Sectarian pipe-bomb attacks have dominated news headlines for months now, striking fear into communities and forcing innocent people from their homes. Such incidents are just another example of continuing sectarian attacks against people and property, despite the ceasefires and the Agreement.
Furthermore, in recent years there has been a noticeable increase in racially-motivated and homophobic assaults in Northern Ireland.
The common motive behind these crimes is hate. The victims have been targeted because of their identity, whether that is based on their religion, race or sexual orientation. They are Hate Crimes, and can include offences such as murder, manslaughter, arson, actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm and assault.
Such crimes not only bring suffering to the individual victim, but they also damage the idea of a shared, multicultural and tolerant society.
But there are ways to combat this growing threat. Hate Crime laws have been developed in the United States and Canada over the past decade. These laws mean longer sentences for criminal offences when a hatred motivation can be established in court.
In the United States, there is an ongoing campaign to strengthen these laws. This has been driven by prominent incidents, including the brutal crucifixion of Matthew Sheppard, a gay man, outside a bar in Wyoming; the murder of James Byrd, a black man dragged down a country road by a pick-up truck in Texas, and a series of arson attacks on black churches in the American South. Hate Crimes were turned into a prominent election issue by the Democrats in last year’s elections.
Some limited Hate Crime measures were introduced in Great Britain through the Crime and Disorder Act (1998). This legislation created a series of racially-motivated offences that allow for longer sentences than the equivalent current criminal offences provides.
In Great Britain, there is also a problem with sectarian and homophobic crime. The bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho in 1999 is the most clear-cut example of the latter. The Liberal Democrats are currently campaigning for Hate Crime laws to be extended to offences motivated by sectarianism and homophobia. The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is also looking at the extension of Hate Crime laws to curb an increase in sectarian crimes, mainly, in the case of Great Britain, involving Jewish and Asian victims.
However in Northern Ireland, there are at present no Hate Crime measures – not even the initial provisions for racially-motivated offences. Statistics on the number of recorded racial offences in Northern Ireland make stark reading, and mirror the pattern in Great Britain. According to figures recorded by the police community relations branch, there were 26 racial incidents in 1996, 104 in 1998, and at least 245 in 2000. The police have also begun to keep statistics of homophobic attacks, and put in place resources to deal with the consequences of Hate Crimes.
The persistent problem of sectarian attacks in Northern Ireland is the most convincing evidence for introducing Hate Crime legislation. These attacks include not only pipe-bombings, but the burning of churches, Orange Halls and GAA facilities, intimidation, and assaults. Sectarian attacks are designed to stoke fear, to drive people from their homes, and to make our society even more segregated. They must be dealt with.
Last summer the Alliance Party tabled a paper to the Government calling for the creation of Hate Crimes in Northern Ireland, based on the terms of the Crime and Disorder Act (1998), covering crimes motivated by racism, homophobia and sectarianism.
The case for the extension of racially-motivated offences to Northern Ireland is clear. It is at the very least a simple parity issue. In 1976, the then Labour Government passed the Race Relations Act. However, it was not extended to Northern Ireland on the dubious basis that there were no racial problems here! It was not until 1997 that the Race Relations Order (NI) was introduced. It is now commonly recognised that Northern Ireland has become a much more multicultural and diverse society.
It is unlikely that homophobic hate crime laws would be introduced in Northern Ireland in advance of Great Britain. However, there is a growing demand for such measures to be developed. It is crucial that Northern Ireland is brought under any such protective umbrella.
Equally, there is a growing argument that sectarian hate crime laws should be created on a UK-wide basis. The argument can be made that given the prominence of sectarian offences in Northern Ireland, such measures could be piloted here.
One particular problem is distinguishing sectarian from politically-motivated offences.
To date, politically-motivated crimes have been treated much more leniently than ‘ordinary’ crimes. Generous remission and the early release of ‘political’ prisoners under the Agreement have been generally tolerated as the price that had to be paid for consolidating ceasefires and maintaining a peace process.
However, with the Agreement, the context for any mitigation of such offences has surely disappeared. The final early release of prisoners under the Agreement should be considered as a watershed. People now have a right to expect higher standards for the rule of law.
Given the threat that sectarian attacks pose to the peace process, and the wider goal of creating a shared, pluralist society, there is a strong case for treating those convicted of such offences more severely. There should no longer be the ability to conceal blatantly sectarian acts under the guise of politically-motivated offences.
Former Secretary of State Peter Mandelson has already endorsed our arguments. In a recent meeting with Security Minister Adam Ingram, Alliance received a commitment that the Government would issue a consultation paper later this year on how to deal with racism and sectarianism in Northern Ireland, with a view to eventually legislating.
Hate Crime laws can only ever be one part of a wider strategy to tackle racism, sectarianism, and homophobia. But as similar laws become increasingly common across the world, the case for their introduction to Northern Ireland is growing stronger every day.