Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
This motion seeks the Dáil’s approval to continue in operation for a further 12 months several sections of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998. The sections in question, which I will refer to in some detail later, will otherwise cease to be in operation after 30 June. An identical motion is being debated in the Upper House today.
The 1998 Act was enacted in the aftermath of the bombing in Omagh in August of that year. I, and many other Members of this House, have roundly condemned this atrocity which claimed so many innocent lives and ruined many more. Its effects continue to have repercussions to this day. It was clear from the moment it was carried out that the brutal attack in Omagh was a calculated attempt by desperate criminals to undermine the Northern Ireland peace process, which had resulted from long and testing negotiations. The process was still, in 1998, a fragile one. It was this fragility that the bombers tried to shatter.
However, time and endurance have shown it was stronger than they imagined. The response to the bombing showed the resilience of communities on all parts of this island and of all traditions. It showed that their determination to have a future based on peace, co-operation and the rule of law won through in 1998 and will continue to win through. The Government of the day, and this House, also showed its determination in enacting the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act to equip the Garda with the tools necessary to defeat the bombers and their fellow travellers.
I was pleased to note the recent notable victory won by the families of the Omagh victims in the High Court in Belfast. The Government facilitated the relatives and the Northern Ireland court in having some of the evidence taken in this jurisdiction. The investigation into this atrocity remains open on both sides of the Border, and there continues to be excellent co-operation between the Garda authorities and the PSNI in this regard.
Given the exceptional circumstances surrounding its enactment, the Oireachtas decided that it should revisit certain of the Act’s provisions and decide whether they are still necessary. This allows the Oireachtas to consider whether current circumstances justify the continuance in operation of those provisions. Both Houses must take a view, therefore, on whether the situation warrants the continued operation of these provisions for a further period of 12 months. I have no doubt that it does and I will outline my reasons for this shortly.
As part of the process and to support consideration of the matter by Deputies, I am required to lay before the Oireachtas a report on the operation of the relevant provisions. The current report covers the period from 1 June 2008, the date of the previous report, to 31 May this year. The report was laid before the House on 11 June 2009. My assessment, as set out in the report, is that the relevant sections of the 1998 Act should remain in force for a further 12 months. I have come to this view based on the current security situation, the advice of the Garda and the information contained in the report.
The House will scarcely need reminding of the reprehensible murders of two soldiers, Sapper Mark Quinsey and Sapper Patrick Azimkar, at the Massereene Barracks in Antrim and of a PSNI constable, Stephen Carroll, in Craigavon in March of this year. These murders came in the wake of a series of attacks on PSNI officers which could have proved fatal and which demonstrated the warped determination of those involved to kill at any cost. Shortly before these murders, there was an incident involving an abandoned bomb in County Down which, had it exploded, had the potential to kill scores of people. Those who made that bomb and those who carried out the earlier attacks have nothing positive to offer this country. It is this sad reality that compels us to take the measures necessary to protect innocent lives.
The 21st report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which I published last month, makes it very clear that the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA, the INLA and some other smaller dissident groups remain committed to violent paramilitary action in pursuit of their ends. We should not be under any illusion that these groups are involved in a noble struggle for freedom. We can never ignore the terrible acts of brutality they have perpetrated in no one’s names but their own. Nor can we ignore the criminal behaviour of these groups. They rob and extort money, deal in drugs, smuggle cigarettes and exploit women for prostitution. These criminal activities are carried out as much for personal gain and to support individual lifestyles.
I know Deputies will agree that great progress has been achieved in establishing peace on this island. However, we should not imagine that a substantial threat does not remain from these dissident groups, which remain implacably opposed to democracy and peace, which have no morality or mandate and which stand ready and willing to cause mayhem and murder. The State must have at its disposal the means to counteract their destructive aims. We should not, therefore, underestimate the importance of these legislative provisions in facing up to their activities.
The motion before the House is concerned primarily with provisions aimed at the threat posed by domestic terrorism. However, we cannot ignore the growth in recent years of the wider, international threat. Although the extent and nature of this terrorist threat varies greatly from one state to another, it would be naive to think that Ireland could be immune from these new forms of terrorism. As a result, we should not be complacent in response to them. We must continue to act, in particular with our EU counterparts, to defeat them.
The 1998 Act is an essential part of the effort to counter terrorism in all its forms and to protect the people of this country. It is my firm view and that of the Garda Síochána that the Act continues to be a most important tool in ongoing efforts to counter the threat from terrorism. The Garda authorities state unequivocally that in the current circumstances it is essential that the Act’s provisions should remain in force in order to support the ongoing investigation of terrorist activity.
