Wednesday, 22 November 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Kenny: I have raised in the House with the Taoiseach on a number of occasions in the past one of the great scourges of humanity, and every parent’s worst nightmare, namely, paedophilia, which is a transnational problem and an international phenomenon. This issue is on the front of one of today’s major newspapers. Following the assault of two young girls in Dublin at the weekend, there is genuinely great fear, anxiety and concern among parents all over the country about the way we regulate these issues and the legislation that is in place.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Child Protection has been dealing with this issue. Deputy Jim O’Keeffe, on behalf of this side of the House, has been raising a particular point about Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is absolutely essential that our enforcement measures are on a par with the best of those that apply elsewhere.
I was struck by the dedicated unit that has been set up in Great Britain — the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre — which brings specialists from a variety of backgrounds to work together to protect children. That centre launched a website this week which is dedicated to locating child sex offenders who have failed to comply with the notification requirements. The difficulty, which is exacerbated in this country, is that while the details on the UK’s most wanted offenders are now posted on a dedicated website, www.ceop.gov.uk/wanted, one of them has been identified as living and working in Donegal for the past two years. It appears that if a convicted sex offender here wishes to work in one county, he or she can register in another. The concentration through this site in Great Britain is now having an effect — alleged, perceived or real — of sex offenders and paedophiles arriving in this jurisdiction. This is obviously of great concern.
Mr. Kenny: Does the Taoiseach agree that in this jurisdiction we must not be found wanting in what is the worst nightmare for parents, namely, to find their children tragically involved in something like this. Following the initiatives taken in the UK, we cannot afford to wait two or three years to follow suit. Can the Taoiseach guarantee that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister of State with responsibility for children will see to it that providing resources and getting our agencies working together in our children’s interests will be given absolute priority?
The Taoiseach: I agree with Deputy Kenny that it is a nightmare thought for parents that any of their children would be interfered with, harassed, assaulted or abused in any way. Obviously, it is an issue to which the authorities and the Government give the highest priority.
Deputy Kenny stated that a number of issues have been highlighted in a newspaper today. There is no evidence that sex offenders from other jurisdictions are abusing the system here. I have checked this matter with the justice and Garda authorities who have assured me that is not the case. We have had very close co-operation for many years and these issues have been highlighted previously. There is close co-operation between the Garda authorities. It is wrong to say that a system is not in place for tracking sex offenders who come here from Great Britain or Northern Ireland.
Any sex offender coming to this country from Great Britain or Northern Ireland is obliged by law to notify the Garda of his or her whereabouts, not to mind the co-operation that takes place between the police authorities. Failure to do so carries a penalty of imprisonment. That obligation extends to any sex offender entering this jurisdiction from abroad who has an obligation to register in his or her own country. If a person does not register in his or her own country, that is picked up also in the international system.
The Garda Síochána has a system in place to monitor offenders who are subject to these notification requirements and either they inform us or the other authorities inform us that they have gone missing. This means that nominated Garda inspectors in each Garda division are notified when a registered offender comes to live in their division. These officers are responsible for monitoring, and do monitor, such offenders.
When offenders go on the sex offenders register, the convictions are recorded on the Garda computer system — PULSE — even if those offenders had committed their crimes in another jurisdiction. This means that offenders’ criminal records would show up in any vetting process, including if they sought work in any of the vulnerable areas such as schools or health services where they might have access to children. It is wrong to suggest that a sex offender convicted abroad who seeks a job working with children or vulnerable adults could beat the vetting system. If the offence is on the vetting system it will come up, as would any offence committed in another jurisdiction, just as it would come up if it occurred in the west or in the middle of my constituency. Furthermore, the Garda can apply——
The Taoiseach: ——to the court for a sex offenders order against any registered offender if there is a belief that his or her behaviour in the community gives reasonable cause for concern or is a danger to the public.
In reply to Deputy Kenny’s fair question, I want to stress that this provision of the Sex Offenders Act, which is now five years old, applies to offenders coming here from abroad and the evidence necessary for obtaining that order can be sought from the police force of the country in which the person has offended.
