Wednesday, 27 May 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Beverley Flynn: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which covers three major areas, namely, the operation of the Schengen system of information exchange between European authorities, the law relating to European arrest warrants and changes relating to the licensing of firearms law. I would like to deal with a number of them in detail.
I will first turn to the licensing of firearms because a number of fairly dramatic changes on this matter are incorporated into the Bill and the Minister is anxious to try to change the gun culture that exists in society. The Minister is very anxious to try to change the gun culture which exists. We would all like to see that change given the number of terrible tragedies we have seen over the past number of years in regard to gun crime.
However, I would like to raise another point. This Bill will cap the number of full power handguns to those licensed in November 2008. The number of those weapons legally held will gradually decline. It is obvious this will be the case given what the Minister has said in the past and comments made by the Garda Commissioner. It is clear we are looking at the phasing out of handguns in society. The Bill also bans the outright practice of combat inspired practical shooting and requires the importation of weapons to be done through registered firearms dealers.
The Schengen information system provides an important step in the integration of the SIS into the tools available to authorities. Anything which tips the balance in favour of the authorities against the criminal must be a positive mechanism. I welcome the fact this is incorporated in the Bill. It will provide a very important tool to the Irish authorities in dealing with criminals in the years ahead.
I refer to the European arrest warrant. Many of the changes in this regard are technical in nature but they clarify indistinct procedural rights, remove avenues for perceived abuses and increase Garda powers to apprehend and detain certain subjects under warrants. The experience in Ireland has been that the length of time taken for someone to be extradited on foot of a warrant has been very long, sometimes in the region of nine months. The purpose of some of the changes in this Bill is to try to make that shorter, somewhere in the region of six weeks. That will help the authorities to fight crime and must be welcomed.
I turn to firearms. There is a time constraint in regard to this aspect, that is, that firearm licences are due to expire on 31 July 2009. The Minister is very anxious that the new regulatory regime is in place before this time.
A point has been brought to my attention by a number of my constituents. I am absolutely against gun crime. We are all trying to reduce the amount of gun crime in Ireland but I am anxious that people involved in legitimate sporting activities are facilitated.
I draw the Minister’s attention to some aspects where he might look again at the Bill to try to protect people involved in legitimate sporting activities. From the interaction I have had with these people in my constituency, I know them to be of the highest integrity. They never put a foot wrong in terms of the law because they know that to do so would result in their licences being revoked. They are very careful to ensure that they do not get a speeding fine or to break the law in any way. As I said, they are people of the highest integrity. It is important not to confuse people who hold handguns for this type of legitimate sporting activity with those people who deal in illegal business and carry out horrendous gun crimes.
The Minister has very strong ideas in regard to the gun culture and where he is coming from is understandable given the many highly publicised cases in the past. However, it is important to look at some of the facts as far as Ireland is concerned. At present, we have 20 licensed firearms per 1,000 people. New Zealand, which has a similar population, has 760,000 legally held rifles and shotguns. Approximately 4% of households in the UK possess some form of legal firearm. Our statistics, relative to countries with similar populations, are on the low side.
I refer to black firearms and shotguns which are of particular concern. There is no hard evidence or hard facts on the number imported or otherwise, so it is hard to get an accurate figure of the number of these guns in existence. Anecdotal evidence would suggest there is a considerable population of black firearms available. Some of the figures from the Central Statistics Office from 2007 indicate that there were 428 cases of illegal firearm possession charges in that year up from 373 in 2003. In 2008, this figure was 462.
It is clear there is a serious problem with illegal firearms in this country but the people involved in the legitimate sporting activities would argue that there is no evidence to suggest that a legally held handgun has got into the wrong hands and has been in any way involved in illegal activity. In fact, it has been pointed out to me in terms of the licensing requirements and the regulations currently being imposed on applicants’ for licences by their local superintendent that severe conditions are imposed on them. In many cases, the applicant can be obliged to submit to medical and psychological screening.
