Six attempts to steal, and prevent the flying of, the Pride flag in Galway were not incidents of boisterous behaviour, but "deliberate and targeted homophobic attacks" on the city's LGBT+ community while it was celebrating Pride.
This is the view of Social Democrats Galway City East councillor Owen Hanley, who is calling on the Government to introduce "overdue and necessary" hate crime legislation to "protect the freedoms" of LGBT+ people, as well as of racial and ethnic minorities.
His call follows two incidents in Eyre Square where the Pride flag was stolen. The flag was originally raised on August 12 to mark the start of last week's festival, and is a symbol of civic and political support for the city's LGBT+ community. There were also four attempts to steal a Pride flag flying at the 126 Gallery in Woodquay, with the final attempt being successful.
"The first attempt was during Leaving Cert results night so we just figured it was reckless behaviour, but the fourth time in the space of a week is a targeted attack and an attempt to intimidate the community," Cllr Hanley told the Galway Advertiser. "But we are a strong and resilient community and we will not take this sitting down."
Cllr Hanley, who is also a member of the Galway Pride committee, and the first openly gay man to be elected a Galway city councillor, described the incidents as "a shock" and "disappointing", but not surprising. He said the thefts were carried out "by a tiny minority that have become radicalised", but noted that, "as a community we still experience homophobia every day".
'It's not good enough to be passive. Homophobia, sexism, racism, and xenophobia need to be challenged. We need people to be pro-active. We need allies and for people to take such things personally, as we take such attacks personally'
"I absolutely do not want to overstate this, but homophobic incidents happen in Galway," he said. "They happen a lot. They happen too much. If you were watching the Pride parade last Saturday and listening to the chants you might think, 'They're an angry bunch', but this is why. A lot of people do not know this kind of thing is happening in their city."
Cllr Hanley said homophobia can be explicit, as in the situation with the flags, or happen at a more insidious level. "There is broad feeling of not being comfortable with always holding your partners hand in public, because you don't know if you're really in a safe space," he said. "There's a general feeling of not being able to be comfortable about being yourself.
"For a lot of people the only place they feel safe is within their community. We know we can get through things like this, but you still have to deal with these things after the fact, and the problem becomes how to tackle such attitudes and incidents so that they do not happen again."
As a result, Cllr Hanley is calling on the Government to introduce hate crime legislation to "defend the rights of minorities in this country properly". Ireland, unlike most other EU countries, has no hate crime legislation. "Such legislation targets bias-motivated crime, and empowers authorities to give justice to perpetrators, reassure victims, and reduce to rate of hate driven crime," said Cllr Hanley. "It's been successfully introduced in other countries and would allow us to collect data behind the causes of hate crime."
Largest Pride parade in Galway to date
However, last weekend demonstrated that the vast majority of Galwegians support the city's LGBT+ community, with more than 2,000 marching in Saturday's Pride parade - the largest number to date in Galway Pride's 30 year history - with crowds also lining the streets to watch, cheer, and applaud. Furthermore, last week saw the Galway City Council sign an agreement with the board of AMACH! to providee funding for the Teach Solais LGBT+ respource centre on Merchant's Road.
"We know Galway is a special place and that it stands behind us," said Cllr Hanley. "The vast majority is welcoming and celebrates with us at Pride, but Pride is just one week of the year. We need support every other week of the year as well."
As well as focussing on the LGBT+ community, Cllr Hanley sees the issue as one encompassing any form of prejudice and hatred, and has praised the work of the Galway Anti-Racism Network, and other bodies in the city, in tackling expressions of hate.
"Hate speech and prejudice is something that affects the LGBT+ community, but also Travellers, immigrants, and asylum seekers. We need to join together," he said. "All the political parties take part in the Pride parade, but we need the parties, their members, and elected representatives to use their influence to make our lives safer. It's not good enough to be passive. Homophobia, sexism, racism, and xenophobia need to be challenged. We need people to be pro-active. We need allies and for people to take such things personally, as we take such attacks personally."