Mr. Kenny: I do not doubt the Taoiseach’s concern in this matter. I assure him that whatever action the Government is required to take to make this area as regulated as it should be will have the support of this side of the House. Deputy Enright raised the issue on a number of occasions that volunteers and those working with young people in sporting facilities and other areas are not vetted. Yesterday I raised the issue that in the context of any constitutional referendum being held on the rights of children, soft information should be made available. I instanced the third anniversary of the Huntley case in Britain where evidence was clearly available about that person being interviewed in respect of serious sexual assault on a number of occasions prior to a double murder taking place. I know the committee dealing with child protection is looking at the law but what concerns me is that the administration of practice be implemented in the best way possible. For example, the different agencies that should be brought together, such as the ISPCC and Barnardos, under the chairmanship of the Minister of State with responsibility for children should see to it that the political drive and the political will exists to ensure this area is as regulated as it should be because of the genuine concern expressed by so many parents. The Taoiseach will be aware that a different system operates on the Continent than applies in Great Britain and Northern Ireland and, as a consequence, here. My principal concern is with the UK and Northern Ireland. I do not have evidence of the numbers of paedophiles or convicted sex offenders who are in this jurisdiction, suffice to say that the information or material that was available to a now-resigned former member of the Bench was apparently appalling.
Mr. Kenny: There may well be other elements of that in this jurisdiction in serious quantity. I do not know. As a parent I am concerned, and I express that concern on behalf of many others, that we should have the best level of regulation as possible in this area. For my part and that of my party, whatever active participation and regulation the Government requires we will assist. This is much too serious a matter on which to make mere political points. It is one of the great scourges of humanity and, as I said earlier, one of the true nightmares of every parent.
The Taoiseach: I accept what Deputy Kenny has said. I accept also that this is an area which cannot be over regulated, if it stops paedophilia or any kind of abuse. To reply specifically to some of the questions raised, the issue of soft information which has come to the fore a number of times is being examined. The Tánaiste has already said at the committee that that requires a constitutional amendment or a change. In the process of the constitutional discussions we are having on the related issues we would consider that important point.
There is close co-operation between the Garda and the authorities on this matter. Following the Huntley murder case and others, the British authorities stepped up co-operation because of concern in its jurisdiction and co-operation was also stepped up here. The Garda and the PSNI work closely on this because of the easy movement of people. Of course, there is easy movement of people between many places now. The movement of offenders is shared and exchanged on a daily basis between the police authorities.
A memorandum of understanding which will enhance the existing information sharing arrangements between Ireland and the UK, including Northern Ireland, relating to sex offenders, will be signed by the Tánaiste next Monday. In addition, under the intergovernmental agreement on North-South co-operation on criminal justice matters, an advisory group on registered sex offenders has already been established to enable continued and close co-operation and information sharing between the two parts of the island and with our neighbours in Britain. Clearly one can never say that nobody can get through the system but everything that has been recorded is available to our police. There is close co-operation and information is exchanged on a daily basis. There are nominated gardaí in each division who have a part to play. PULSE is updated on the position. The Garda has the power to monitor convicted sex offenders coming here from abroad and the power to seek a sex offenders order against them if they think they are a danger to the public. As I understand it, the Garda can move that order based on any——
The Taoiseach: The Garda is very conscious of this issue. The case in Swords is another example of a case that received much publicity. Unfortunately, there are many cases that get no publicity. It is an issue on which we have to be vigilant and nobody wants to tolerate these issues.
The memorandum of understanding on the sharing of arrangements will be launched by the Tánaiste and the Home Office Minister and the signing will take place at Hillsborough next week. That memorandum of understanding relates to information about persons travelling between this jurisdiction and the UK and those who are subject to sex offender notification requirements in their own jurisdiction. Its purpose is the sharing of such information for, first, the protection of the public from the risk presented by sex offenders and, second, the investigation of serious sex offences and covers any information necessary to achieve those purposes. That will strengthen what is contained in the memorandum of understanding.
Mr. Rabbitte: Relatives of the 48 young people who lost their lives in the unimaginable horror of the Stardust fire will be picketing outside the gates of Leinster House later today. What response can the Government make to their plea? They made a comprehensive submission to the Government during the summer. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform eventually met relatives. We do not know the Government’s response even though the matter has been raised here consistently by my colleague, Deputy Broughan. The last thing we want to do on this side is to raise hopes that cannot be met. Nonetheless, the submission suggests there is good reason to believe that further investigation is warranted. It comes down to a net point — was the fire arson or accident? Their submission believes, and there are expert witnesses to suggest the same thing, that the tribunal misdirected itself as to a crucial fact relating to the layout and design of the premises and that it worked from a map that did not show the correct layout of the storerooms and the combustible material. The Keane tribunal found that the forensic investigation of the site was inadequate.
