The Minister for Justice has said that the new Criminal Justice Hate Crime Bill will provide for tougher sentences where crimes can be linked to hate or prejudice.

Helen McEntee told RTÉ's News at One that the bill is "complex and intricate" and that Ireland has had few prosecutions to date for the incitement of hatred.

She said that people who live in Ireland are victims of assault, threats and harassment because of their race, nationality, sexual orientation or disability.

She said the proposed legislation means that if someone commits a crime and is before a court "and it is decided there is an aggravating factor of hate" there will be a potential increase in their sentencing.

The bill will introduce tougher sentences for hate crime with terms of imprisonment in some cases more than doubling for new hate crime offences.

Ms McEntee said that "this is happening at the moment ... and crimes committed because of hate have more of an impact on the victims, on communities" and create divisions within society.

She said that defining prejudice and hate will use a range of "bias indicators" that can be considered by a jury, including evidence of comments or written statements or gestures used during an assault.

The minister said it could also consider patterns of previous crimes, though this is a challenge as hate crimes are not currently defined in law.

She said a huge amount of research with individuals, communities, An Garda Síochána, and legal experts had gone into the legislative efforts.

The Criminal Justice Hate Crime Bill will create new but more serious forms of certain existing criminal offences where these are motivated by characteristics such as race, religion or sexual orientation.

Minister McEntee today published a broad outline of the forthcoming legislation.

She said that while the law will also deal with hate speech, it will respect the constitutional right to freedom of expression and will not criminalise "giving offence".

Assault, coercion, harassment, criminal damage and threats to kill are already criminal offences but the Government said new and more severe sentences are to be introduced if these offences are found to be hate crimes.

Hate crimes will be defined in law as those motivated by prejudice against a protected characteristic such as race, colour, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability and national or ethnic origin including Traveller ethnicity.

The creation of new hate crimes means they can be investigated as such by gardaí and evidence of the hate presented in court.

The new bill will allow for sentences for hate crimes to increase by between three months and two years upon conviction and the penalty for incitement to hatred increasing from two to five years.

The maximum penalty for assault as a hate crime will increase from six months to nine months and assault causing harm from five years to seven years.

The maximum sentence for coercion as a hate crime will also increase from five to seven years while threats to kill, harassment and criminal damage to property as hate crimes will increase from ten to 12 years.

The maximum penalties for threatening or abusive behaviour, displaying obscene or offensive material in public as hate crimes will double from three to six months.

The new legislation will also allow for an alternative verdict where a person can be sentenced for an ordinary crime if the "hate" element has not been proven.

The threshold for criminal incitement to hatred in the new offences is intent or recklessness.

Minister McEntee said this has been set deliberately high to avoid some of the pitfalls seen elsewhere and means a person must either have deliberately set out to incite hatred, or at the very least have considered whether what they were doing would incite hatred, concluded that it was significantly likely, and decided to press ahead anyway.

She said the new law would be proportionate, specific and clear about what constitutes criminal hate speech which could lead to harm and illegal discrimination.

The Government said the new legislation will be enacted next year.

Additional reporting Paul Reynolds