Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald said the law in relation to hate crime is to be reviewed and strengthened in light of calls from affected groups, experiences in other jurisdictions and developments online and on social media.
The move has been welcomed by Sinn Féin which is to bring forward its own proposed hate crime legislation early in the new year.
It follows reports last week that racist and hate crime incidents, ranging from verbal abuse to physical assault and threats to kill, have reached a high.
Asked by Sinn Féin’s justice spokesman Jonathan O’Brien did she have any plans to introduce hate crime legislation, Ms Fitzgerald replied there were mechanisms in place to deal with hate speech and hate motivated crime.
She said this included the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989, aimed at combating the expression of hatred against groups that would be “likely to stir up hatred” in other people.
Separately, she said there was a criminal offence such as assault, criminal damage or a public order offence committed against a person motivated by such hatred.
The justice minister said it was “accepted” that such an offence was more serious and said Irish courts do consider evidence of a crime “motivated by hate or prejudice as an aggravating factor at sentencing”.
But she added: “That said, in light of reports by civil society, the experience of other jurisdictions, changes in Irish society and the use of the internet and social media, I have requested that this area of criminal law be examined with a view to considering whether further legislative proposals are needed to strengthen the law.”
Mr O’Brien welcomed the move by the minister. “I do acknowledge the minister has changed the department’s position because, up until recently, there has been no willingness,” he said. “The stock answer from the department was that we had sufficient legislation, but she is now willing to look at it.
“The issue is we have no specific hate crime legislation. We have elements that cover it — elements in the Incitement to Hatred Act and the Equality Act — but no standalone legislation and no definition of hate crime.
“The way society has changed and the way communication has changed with the internet and social media and with text messages we need to update the law: it is no longer sufficient.”
He said even bringing a charge under the Incitement to Hatred Act was very difficult, saying there had only been around 10 convictions since it was enacted 27 years ago.
But he said enforcement needed to go along with new legislation, in the training and resourcing of gardaí.
Last week, ENAR Ireland (European Network Against Racism Ireland) revealed it had 190 reported incidents in the first half of this year, the most since it began its work more than three years ago.
These included 22 assaults, 10 of which left people physically injured while 13 cases involved threats to kill or cause serious harm.
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