Free Speech and Hate Crime Legislation in Northern Ireland

Emma Webb and Carrie Clark


In 2019, the Northern Irish Government commissioned Judge Desmond Marrinan to carry out a review of hate crime legislation. Based on the findings of the Marrinan Review the Northern Irish authorities now plans to bring forward a Hate Crime and Public Order (Northern Ireland) Bill, closely modelled on similar legislation in Scotland.

Like its Scottish equivalent, the Hate Crime and Public Order (Northern Ireland) Bill poses a serious threat to freedom of speech, but the uniquely polarised political landscape in Northern Ireland make this legislation a particular cause for concern. Plans to make ‘sectarian prejudice’ a hate crime will likely inflame tensions in an already volatile situation. Hate crime laws are a gift to vexatious complainants at the best of times, but a legal prohibition on sectarian ‘hate speech’ will be weaponised by political activists on both sides to suppress the speech of their opponents. This will only exacerbate the tension between different sectarian groups in Northern Ireland and make it harder, not easier, for public disagreement to be resolved through compromise. In short, the Hate Crime Bill could endanger the peace process.

Independent polling conducted by LucidTalk on behalf of the Free Speech Union confirms this. There was profound disagreement between DUP and Sinn Fein voters, not just on issues like gender identity legislation, which might be expected to divide opinion along party-political lines, but on more fundamental issues such as the definition, prevalence and severity of hate crime and the appropriate scope of legislative measures to address it.

Ironically, one clear point of consensus emerges from the polling: only 12% of respondents believe that the Government of Northern Ireland is doing a good job of protecting freedom of speech. In light of this damning statistic and the existing tensions in the region, policy makers would be well advised to abandon the Hate Crime Bill, or risk fanning the flames of sectarian division.

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