Galway, Ireland (CNN)In the middle of the night, Imam Ibrahim Noonan answered the phone and heard an unfamiliar Irish voice.
The caller went on, telling Noonan he had attended a meeting where people said they were planning to attack his mosque and harm him. The man explained that while he agreed with the group’s ideology — “no mosques, no Muslims, no immigration” — he didn’t condone physical violence. Then the line went dead.
Noonan saw the call as a clear warning of an upcoming attack and he reported it to police.
In late July, the Imam’s Maryam Mosque in Galway was vandalized. The perpetrators smashed several windows, wrecked Noonan’s office, and destroyed the video surveillance system.
A spokesperson for the Irish police told CNN in a statement that they were “investigating a burglary.”
But Noonan said nothing was stolen from the property so treating the attack as a burglary was “insulting” to the Muslim community. The incident was targeted and premeditated, according to Noonan.
Unlike most other countries in the European Union, Ireland has no purpose-built hate crime legislation and the government doesn’t gather national statistics on hate crime, racist attacks or discrimination.
In Ireland, while a hate motive may be an aggravating factor that can contribute to stronger sentencing in criminal cases, there is no specific law that covers hate crimes in the criminal justice system, with each sentence a matter for the presiding judge.
The 1989 Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act does make inciting hatred on account of race, religion, nationality, ethnic background membership in the Traveller community or sexual orientation an offense. However, it is generally only applicable to hate speech, with only five convictions under that legislation in the past 30 years, according to the Immigrant Council of Ireland.
The Irish Department of Justice and Equality told CNN that the Minister for Justice is “particularly conscious of concerns around hate crime,” and that, “in tandem with the review of the 1989 Act, the Department is currently undertaking research on how other countries have legislated for hate crime to determine international best practice in this regard. This important work will inform the development of Ireland’s legislative and policy response to this challenging issue.”
A report from the Irish Council of Civil Liberties, which analyzed the life cycle of a hate crime using data from 2011-2016 found that crimes motivated by hatred of a specific group were “routinely overlooked, minimized or excluded at the points of recording, investigation and prosecution,” and that hate elements of crime were often filtered out from the criminal justice process.
The Immigrant Council of Ireland is currently renewing its calls for effective hate crime legislation, noting the national action plan against racism expired 11 years ago.
Pippa Woolnough, the council’s communications and advocacy manager, told CNN that underlying this problem is the fact that the government doesn’t properly track data on hate crimes. While the police introduced new ways to record hate crimes in 2015, Woolnough said, in a report sent to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last year, the government admitted that data isn’t being collected in a way that the Central Statistics Office can use.
“We know that hate crime is a message crime,” said the ICCL report’s co-author Jennifer Schweppe, senior lecturer in Law at the University of Limerick.
Schweppe added that in response, “the message we (as a society) can send through legislation is that we do not think this is acceptable.”
“But at the moment we as a society and the legislature are not sending that message — and that has a number of implications,” she said.
Moving into the mainstream
Noonan said that racism and bigotry have always existed in Irish society but have “always been in the undercurrent.” Now, he added, this type of attitude is “starting to show its face.”
Ireland’s lack of hate crime legislation, coupled with a changing socio-political landscape that is seeing far-right narratives entering the mainstream, could be exacerbating racist, xenophobic, bigoted and homophobic attitudes, according to activists and NGO workers.
Noonan believes that, while these attitudes are held by a small section of Irish society, the surge of the far-right across parts of Europe — including movements in the UK, Poland, Austria and Germany — is emboldening some people to become violent.
This summer, Amanullah De Sondy, a senior lecturer in contemporary Islam at University College Cork (UCC) also received a frightening phone call from an unknown caller.
De Sondy was left a voicemail calling him a “scumbag, a terrorist” who “must stop lecturing the Irish on how they should live their life.” Then the voice said: “I hope you are executed.” De Sondy reported the call to police.
He told CNN that he had received a similar message in 2017 but that the recent call left him “shaken.” He said that the “narrative in Ireland” has changed, noting that as rapid social changes have taken place in the country — such as a rise in migration and recent referendums on abortion and same-sex marriage — it has also opened a space for a “fringe minority of hateful people” to become more politically charged.
Woolnough from the Immigrant Council of Ireland agrees. “For the first time there’s an emerging visibility of alt-right speech and far-right figures that we haven’t seen in Ireland before,” she said.
Mahmoud Rashid, president of Galway’s Ahmadiyya Muslim community, points to a wider anti-Muslim narrative across Irish society.
“When someone looks at an article that’s anti-Islamic or a video that shows a grooming gang (a group who takes advantage of vulnerable young people, often for sexual exploitation) what happens is that automatically it’s ‘Muslims are doing this,'” Rashid said.
“If there’s a constant bombardment of messages that Islam is evil,” it pushes members of society who might be easily swayed towards extremist messaging towards this ideology, he added.
Rashid, who immigrated to Ireland in 1999, said this prejudiced narrative is applied to Muslim and other migrant groups, including those who are seeking asylum. He pointed to messaging that some far-right pundits appropriated following the 2008 economic crisis tying domestic issues to an influx of migrants.
“What’s happened is a result of the economic crisis,” Rashid said. He explained that migrants who arrived in Ireland after the financial crash — and subsequent economic austerity — have often been blamed for social problems, including Ireland’s biggest housing crisis of modern times.