Applicants for rifle and pistol licences must be members of an authorised gun club. In the case of restricted firearms, the applicant must satisfy an additional requirement that the firearm is the only weapon that can be used for that legitimate purpose. It is also important to note that all legally held handguns are held by ordinary individuals who have been thoroughly vetted by a division of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and by the Garda to ensure suitability to hold a handgun licence and that the purpose for which these guns are held are for legitimate legal sporting interests which are internationally recognised.
The people in possession of these licences must have a secure gun safe and a sophisticated burglar alarm. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that it is much easier for the criminal fraternity to get access to handguns through drug shipments and not by stealing legally held handguns which are held under the strict conditions imposed by the local superintendent.
Will the Minister look at why any licence issued since 19 November 2008 will be revoked once this legislation is passed? Many people who have obtained a licence since that time are genuinely involved in sporting activities. Effectively, they will not be able to practice a sport they may have practised for many years. Would it be possible to revisit that measure?
It is clear from comments made by the Minister and the Garda Commissioner that it is the intention to phase out many of these licences. People have spent a lot of money on their guns and have invested in ranges which facilitate this type of sporting activity which will become a thing of the past.
I have never held a handgun in my life and the only time I held a shotgun was when clay pigeon shooting so I do not want to let on that I have any great interest in this activity. There are approximately 20 people who hold legally held handguns in County Mayo. I know these people to be of the utmost integrity. They shudder at the thought that they would be even categorised in the same Bill as those involved in gangland activity. They have pointed out to me that they want to be distanced completely from such people.
People from County Mayo must travel to Dublin and Wicklow to get to a range to facilitate their sport. The gun is dismantled, put in the car and the greatest care is taken travelling to and from the venues. These people consider this to be a legitimate sport and they see no good reason that they should be prevented from participating in a legal sport which is internationally recognised. They also point out that there is no evidence to show that any persons have been shot with legally held handguns. They ask that the Bill clearly distinguish between handguns for legitimate sporting purposes and those illegally held handguns which the Minister believes are being held for other purposes and which are creating this gun culture about which he has spoken. Will the Minister consider if anything can be done in the Bill to clarify that point?
Section 25 gives the Minister power to declare that a particular firearm or ammunition is prohibited. This gives very strong powers to the Minister. These powers were invoked in the past. A one month ban was introduced by the former Minister, Des O’Malley, in 1972 which went on for 30 years or more. Serious action must be taken by the Minister to try to prevent gun crime and I recognise his seriousness in trying to address a serious issue and I do not want to downplay that in any way. I recognise the hard work he is doing. I would simply ask him to look again at the whole area of legitimate sporting activity and how that might be facilitated. Perhaps he might include the words “for legitimate sporting purposes” in section 25(2C)(4) to recognise that point.
I draw his attention also to section 29 of the Bill, which deals with the whole area of international practical shooting, which is also regarded as an international sport. Again, people involved in this activity make the point that there is no link or association between the IPSC and combat training. It is clear from the Bill, however, that the Minister sees a very clear link between the two. I ask, again, that he revisit that and consider whether it might be possible to insert an amendment into section 29, substituting the words “combat or combat training” with the words “practical and dynamic shooting”. If it were possible to change two phrases around, it would facilitate those involved in the sport.
I welcome section 31, which now only allows importation of firearms through legitimate dealers who have provided tax clearance certificates. I would be very supportive of any effort to get proper statistical evidence on who is bringing guns into the country. This is something the gun clubs around the country do not like, but I disagree with them in this regard. I believe it is important to restrict the people who are in a position to import guns into Ireland, so that we can have strict control on those who are legitimately entitled to bring in firearms.
I support the measures in the Bill, certainly in so far as the Schengen Agreement is concerned, regarding extradition. I believe they will provide a very important armoury to our authorities in dealing with crime in our society. My only reservation about the licensing of handguns is that the Minister should look at it again to facilitate those involved in legitimate sport, particularly when there is no evidence to suggest that these guns are getting into the wrong hands or that these people are involved in any type of activity other than sport. Apart from that, I commend the Bill to the House.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: I welcome the principle involved in this Bill, which I have looked at on a number of occasions. There are many technicalities involved with it, which obviously will be beneficial in the administration of justice. I think of the Firearms Acts 1925 to 2007, the European Arrest Warrant Act 2003, the Bail Act 1997, the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001, the Criminal Justices Act 1984 and the Summary Jurisdiction Act 1857. It is laudable to see improvements being made and the streamlining and co-ordination of legislation in a seamless manner that hopefully will be of benefit to the administration of justice in confronting crime.