Mr. Rabbitte: The owners of the premises were left for a number of days in control of the premises before the forensic investigation took place. I put it to the Taoiseach that we have a tried mechanism that may well be appropriate in this situation, the facility to send in a senior counsel with the assistance of an expert assessor to review the tribunal papers, to review the Garda reports, to study the submission from the relatives, to take whatever evidence he would consider appropriate and to establish whether there is a basis for a fuller public investigation. This was an unimaginable horror inflicted on a working class community. They believe, as I do, that if they had some of the great and the good in their midst and if they were assisted by some of the professional classes they would not have been ignored for 25 years in the manner in which they have been ignored. It is coming to the stage where the Government must make up its mind. I do not understand the procrastination. A very long time has transpired since disturbing evidence was proffered that the tribunal may have misdirected itself.
The Taoiseach: We are all very familiar with the Stardust events and I certainly am because at the time I lived beside the Stardust site in the Pinebrook estate in Artane. As I was the administrator on call in the Mater Hospital that night, I remember it very well. It was for that reason that I decided after 25 years it was time for somebody to do it. Deputy Rabbitte is right in stating that no Government for the past 25 years has taken too much interest in it since the public inquiry — I did. I would like to consider that I got some credit for taking that interest. I will gladly acknowledge that Deputy Broughan has raised the matter with me in the House a number of times over the years.
For that reason I agreed to meet the relatives in the early part of the summer. However, Greg O’Neill, their legal representative, with whom I have dealt on many cases, did not have the evidence available. Deputy Rabbitte can drop the “eventual”. When they had the information I met them with the Tánaiste and we had a long meeting. That meeting was about two issues. I am very familiar with all the details in the submission. I met the committee on 18 September when I got the submission and had a chance to look at it. There has been very active and positive consideration to address the issues of concern to the committee and to provide assistance to the families since then.
The first issue they raised with me on that day and in their data was to initiate and oversee a process intended to lead to the identification of the five unidentified victims. The Garda authorities followed a very exhaustive process, because on that day the chief forensic scientist and other senior staff were present. We then pursued it with the Garda. The Garda authorities have agreed to give their full support in the logistics of this process. That will be assisted by the forensic science laboratory with specialist analytical input from the UK. We could not have done that in the past — so it is not a criticism — because it is only in modern times that the DNA would have helped in this. The costs of the process will be borne by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. These include the analytical expenses as well as the exhumation and reburial expenses and reasonable costs. That was the first issue.
The second issue was as follows. They had an independent evaluation of the evaluation that was done for the independent inquiry — not new information. It is an independent evaluation of the original evaluation. I know the families are very anxious to receive a response to this. They particularly looked for a new public inquiry. They believe that the inquiry of the former Chief Justice, Ronan Keane, was flawed. They asked that these issues be looked at. There are the issues raised by Deputy Rabbitte and a number of other issues as well. However, it centres on the arson-accident issue and the technical issues.
I will give Deputy Rabbitte the answer he knows. It is not within my competence or that of my Department to make the technical, engineering and forensic analysis of this. It is a complex evaluation. After that meeting I asked senior officials, including senior technical officials, to examine these matters fully with an absolutely open mind. I will do anything I can to help these families. I know many of them personally and have met many of them over the years. I have met many delegations on their behalf. They have protested at my office and are protesting outside Leinster House. They believe that such actions highlight the issue. My advice is that it will not help one bit. I will help them to the best of my ability and in every way I can, but I must go on the total assessment made by the people who are independently capable of doing this. I have asked them to do this as fully and comprehensively as possible. When they give me that information, I will give that report. I cannot make a judgment about all the issues and I do not want to make any glib answers. I know what the issues are. I am not in a position to do that. However, there are people who can make that assessment.
We are talking about a very long public inquiry held under the chairmanship of the former Chief Justice, Ronan Keane, with all the advice that was there. They have now come back with their independent analysis of that and I have asked for people to make a judgment on it. I will report that. I will do that as soon as I have it. With the greatest of respect and to be helpful to the people, because I know them all, there is no need for them to be protesting and to be out in inclement weather. As soon as I have that report, I will do that, as I did with the exhumations, which was not a very good area for them to deal with — it was very horrific stuff. The House has my word that I will do that. However, I cannot pre-empt it and I cannot ignore it. I must base it on the evidence I get.
Mr. Rabbitte: I am merely concerned that some peace of mind should be brought to the relatives concerned about the terrible tragedy that befell them. The Taoiseach says: “Deputy Rabbitte is right in stating that no Government for the past 25 years has taken too much of an interest in it since the public inquiry — I did”, but I am bound to remind him that he has been in government since 1987 with the exception of two years. He has been Taoiseach for ten years. If he cannot offer them some way forward or some hope, who can? As far as I am concerned, this was an act of corporate manslaughter. If ever there is a definition of corporate manslaughter, this is it, with people crowded in unconscionable numbers into an unsafe space with the doors padlocked and combustible materials in the attic. How long does it take us to get this independent evidence that will enable the Taoiseach to make a decision about what mechanism can be put in place to satisfy the reasonable requests of the people concerned?
