Alliance Party Justice Spokesperson, Councillor Stephen Farry, has welcomed as ‘a logical step’ the proposals of the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, to make incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence, but warned that legislation is of little use unless it can be effectively enforced.
Dr Farry stated:
“This is a logical and welcome step on the part of the Government. It is an anomaly for racial groups to be protected against verbal hatred, but for only some religious groups to be similarly protected
“Racism and sectarianism are two sides of the same coin. Both are about prejudice. They exist when preconceived notions are made about other people. When hate speech is practiced, misery often follows.
“The Government is at long last poised to legislate in Northern Ireland for Hate Crime measures dealing with racism, sectarianism and homophobia. These will allow for stiffer sentences when hatred is a clear factor in the commission of a crime. The lesson from the application of similar legislation in Great Britain is that it can make a difference.
“Incitement to hatred laws are not about censorship and undermining the right to freedom of speech. Rather, they are aimed at deterring hostile speech that contributes to intimidation and attacks on individuals associated with a particular racial or religious group.
“Clearly, individuals will still be allowed to hold and express different opinions on the doctrines of different religions. However, a clear line is crossed when people incite others to engage in criminal or terrorist activities.
“It is unclear if these new proposals will extend to Northern Ireland. Religious hatred has sadly been commonplace in our society. It would be perverse if the new legislation does not cover this region.
“However, legislation is of little use unless it can be enforced. It has been extremely difficult to enforce the law on incitement to racial hatred over the past three decades. This is an aspect that the Government must take into consideration when progressing such legislation.”