipation let’s not go back there.

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