Apropos the points raised by Deputy Flynn, I agree in general. We must be very careful to clarify that there is a vast difference between people who are engaged in sporting activity and those who have other motives for seeking firearms. I am not aware of any body or group involved in sporting activities which would lend themselves in any way to illegal activity — I do not know to what extent limitation will be of benefit, in that sense. I am concerned, however, about law-abiding citizens seeking handguns in order to protect themselves, such is the state of the society in which we live. It is sad, but that is the way it is.
The Minister knows better than anybody that we are going through a difficult time in Irish society and there is total disrespect for any type of law and order by a certain fraternity. Members of this fraternity use every opportunity to advance their cause. They use intimidation and firearms, flout the bail laws and do everything possible to ensure that they live the high life at the expense of society. Society is under threat from these people, namely, organised crime gangs.
I still do not know to what extent the Bill will enhance the State’s ability to combat this situation. We have a plethora of proposed legislation in the justice area, either promised or threatened, for the past five or six years and the time has come for serious legislation that will significantly undermine the activities of the type of people I am talking about. We have only been playing with this heretofore. The whole question of people committing multiple serious crime while on bail will not be affected to any extent by this legislation unless the bail laws are changed.
I was a Member of this House when the Criminal Justice Act 1984 was passed. The House had to sit through the night twice and I was among those concerned about the civil liberties of people and the possibility that perhaps the law might be used in a wrong way. I believe we have passed that point by a long shot at this particular time. The murder of journalist Veronica Guerin a few years ago was a watershed that galvanised society and everybody paid attention. It was sad that it had to come to that before the country realised that a difficult situation was arising which could not continue. I mentioned this morning the repeated findings of pipe bombs all over this city and particularly in the greater Dublin area. There is a reason for that — these things are not just done as recreational pursuits. The purpose is intimidation and it is very effective. It appears that it is being done with impunity. Every time we hear of an incident such as this, it is just one more. The situation now unfolding is very serious.
I would like to believe the Minister is fully alerted to what is happening. I am aware the Garda has done some tremendous work in recent times, but for some unknown reason the criminal fraternity in this country, and those with connections or domiciled outside Ireland and who run criminal empires from outside this jurisdiction, as well as those who run them from inside prisons here, have utter contempt for our society and any type of justice or regard for the law. There are those who try to reassure people by insisting that the level of crime in Ireland is relatively low. The fact is that the crime levels in Ireland which have developed in recent years are very serious and the trend continues to grow.
For example, we know quite well that there is fairly widespread intimidation of witnesses. I know there is proposed legislation on that matter, although I do not know when it will come or whether it will be effective. There is reference to it in this legislation, but I am not certain that it will get to the nub of the matter.
I attended a meeting in Brussels some time ago which was addressed by Europol and Eurojust. I know there are attempts to address these issues through the Schengen Agreement, but it was clearly illustrated to Members of Parliaments from all the European member states that criminal gangs were running rampant and had a great communications system. They had great camaraderie and recognised each other’s authority in their respective areas. Effectively, they are taking on individual European states and they seem to be getting away it by undermining democracy. They are using the openness and fairness of democracy to undermine and defeat the people and institutions of state and effectively paralyse them. Much has been said in recent years about zero tolerance and the fact that minor culprits should be summarily dealt with, charged and so on. However, that is not where the problem lies.
Great credit is given to a certain mayor of New York who claimed that he had achieved zero tolerance when, in actual fact, it was his predecessor who achieved it. The latter struck at those at the highest levels of the criminal fraternity in New York. He made it difficult for them to operate, put them out of business and seized their assets. The Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, is doing good work but members of the Irish criminal fraternity are well resourced and can afford to seek the best legal advice. In some cases, these individuals have been extremely successful.
