A prominent free speech and human rights lawyer has issued a hard-hitting warning over proposals to change hate crime laws in Northern Ireland.
In a detailed legal opinion for The Christian Institute, Ivan Hare QC attacked the proposals which could see ‘hate crime’ laws extended to those who express disagreement on issues like same-sex marriage or transgenderism.
He argued that, especially in the absence of key freedom of expression provisions like those in England and Wales, the plans will leave free speech in Northern Ireland “more vulnerable” to infringement.
The consultation document was drawn up by Judge Desmond Marrinan, who is leading the review.
Mr Hare criticised the document, saying: “the offence of arousing fear or inciting hatred on the grounds of religion or sexual orientation in Northern Ireland is extremely broad.
“It is therefore very surprising to read the suggestion in the Marrinan Consultation that the threshold for prosecution in such cases may be set too high”.
He pointed out that actually, under the current law, the threshold for committing a ‘hate crime’ is already much lower in Northern Ireland than in England or Wales, highlighting the absence of “a clause protecting freedom of expression in relation either to religious hatred or to the discussion of sexual conduct”.
Mr Hare said the consultation is also wrong to regard conventional Christian views on marriage and sexuality as only having low-level free speech protections.
He pointed out that in fact, “speech which involves the articulation of sincerely held Christian beliefs concerning marriage and homosexual conduct and practices” is “at the core of protected expression” under the European Convention of Human Rights.
He said that as such, “any restrictions on the exercise of that right” must be clearly laid out in law, but only where it is “strictly necessary” to do so for the state to achieve a legitimate aim.
Freedom of expression
Mr Hare said there was “clear potential” in the plans “to infringe the right to freedom of expression” and “a very real risk that robust and uninhibited discussion of matters of great public importance will suffer a chilling effect”.
He added: “Such a chilling effect is particularly likely where the penalty is criminal and may include imprisonment”.
The QC called on Judge Marrinan to address the differences between Northern Ireland and England and Wales, stating, “there is no relevant principled justification for the difference in treatment between them”.
He said the differences could amount to discrimination based on national origin by limiting the Northern Irish people’s access to freedom of belief and freedom of expression rights.
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute, commented: “Ivan Hare is a world-renowned expert on freedom of speech.
“His commentary on the Marrinan Review confirms our fears that Northern Ireland law is already open to misuse by those who want to shut down debate, and that introducing swathes of new ‘hate crimes’ would make the situation much, much worse.
“Whatever your views on politics or religion, we can all agree that the law should protect our ability to have a robust debate. Otherwise you just end up giving one side a stick with which to beat the other. That is divisive and counter-productive.”