It is a sad and harsh fact that those who carried out the Omagh bombing, and others like them, continue to pose a substantial threat as they pursue their subversive aims and activities. The Real IRA, the Continuity IRA and the INLA still aspire to commit serious acts of terrorism. These organisations still plan and pursue campaigns of violence and they continue to engage in various acts of criminality.
I will now deal with the provisions that are the subject of the motion. As already stated, I have laid before the House a report on the operation of the relevant sections since June 2008. This report demonstrates the value of these provisions to the Garda. Section 2 of the 1998 Act allows a court, in proceedings for membership of an unlawful organisation, to draw appropriate inferences where an accused person fails to answer or gives false or misleading answers to questions. However, a person cannot be convicted of an offence solely on the basis of such an inference. There must be some other evidence which points towards his or her guilt. The section was used on 20 occasions in the period covered by the report.
Section 3 requires an accused, in proceedings for membership of an unlawful organisation, to give notification of an intention to call a person to give evidence on his or her behalf. This section was used on 12 occasions.
Section 4 provides that evidence of membership of an unlawful organisation can be inferred from certain conduct, including matters such as “movements, actions, activities, or associations on the part of the accused”. This section was not used in the period covered by the report.
Section 6 creates the offence of directing the activities of an organisation in respect of which a suppression order has been made under the Offences against the State Act 1939. It was used on one occasion.
Section 7 makes it an offence to possess articles in circumstances giving rise to a reasonable suspicion that such articles are in possession for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of specified firearms or explosives offences. The section was used on 28 occasions.
Section 8 makes it an offence to collect, record or possess information which is likely to be useful to members of an unlawful organisation in the commission of serious offences. It was not used in the period covered by the report.
Section 9 makes it an offence to withhold certain information which might be of material assistance in preventing the commission of a serious offence or securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of a person for such an offence. The section was used on 137 occasions.
Section 10 extends the maximum period of detention permitted under section 30 of the Offences against the State Act from 48 hours to 72 hours, but only on the express authorisation of a judge of the District Court following an application by a garda of at least superintendent rank. Furthermore, the person being detained is entitled to be present in court during the application and to make, or to have made, submissions on his or her behalf. The section was used on 41 occasions and extensions were granted in all 41 cases.
Section 11 allows a judge of the District Court to permit the rearrest and detention of a person in respect of an offence for which he or she was previously detained under section 30 of the Offences against the State Act but released without charge. This further period must not exceed 24 hours and can only be authorised where a judge is satisfied, on information supplied on oath by a member of the Garda Síochána, that further information has come to the knowledge of the force regarding that person’s suspected participation in an offence. This section was used on 18 occasions.
Section 12 makes it an offence for a person to instruct or train another person in the making or use of firearms or explosives or to receive such training without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. It was not used in the period covered by the report.
Section 14 is, in effect, procedural in nature and makes the offences created under sections 6 to 9 and 12 of the 1998 Act scheduled offences for the purposes of Part V of the 1939 Act. This means that persons suspected of committing these offences are liable to arrest under section 30 of the 1939 Act.
Section 17 builds on the provision in the Criminal Justice Act 1994 providing for the forfeiture of property. Where a person is convicted of offences relating to the possession of firearms or explosives and where there is property liable to forfeiture under the 1994 Act, the court is required to order the forfeiture of such property unless it is satisfied that there would be a serious risk of injustice if it made such an order. The section was not used in the period covered by the report.
Section 5 of the 1998 Act was repealed by the Criminal Justice Act 2007. This section was reported on last year as its repeal fell part-way during the reporting period and it had been in use up to that point. The section provided for the drawing of adverse inferences in certain circumstances where an accused relied on a fact in his or her defence that he or she could reasonably have been expected to mention during questioning or on being charged, but did not do so. Part 4 of the Criminal Justice Act 2007 provides for a broader treatment of this issue, including the particular circumstances set out in the repealed section 5. Accordingly, section 5 does not fall to be renewed.
I have no doubt that some Deputies will consider the advances that have been made in promoting and securing peace on this island, particularly in the past decade or so, and will argue that we no longer require this legislation. I cannot agree with them. So-called dissident groups remain the enemies of democracy; they oppose everything for which the British-Irish Agreement stands, the aspirations it represents for the future and the peace to which it has given rise. These groups remain ruthlessly determined to undermine that peace, if at all possible, and they are quite prepared to kill indiscriminately in order to achieve their destructive ends. The Government is equally determined to prevent them realising their objectives. The State must have at its disposal robust laws to defeat them.