Mr. Rabbitte: The finding of arson enabled the owners of these premises to get millions in damages from the State and the taxpayer. The most serious questions were raised into which I do not want to go here. Given the precedent of Mr. Paddy McEntee, SC, being appointed in respect of the Barron report and other precedents since the commission of inquiries legislation was introduced, there is a way to appoint a senior senior counsel with an expert assessor. Let them do the work that the Taoiseach claims he cannot do. However, let Government make a decision on the matter and take those people out of their agony. They do not feel they have any clout in Irish society. They do not feel anybody is listening to them.
Mr. Rabbitte: They understand that the Taoiseach, along with everybody else in the House, has sympathy for the terrible grief they endured. However, they do not believe that anybody is likely to act to give them some confidence that at least the State has sought to get answers to questions that remain unanswered.
The Taoiseach: I will not be partisan about it either. I do not believe that Deputy Rabbitte can fairly make a political point that if I got information in September and dealt with it immediately, that was delaying it. They did not present this information. They did present other information over the years, which successive Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and Justice, Equality and Law Reform considered.
Let us not forget that a full sworn inquiry into this matter took place and that a comprehensive system designed to help the families involved was established. Politicians, including the then Taoiseach, and the then Attorney General, Mr. John Rogers, made huge efforts to deal with these issues in the 1980s. With the passage of time, new issues arose, particularly in respect of DNA, a matter with which we have since dealt. I understand the nature of the grieving process and I accept that people were not sure or could never be certain about their loved ones being identified and asked that the matter be addressed.
The Taoiseach: ——but the relatives put forward their own claims in their submission. I cannot supply an exact date in respect of this matter. My officials have been trying to press the people who have the relevant technical competence to deal with this matter.
The Taoiseach: We have accepted that the information has been provided in good faith. However, I cannot make an assessment because I am not a forensic scientist, an architect or an engineer. I have given careful consideration to the matter, taken on board the submissions and listened to the relatives, their advisers and Mr. Greg O’Neill. I spoke to the relatives and understand the hurt they have suffered for 25 years. When the competent authorities provide me with an answer, I will gladly supply it. I cannot do any more than that. I sincerely say to the relatives that they have fought long and hard in respect of this matter and as soon as the information becomes available — it will be a matter of weeks rather than months before this happens — I will supply it. I cannot be pinned to a date in that regard. I checked the position in recent days before making an announcement yesterday regarding the exhumations. I accept Deputy Rabbitte’s bona fides in respect of this matter and as soon as the information is communicated to me, I will make it available.
Mr. J. Higgins: For the past two years, a small, isolated, part-Gaeltacht community in County Mayo has, on the authority of the Government, been bullied and harassed by major oil and gas companies in order to railroad it into accepting the running of pipelines that will contain raw, untreated gas at unprecedented pressure through their area and an industrial refinery in the heart of what is one of the most pristine and beautiful parts of the country.
The Government has put the Garda Síochána in the position of acting almost as a private army for the notorious Shell oil corporation, a company that has left a trail of environmental destruction around the world. The Garda has used totally unacceptable and heavy-handed tactics against the people of Erris. Let us scotch, once and for all, the spurious propaganda put abroad by some Government politicians and elements of the media that outsiders are going into Erris and causing trouble as if the local people were puppets on a string. The entire protest has been directed by members of the local community and is designed to protect the locality and its natural resources.
I wish to illustrate what the people of the area are being obliged to endure. On 16 October, when three other Independent Deputies and I held, in a totally peaceful context, a press conference and a meeting with local people at Bellanaboy, two members of the Garda with video cameras intruded upon it and filmed the proceedings in their entirety. We complained to the Garda Commissioner and the Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform in respect of what must be an unprecedented action on the part of members of the Garda Síochána in intruding upon Members of the Oireachtas carrying out their representational functions, but we have not yet received a reply. If the Taoiseach was meeting a Fianna Fáil cumann in north Mayo, is he of the view that members of the Garda would barge in and make a video recording of proceedings as if he were a criminal? The verbal and physical abuse to which members of the community to which I refer have been subjected is reprehensible.
A number of Independent Deputies do not fully agree with all the demands of the people of Rossport. However, we all want justice for those people and their community. Deputy Cowley has staunchly represented the community when others turned away. In recent times, a new initiative has been undertaken by the Shell to Sea campaign, directed by the local community, in respect of bringing into being an independent public commission which would conduct public hearings and in respect of which community consent would be a fundamental criterion. Opinion polls carried out in Mayo and nationally indicate that a majority of the people support their counterparts in Erris in demanding that the Shell facility be placed offshore in order that the intrusion, pollution and danger it might cause can be avoided.
