New hate crime legislation will make it easier to prosecute online hate speech in Ireland, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has said. 

The forthcoming Incitement to Hatred and Hate Crime Bill will make it easier to secure prosecutions and convictions for hate crimes, McEntee added. 

Hate speech is currently covered by the 1989 prohibition of incitement to hatred act and while McEntee agreed that the act was "forward-thinking for its time", she also noted that there have only been 50 convictions of incitement to hatred since it was introduced. 

"We need a law that has teeth, that you can prosecute, but we also need a law around hate crimes," McEntee told RTÉ's Morning Ireland. 

"Obviously, it’s a crime to assault someone, it’s a crime to damage someone’s property, to harass someone, but while a judge can take an aggravating factor of hate into account – it’s not on our statute book, it’s not the law." 

She said the new law will legislate for hate crimes by creating new and aggravated forms of existing criminal offenses if the offense is motivated by prejudice against one of eight protected characteristics. 

Under Irish law, the eight protected characteristics are race, color, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origin, sexual orientation, gender (including gender expression and identity), and disability.

McEntee told RTÉ that there are people in Ireland who "live in fear" because of who they are. 

"There are people living in this country at this moment in time who are not living their lives as they should simply because of fear.

“We all have a right to feel safe and to be safe but for somebody to feel unsafe simply because of who they are, so their race, their religion, the color of their skin, and their sexual orientation, it’s not a society that I want to live in, and it’s not what we should be tolerating." 

She said the new bill would also "reflect the current context more accurately, including online hateful content".

She said social media companies are "onboard" with the new legislation and know that they will have to show that they are making every effort to remove hateful content. 

McEntee added that there will be clear safeguards that protect free speech and debate but said she wanted hate crimes and incitement to commit acts of violence to be prosecutable. 

The new legislation will set the threshold for criminal incitement to hatred as intent or recklessness, meaning that a person must either deliberately set out to incite hatred or considered what they were doing would incite hatred and carried it out anyway. 

Ireland does not currently have legislation dealing specifically with hate crimes, but judges can take hate motives into account during sentencing as an aggravating factor. Aggravated offenses generally carry longer prison sentences. 

McEntee said work on the Bill began in 2019, while there has been consultation with various different groups and individuals. The Bill has also undergone pre-legislative scrutiny, which led to recommendations that she "took on board". 

McEntee said she aims to publish the Bill in September and have it enacted by the end of the year.