Failure to reform the Incitement to Hatred Act of 1989 has been a source of embarrassment for successive governments. Eight years ago, undertakings were given to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) that changes were in hand. Nothing happened. This week, in Geneva, those promises were repeated. But the reforming legislation remains a work in progress. Minister of State for Equality, Immigration and Integration David Stanton tried to explain it away. He told the UN committee that hate crime was now "a priority" and that legislation would be 'proposed' in the Spring of 2020. With a general election pending, however, there is no certainty the law will change in the immediate future.
Events of recent months, where examples of racism, misinformation and disinformation featured in political discourse and some local groups objected to the establishment of direct provision centres, have called for urgent, concerted action. A Department of Justice official expressed grave concern before CERD about the use of hate speech by political figures and said the Government was grappling with the situation. Racism had become "a very real issue" in Ireland, she admitted, although some people did not believe they were racist or realised the effect their behaviour was having on others.
It is time for society to look at itself in the mirror. The reflection offers little reassurance or consolation. A casual, racist attitude towards Travellers has been allowed to go largely unchecked for generations. It is reflected in high unemployment rates and a reluctance by councillors – under voter pressure – to provide them with accommodation. During the past two decades, an influx of foreign workers and asylum seekers disturbed the near-monoethnicity of Irish life and prompted fear of the “other”. They were presented by critics as a threat to struggling locals: taking jobs, jumping the housing queue or securing undeserved welfare benefits.
In spite of such racist agitation, political parties and governments stood firm, agreeing to condemn such attitudes and establishing agencies to monitor and advise on the situation. Now they need to go further by penalising hate speech wherever it arises: at public meetings or on social media. Training and recruitment within the Garda with a specific focus on hate crime and community policing, would also help. Years of campaigning by trade unions, churches and voluntary groups led to the gradual improvement of services within direct provision centres. It did not happen early enough and conditions can be further improved. But, as the head of the UN migration agency in Ireland said last month, it is a good system compared to other countries, particularly in the context of our housing crisis. We should accept such compliments with humility.