Since 2014, the number of Irish families who have been made homeless has risen by more than 212%, according to data from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. In that same period, Ireland has also seen a rise in its migrant population, including those who are seeking asylum.
Asylum seekers have often become the scapegoat of racist narratives wrongly conflating the housing crisis with migration, according to human rights activists.
A government system called Direct Provision is one of the main drivers responsible for fostering negativity and attacks on asylum seekers, according to many who live under it.
Under the system, asylum seekers are housed in emergency accommodation — often in overcrowded, poor conditions — while they wait to find out if they will be granted refugee status and permission to stay in Ireland. Asylum seekers are not allowed to apply for a work permit until at least eight months into their application process.
This wait for asylum can take years and has rejection rates at approximately 70%, according to recent Department of Justice figures.
Bulelani Mfaco, an asylum seeker from South Africa who has been living under Direct Provision since 2017, told CNN that the system itself is “institutionalized racism” on the part of the Irish government as “no one else is treated in the same way as asylum seekers are treated.”
Ireland’s Justice Department did not specifically address Mfaco’s allegation in comments to CNN. However, the department said the Direct Provision system offers “accommodation and related services to anyone without means, which includes all meals, medical care and utilities free of charge… The system was introduced to deal with a situation where asylum seekers were effectively homeless.”
The department added: “In recent years, a program of reforms has been initiated to deliver real improvements for residents in living conditions and standards.” This includes initiatives to increase integration and to provide support for residents from local residents, it said.
Mfaco campaigns to end Direct Provision with the group Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland. He said that segregating asylum seekers while denying them the right to work “reinforces stereotypes about migrants not working and living off the state,” leading them to be targeted with verbal and physical attacks.
Mfaco told CNN he has been subject to online abuse due to his campaigning, but it “becomes scary when it comes offline.”
He is referring to three recent attacks (two of which were suspected arson) on two proposed Direct Provision centers, hotels earmarked to provide accommodation to people seeking asylum, in the last nine months.
A statistical blindspot?
When you have an economic crisis and hardships, there are always those seeking to blame others, Shane O’Curry, director of the European Network Against Racism Ireland (ENAR Ireland) said.
And because there is no centralized data on discrimination and hate crimes, that can lead to a certain amount of denial within the Irish government — and its citizens — that it even exists, he said.
While mass migration is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland, experts on racism and discrimination say racist attitudes have always existed in the country, particularly when it comes to the Traveller community — an indigenous minority group recognized as a distinct ethnic group, whose traditional, nomadic lifestyle is an important part of their culture.
“It’s a mistake to say that there was no racism in Ireland until the migrants arrived — which in itself is a racist thing to say to begin with,” O’Curry said.
Some of the country’s long held, anti-Traveller sentiments were capitalized on in last year’s presidential election when independent candidate and businessman Peter Casey, who was struggling in the polls for most of the race, made incendiary remarks about the Traveller community towards the end of his campaign.
After he made those controversial comments about the Traveller community, including calling their special status a “load of nonsense,” he saw a bump in popularity, and eventually took second place in the race.
Casey dismissed the idea that those controversial comments were the reason for the rise in popularity.
But O’Curry believes that Casey’s remarks opened a “Pandora’s box,” saying that a small number of people might seize the atmosphere generated by such toxic discourse as a justification to get violent with minorities.
And without proper government legislation to target those crimes, he said, “you can say it (racism) doesn’t exist…then you aren’t obliged to gather data on it so you can go on and say that it’s not a problem.”
Instead, NGOs are filling in the gaps.
The 2018 Council of Civil Liberties (ICCL) report found that Travellers have long been subject “to virulent racism,” and that the state’s legal recourse for combatting online hate speech against the group has “proven particularly ineffectual.”
The ICCL report also found that Ireland has one of the highest rates of hate crime against people from Africa and transgender people in the EU.
Another report published by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in December 2017 stated that 21% of people surveyed from a sub-Saharan African background were subject to at six or more physical attacks because of their ethnic or immigrant background in the five years leading up to the survey, ranking the highest among the EU member states surveyed. The EU group average was 9% for this same group. People from Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Nigeria are among the top five nationalities of asylum seekers in Ireland.
In 2018, David Stanton, Ireland’s Minister of State for Equality, Immigration and Integration said in parliament that “other countries in which there is hate crime legislation in place have major problems, but we do not.” He pointed to existing criminal law, saying it was adequate in combating hate crimes and he mentioned the 1989 Act.
But human rights advocates argue that the law is limited in scope because it only protects certain groups, and ignores hatred against the disabled, intersex and transgender people, asylum seekers and refugees.
A year later, Stanton changed his tone, announcing in June that the government will establish a new Anti-Racism Committee “to help in the fight against racial discrimination in Ireland.” While he said that non-white groups face higher levels of discrimination despite legal protections against racial discrimination, there was no mention of a change to the law.
Back at Galway’s Maryam Mosque, no arrests have been made in connection with the July attack.
Still, members of the Ahmadiyya community say that they have been overwhelmed by the amount of support they’ve received from their neighbors and friends, who have stood in solidarity with them against the attacks.
But without the introduction of effective hate crime legislation, experts say, Ireland could be in danger of normalizing such violence.