The initiative to which I refer has been dismissed with an arrogance that only the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources can summon. Will the Taoiseach accept the initiative and put into being a new process under which this issue might be resolved?
The Taoiseach: When Deputy Joe Higgins and other Members of the House raised this matter a few years ago, I supported the carrying out of a further examination of the safety and security issues and the procurement of outside and independent international advice in this regard. The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, spent a year carrying out such an examination.
I am aware that the site development work relating to the Corrib gas terminal at Bellanaboy is continuing. I am also aware that protesters continue to attempt to block workers from entering the site. I respect the right of people to protest but I am strongly of the view that employees also have the right to travel to work unimpeded.
I have no reason to argue about these issues. There has been unprecedented consultation and deliberation in respect of them. It was a long process and separate statutory approvals and consent had to be obtained. Licences were required in respect of six separate elements of the project. Under the Continental Shelf Act 1968, everything had to be examined in respect of the construction of the onshore installation. That was completed on 15 April.
Matters also had to be examined in the context of the Petroleum and Minerals Development Act 1960, a process that concluded on 15 April 2002, and the Gas Act 1976, as amended, deliberations in respect of which also concluded in 2002. An integral part of the plan for the development was approved on 15 April 2005. A foreshore licence was approved, under the Foreshore Act 1993, as amended, in respect of the routing of the pipelines through the foreshore connecting the gasfield to the land-based installation. Under the Planning Acts, in respect of the land-based installation — the terminal — this was a condition of the plan of development approval and An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission in October 2004 for the gas terminal and the associated disposition site subject to 42 conditions.
Under the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992, an integrated pollution control licence for the operation of the terminal was issued. This is a condition of the plan of development approval and is under negotiation with the EPA. In addition to these and the issues to which I referred earlier, the Minister issued compulsory acquisition rights orders and compulsory purchase orders. Environmental impact assessments were carried out and an environmental impact statement completed. All these statutory processes have been gone through and most had been completed when I supported the independent assessment that was carried out. These matters are finished and the Deputy will agree that an end position is sometimes reached in a case. That was reached some time ago.
Mr. J. Higgins: The matter is not finished. The Taoiseach is dealing with a county and a community that introduced the word “boycott” into the English language when the agents of an imperial power imposed on the local community. History is repeating itself in a different way. The investigations to which the Taoiseach referred were not comprehensive enough to take into account all the issues of crucial importance to the community. An Bord Pleanála reversed the decision of one of its key inspectors. No planning permission was needed for the pipeline through Rossport on the basis of the Alice in Wonderland logic that it was an offshore pipeline, even though it will be laid six miles inland.
The Government has no problem giving away our natural resources for nothing to multinational corporations, as it has done in the case of the Corrib gas field, Aer Lingus, Telecom Éireann and other critical infrastructure. Apart from other considerations, does the Taoiseach ever think of his own legacy in this regard? He has said in a few years he will hang his flower baskets full time. Does he want as a permanent legacy the destruction of a landscape of great beauty by the imposition of an entirely inappropriate industrial and polluting entity so that a few dollars more profit can be made by the notorious Shell oil corporation? Will the Taoiseach recognise that, unless the Government has community consent, which it does not, the issue is not finished? Will he grant the independent commission? When the Independent Deputies raised the issue of natural resources during Private Members’ business, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources said he would revisit the terms under which licences are given to major corporations. Has that been done? When will the outcome of the review be known so that at least the people will receive royalties from their own natural resources?
The Taoiseach: I have no reason to argue with the Deputy about this. He knows the legislative, governance and safety processes have been gone through extensively. The Government was anxious that safety issues would be re-examined and international experts were independently hired following a procurement process——
The Taoiseach: They examined the issues in minute detail. Deputy Joe Higgins is aware this has happened. I have made it clear that work should continue on the Corrib gas field, which is a major national infrastructural project.
An Ceann Comhairle: When the Chair is on his feet, the Deputy should resume his seat. I ask him to show courtesy to his colleagues. There are three Leaders’ Questions and only leaders are entitled to put a question. The Taoiseach replies and no other Member is entitled to intervene.
Deputy Joe Higgins correctly said I hope some day to look after my baskets and flower pots but I hope the horticultural industry will have the benefit of gas from Bellanaboy and the Corrib field rather than Russia by then because that would be much better.
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