My point is that those at the top must be dealt with. Those who are most inspired by those who pursue criminal activities on a wide scale are the young people who will become tomorrow’s criminals. That is sad. The individuals to whom I refer see those in the criminal fraternity living the high life and being successful. They also see them intimidating people into leaving their homes in what, in some cases, almost amounts to ethnic cleansing. This is an extremely serious matter.
Headlines relating to the criminal fraternity have been appearing in our newspapers for some time. However, the examples they have set are beginning to have an effect and petty criminals and hooligans are beginning to follow in their footsteps. The latter do so on the basis that they can get away with it. If large corporations are able to get away with questionable behaviour, these people believe there is no reason that they should not emulate those whom they perceive to be their betters.
I have long been of the view that there is a need for a single item of consolidating legislation which will tackle the criminal kingpins head on. I refer here to those who are serious operators and who live in our cities, major towns and even some of our smaller towns. If the Garda Síochána makes it too hot for these individuals to operate in certain areas, they move to the suburbs. Once there, they settle down and, in some cases, achieve a certain amount of respectability. However, most of what they do is achieved through fear and intimidation.
Another matter which is of great solace to those in the criminal fraternity is their ability to raise funds. In order to raise funds, these people can rob institutions and then launder or invest money. I accept that legislation is in place to help the authorities tackle behaviour of this nature but they cannot combat it in its entirety. The CAB has been particularly incisive and has done tremendous work. I pay tribute to it in this regard. However, a great deal more must be done and there is a need to wage a war of attrition against the criminal groupings to which I refer.
There is not a town or village throughout the country which has not been affected by the anti-social behaviour of gurriers who are intent on intimidating their neighbours. These individuals make life difficult for young people, their contemporaries and older people and intimidate them by just hanging around. They throw stones or marbles at people’s windows, fire air guns, etc., in order to intimidate their neighbours. In many instances, people who have lived in particular places all their lives — I am sure other Members have evidence of this — are moving out. I was contacted by a person in my constituency this afternoon who asked whether it would be possible for her to move to a different location because she can no longer remain where she resides at present. That is a sad reflection on society.
There is no point in stating that what is happening is part of societal development and that it was part of the Celtic tiger years. Like hell it was. There is no need for the kind of nonsense to which I refer. If people do not respect the rights and property of others and if they do not acknowledge some form of authority, then we will get nowhere.
Until such time as the members of the criminal fraternity who are roaming the land and carrying out various heinous acts on a regular basis are confronted in a meaningful way, progress will not be made. I have no hesitation in stating that the bail laws must be amended. In circumstances where there is substantial evidence to the effect that a person has used a gun, knife or some other weapon to commit murder, I cannot understand how he or she is entitled to be out on bail until his or her trial takes place. I accept that the law dates back to the 1960s but we live in a different era.
I am aware that the civil liberties of all those who are accused of committing crimes must be observed. However, we have reached a point where the civil liberties of criminals are more sacrosanct than those of ordinary citizens. That is a sad development and I do not know how it came about. We used to have great respect for the rights and property of other people. In recent times, however, the ordinary person’s right to exist appears to have been pushed aside so that the civil liberties of those who are involved in committing serious crimes on a regular basis might be protected.
What justification can there be for granting bail to a person who is charged with murder or with shooting somebody who, when released, shoots or attempts to shoot someone else? Has everyone gone daft? Such a situation cannot be allowed to continue. As the Minister is aware, events such as those to which I refer have taken place. I do not blame him, but someone must take action.
A number of crime correspondents have been writing about what has been happening in this country for the past seven or eight years or perhaps longer. These people can cite chapter and verse with regard to how the situation is becoming worse. They are in a position to do so because they are continually monitoring events. While there have been a number of spectacular successes as far as the Garda is concerned, there have also been a number of extremely serious and worrying developments. Not only has it been proven that some serious criminals are walking our streets, but also that with access to a bit of expertise, they can get away with what they are doing. That is the sad part because I am of the view that it signals the fact that we are close to a total breakdown with regard to both the administration of justice and the protection of citizens.
