Northern Ireland is all too familiar with sectarian attacks against people and property; from common assault through to murder, from vandalism to arson attacks on homes, churches, schools, Orange Halls and GAA facilities.
Over the past two years, the Alliance Party has been lobbying for the introduction of hate crime laws in Northern Ireland. A hate crime is any act or existing criminal offence motivated by prejudice or hatred.
We are pleased that the Government is due to publish today (Tuesday, Nov 5) its long-awaited consultation paper on addressing racist and sectarian crime.
Hate crimes don’t just affect individual victims, but are offences against the ideas and values of a shared, inclusive society where diversity is not just tolerated, but respected. Such attacks create a wider climate of fear amongst people that they too could become targets.
In recent years, there has been a worrying increase in racist attacks. Studies from the University of Ulster show that racism is even more deeply ingrained here than sectarianism. Now that the police service has begun to collate statistics on racially-motivated attacks, the trend can be easily seen. As well as racist attacks, there is also evidence that attacks motivated by homophobia – ‘gay-bashing’ – are on the increase.
Hate crime laws allow longer sentences to be handed out when the motivation for an offence based on hatred can be established in court. They were first popularised in the United States and Canada. Indeed, they were a campaigning issue in the 2000 Presidential contest.
The Labour Government first introduced similar laws to Great Britain in 1998. The Crime and Disorder Act created seven new offences, but the new laws only dealt with racism and only applied to Great Britain. Once again, Northern Ireland was forced to wait for progressive legislation.
There is no reason why Northern Ireland should be denied the benefit of such laws. Yet, it would bizarre to legislate for racist crime in Northern Ireland but avoid dealing with sectarian crime. Alliance would go further, and call for the Government to legislate on a UK-wide basis against both sectarian and homophobic crime.
Today’s consultation paper from the NIO follows the publication of an independent study into the new laws in Great Britain. This study validated the general approach to dealing with hate crimes, and made a number of sensible suggestions for improvements.
There are some misconceptions about hate crimes. Not all offences where someone assaults a person of a different religion or race are hate crimes. The key element is the motivation behind the attack. Indeed, it is possible for both criminal and victim to have the same background. For example, if someone is attacked for being in a mixed marriage there is a clear sectarian motive.
Hate crime laws do not treat certain sections of society differently from others or entrench a group mentality. Indeed Alliance would be very sensitive to these dangers. All crime should continue to be prosecuted on its merits, and the needs of all victims should be addressed properly. What these laws would do is increase the punishment for crimes motivated by the unjustifiable hatred that undermines the values of an open, liberal society.
Measures to take on hate crime can only address some of the manifestations of sectarianism and racism. No-one should pretend they are the entire solution. They cannot outlaw racist or sectarian attitudes, which have to be addressed at a societal level. Real answers lie in the social and economic policies pursued by Government, and how we are conditioned to view ourselves as a society.
We have serious community relations problems in Northern Ireland, but when it was in operation, the NI Executive only paid them superficial attention. More time was spent ensuring equality between communities than on building a united community.
There is much that our Government can do in terms of public policy to encourage sharing over separation in society. Unfortunately, sensible initiatives are not being pursued. Government agencies in England have been much more pro-active in trying to understand the problems of racial division, for example, in the aftermath of the race riots of 2001.
But perhaps the most fundamental problem is the signal being sent out from the top down that people should view themselves as being part of either an exclusive ‘unionist community’ or an exclusive ‘nationalist community’. When people are conditioned to think in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’, it is little wonder that prejudice and bigotry are reinforced, and that hate crimes are the result.