When an individual is targeted in a crime against the person or against their property because of their religion, race or sexual orientation, a hate crime is committed. They are not merely attacks upon the immediate victim or victims, but on the values of shared, multi-cultural society.
Hate crimes are a feature within the Northern Ireland of today. They include sectarian murders, pipe-bombings, assaults, and arson attacks upon buildings such as churches of all denominations, Orange Halls and GAA facilities. However, the recent attack on the Muslim Mosque in South Belfast in the wake of the World Trade Centre atrocity reminds us that not all religious motivated crimes here are committed against Protestants or Catholics.
We must also bear in mind that racial and homophobic crime are problems in Northern Ireland too. Notably, the number of racially-motivated incidents reported to the police has risen tenfold over the past 10 years.
Therefore, the announcement by the Secretary of State to the Labour Conference that the Government “will legislate to criminalise those manifestations of hatred, whether based on racism or based on sectarianism” is welcome, if somewhat overdue.
While racism and sectarianism can not be tackled through criminal legislation alone -resources need to be put into integrated facilities and promoting good community relations – strong action can be taken through new laws.
First, existing UK-wide laws against incitement to racial hatred, i.e. the dissemination of openly hostile literature and the urging of violence against groups, can be extended to sectarianism.
Second, through specific Hate Crime laws, the courts can impose longer sentences for existing criminal offences, when a hatred motivation can be established. For example, a maximum five year term for particular offence could become a seven year term.
Such laws were developed in the United States in the early 1990s, and remain a significant political issue.
The Labour Government introduced measures dealing with racially-motivated offences in the Crime and Disorder Act (1998). However, its scope was limited to England and Wales.
The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has announced its extension to deal with religious motivations, no doubt with the attacks upon Muslims and their property over recent weeks. However, despite pressure to do so, the Government have not yet extended such provisions to deal with gay-bashing attacks.
Alliance first passed a motion calling for the introduction of Hate Crime legislation in Northern Ireland at our Party Conference in April 2000. We recognised the corrosive effect on the rule of law that was being caused by the perception that people and organisations were engaging in sectarian and racist attacks with impunity. Comprehensive proposals were tabled to the Government in July of that year and discussions have been ongoing since then.
The full details of Dr Reid’s proposals for Northern Ireland are yet to be published. However, it is my understanding that a consultation paper on tackling sectarianism and racism will be published in the next few weeks. At its is core will be consideration if Incitement to Racial Hatred can be extended to Sectarian Hatred, and in particular plans to introduce Hate Crime legislation in Northern Ireland, based on the relevant terms of the Crime and Disorder Act, thereby providing longer sentences when sectarian and racist motivations can be proven.