In all the time I have spent as a Member of this House, I have never seen a more serious attempt being made by those who make a great deal of money from criminal activity to undermine and challenge society. That is not a good development. It is time for society or its elected representatives to look these people in the eye and answer that challenge. If this is not done soon, it will be too late. As far as I can determine, if legislation, when enacted, does not seem to have a definite impact on the people to whom I refer, they develop a new sense of enthusiasm which encourages them to commit further crimes.
There is a need to review the position of the courts. There are many technical references to the courts and the European arrest warrant in this legislation. I am not in the business of criticising the Judiciary but there have been some extraordinary situations. Maybe for lack of evidence or intimidation of witnesses or jurors, both of which have occurred, it appears that some regard serious crime as a nominal offence. Some think that with a bit of luck one can get away with it if one studies law in prison and develops expertise. It is about time we recognise what is going on. I suggest there is an area that must be addressed and I do not suggest the legal practitioners are to blame. The Minister is a legal practitioner and this is not a personal accusation. However, something serious is happening that must be examined.
I am coming to the end of my contribution — all good things come to an end. However, I cannot understand how people get away with this minor matter. I refer to when a heinous act takes place, usually a sexual attack, and the perpetrator cannot be named for legal reasons. The victim may have been seriously traumatised, yet the perpetrator cannot be named for legal reasons, presumably because it has not yet been proven that he or she was responsible. When leaving the court, some of the hard men decide to give television cameras and photographers the two fingered salute. This is the ultimate in what they think of society, Parliament, the Garda Síochána and the people of this country who feel under the cosh all the time from thugs of every description, who appear to be able to display themselves in this fashion with impunity. Then, there is something wrong.
Deputy Chris Andrews: I am delighted to speak on this Bill. The vast majority of Irish people are decent and law-abiding and are entitled to live without fear of being the target of criminal activity in any form. As legislators, it is up to us to do everything we can in the fight against crime. We have all been shocked by the increasing brutality of crime and the way criminal gangs carry out business. Individuals carry out crimes without a second thought.
Last week in Dublin South-East a young mother, Esther Uzell, whose brother Joseph Rafferty was killed a number of years ago, declared that she would run as an Independent candidate in the local authority elections. Only three nights ago, her car was smashed to bits at 1.30 a.m. by five hooded people. They destroyed her car, shouted abuse at her apartment and called for her and her husband to come out. This was an act of serious intimidation by thugs, whom scum is the more accurate description. They have been intimidating this family over the years and this is unacceptable. The Garda Síochána has put in a substantial number of man hours in trying to identify the people who killed Joseph Rafferty. These people can do what they want without feeling they could be apprehended. Having met the Garda Síochána about this and other matters, I have no doubt their time will come and they will be caught. The Garda Síochána is unrelenting in pursuit of these individuals, to the credit of the force.
The increase in the use of firearms and in knife crime has been well documented. Reports suggest that gardaí are seizing an average of 500 firearms a year. I welcome the provisions in this Bill. As legislators we must give the Garda Síochána the necessary powers and this Bill is one part of the jigsaw to make society safer. The 500 firearms seized every year is a considerable figure and makes a positive impact on reducing crime. I welcome the provisions in this Bill that set out to tackle the issue, particularly the handgun ban and the application of much tougher penalties for individuals found in possession of knives. Knives are particularly nasty weapons and it is important to deal with this area.
As the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform outlined, handguns were effectively banned in the State until 2004. However, due to a number of judicial decisions, that is no longer the case. Some 1,800 handguns have been licensed, an alarming figure. I fully support the actions in this Bill to ban the ownership of handguns.
These proposals have received the backing of the Chief Inspector of the Garda Inspectorate, Ms Kathleen O’Toole, who is drawing on her considerable experience in the United States. We must ensure we do not end up with a culture similar to the United States, where almost anyone can purchase a firearm with little or no restriction. The devastation the unregulated selling of guns causes in American society was most recently reinforced by the rise in school shootings. The Virginia Tech massacre and the shooting in Germany, which resulted in 16 deaths, is an indication of the road we could travel. We must ensure that we do not travel down this road and this legislation assists us in this regard.
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