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Hate crime Bill may worsen things for minorities, departing Garda diversity chief says

David McInerney, who retired three weeks ago, believes an unorthodox, subtle approach is often the best way to reduce local tensions

It is unusual for An Garda Síochána to say no to new policing powers. Indeed, when the Government recently asked for the organisation’s view on proposed hate crime legislation, it was strongly in favour.

But not all gardaí are on the same page. One of those with serious concerns about the Bill, which introduces the crime of hate speech and mandates tougher sentences for crimes motivated by bigotry, is Dr Dave McInerney, who until three weeks ago was a Garda inspector of 43 years standing, the force’s longest-serving member.

His objections are all the more noteworthy given that McInerney helped found the Garda National Diversity Bureau and served as its chief for two decades before his retirement. During that time, he was primarily responsible for liaising with minority groups, including immigrants and Travellers, and local communities.

The Hate Speech Bill has been characterised by some as going much further than it actually does. The legislation does not, for example, criminalise criticism of migration policy or religion.


Nevertheless, it has attracted significant criticism from both the left and the right as being overly broad. Some of that criticism, according to McInerney, has come from the very communities it is supposed to protect.

“I’d be afraid that this new aggravated sentencing could cause a lot of upset in the community,” he told The Irish Times.

“That’s not coming from me. It’s coming from minority community leaders themselves who would say to me, David, we don’t want to see Irish people get a big sentence in the courts because they said a bad word to a black person or whatever.”

McInerney, who holds a PhD in policing minority communities, says: “One hate crime is too many… I’ve dealt with so many victims of hate crime and the after-effects are horrible.”

However, people don’t want the type of strict sentencing codes used in the UK and elsewhere in the EU, which served as a template for the Irish Bill, he says. “People tell me we’re happy the way things are in Ireland.”

These are concerns he has raised with the Minister for Justice, he says.

Much of McInerney’s objection stems from his belief that policing, or at least the sharp edge of policing, can’t on its own solve the tensions on display in the many communities currently experiencing large influxes of asylum seekers or refugees.

These are tensions which have sometimes strayed into outright criminality and racism, such as in Dublin city centre earlier this month when anti-immigrant protests destroyed a small makeshift immigrant camp.

“Everyone want to ‘hang ‘em high’,” McInerney says in response to calls for arrests and prosecutions of the far-right agitators who are present at many of these protests.

Stressing he doesn’t have an operational role any more, McInerney, who was sometimes known as the “huggy bear police officer”, believes that sometimes a more subtle, unorthodox approach works best, even if it rankles.

“If the police are very aggressive towards them, it can make things an awful lot worse for the minority. So I’d be constantly risk assessing, asking ‘How do I handle this person to get a good result for everybody?’”

As distasteful as it may seem, trying to understand the far right is key to this. “They feel they’re hard done by, they love a bit of power and they love shouting on megaphone.”

Sometimes, he adds, they’re just bullies.

Even more important to reducing tensions is communication both with communities and with minority groups, McInerney says.

He recalls a period in Waterford about eight years ago when locals were angry about members of the Roma community stealing from shops and begging aggressively.

In turn, threats were being made against them, including threats to burn down their homes.

Instead of making arrests, McInerney spoke to the Roma people and discovered they were shoplifting to feed themselves, as they could not access social welfare.

He organised supplementary social welfare payments and organised supermarkets to provide food vouchers, bringing an end to the shoplifting and easing local concerns.

“We didn’t have to charge anybody. They never caused one problem again after that.”

Last week, McInerney watched with concern the events in Inch, Co Clare, where locals have been blockading a road in protest against a group of asylum seekers being housed in a hotel. One one occasion, demonstrators reportedly boarded a bus carrying asylum seekers to carry out a headcount and record them on video.

“I’d love to be down there and meet the people and talk to them,” he says.

“In the past, we would have explained to the protesters exactly who was moving in, how long they are staying for and where they come from.” He would also have explained to the asylum seekers why the locals are concerned.

“As a guard you might have people shouting at you ‘get them out, get them out’. But you have to be patient and listen to them.”

Despite the events of recent months, McInerney remains an optimist. He recalls similar panic 20 years ago when the immigrant population increased from 0.5 per cent to 3 per cent within a few years.

There was a large public backlash then too but it settled down. “Irish people got to know the new arrivals and welcomed them. We didn’t have the race riots seen in France or elsewhere.”

It’s only the bad news stories which make the news, McInerney says. Little attention is paid to the people who go out of their way to welcome migrants and integrate them into society.

“Nurses, primary schoolteachers, they do amazing work here and never give out or say anything.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times