It is only by good policing — by the Garda Síochána and the PSNI — supported by strong legislation, that the murderous activities of these paramilitary groups can be defeated. I pay tribute to the ongoing work of the Garda, in co-operation with the PSNI, in facing up to the threats posed.
On the basis of the information set out in the report, it is clear that the 1998 Act continues to be an important element of the Garda response to terrorism. From the advice given by the Garda Síochána on the value of the provisions to them, together with the ongoing threat from terrorist groups, I consider that the relevant provisions of the 1998 Act should remain in operation for further 12 months. I have no doubt right-thinking Deputies on all sides will agree.
Deputy Charles Flanagan: At the outset, it is regrettable if not shameful that the Dáil has a mere 40 minutes to discuss this important anti-terrorist motion. Indeed, the information circulated beforehand by the Minister’s office is very weak and lacking in information. The Offences Against the State Act is extremely important legislation, reflecting as it does the ongoing battle the State has waged throughout its history against those who would seek to subvert the democratic process, thereby inflicting terror on this island. It is most regrettable, therefore, that renewing the legislative provisions should be treated by the Minister as something akin to a necessary inconvenience rather than an opportunity to brief the Dáil in a meaningful way on relevant matters.
I recognise that anti-terrorism operations are very sensitive and secretive by nature, but a broad overview of the effectiveness or otherwise of the legislation and the situation pertaining to the type of organisations that the Act in question seeks to tackle would not only be appropriate, but helpful. We are well aware that the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 was introduced in the wake of the Real IRA atrocity in Omagh which resulted in the death of 29 people, including a mother pregnant with twins. This month, in a landmark judgment, the High Court in Belfast declared that Seamus McKenna, Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly were responsible or liable in some way for the Omagh bomb. This case was the first time that any alleged individual terrorists had been sued individually for a specific terrorist act. As a result of the ruling, all other members of the army council of the Real IRA in August 1998 are liable for damages awarded to the relatives who fought the case.
The relatives of those murdered in Omagh turned to the civil courts when the criminal courts let them down. In this jurisdiction, we must ensure that our legislation is robust enough to tackle terrorism in a head-on manner. The nature of republican terrorism means that we face the same challenges as our counterparts in Northern Ireland. Working together is essential and I welcome the co-operation to date — I hope it can continue — even in the face of stringent cuts to Garda budgets.
I welcome the precedent set by the decision of the Belfast High Court and I hope it gives comfort to victims of terrorism everywhere. However, there is no substitute for a criminal conviction and we, as legislators, must ensure that our laws are robust enough to meet the terrorist threat. Although 11 years have passed since the Omagh atrocity, terrorism remains a serious threat. This is evident from official figures released by Europol which show that 52 people were arrested for terrorist-related activities in Ireland in 2008. Of the 52, some 49 were arrested for dissident republican activities, while three were arrested in relation to suspected Islamic terrorism.
The Europol report, entitled The EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2009, is particularly helpful as it provides us with a comparative international context. The report shows that Ireland had the fifth highest number of terrorism arrests in the EU last year. The number of arrests has jumped from four in 2006 to 24 in 2007 and 52 last year. While the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will no doubt argue that a rise in arrests is solely due to Garda diligence, we cannot avoid the inference that dissident republican groups are becoming more and more active in this and the neighbouring states.
Indeed, the report gives the breakdown of the dissidents arrested in 2008 as follows: some 28 were members of the INLA, nine were members of the so-called Real IRA. and four were linked to the Continuity IRA. The report said Ireland was one of just seven EU states which recorded a terrorist attack in 2008. In Ireland’s case the blame was attributed to the INLA, an organisation which allegedly is in a period of ceasefire. The attacks are symptomatic of the INLA’s involvement in the drug trade in this country, and in Dublin in particular. The ease with which the INLA was able to become a major player in the drug trade is a cause of some concern.
In March this year the INLA announced that it had stood down its entire Dublin brigade, including its leader, Declan Duffy. The statement went on to deny any INLA involvement in drug dealing, contract killings, tiger kidnappings and extortion. This was despite frequent reports of INLA involvement in such activities, and particularly its involvement in planting pipe bombs in relation to drug feuds. It has also been reported that the INLA manufactures pipe bombs and sells these to other drug gangs in this city and beyond. The involvement of the INLA in the drug trade has had disastrous consequences for this State and continues to do so. It has recently been reported that subversive prisoners in Portlaoise Prison are marching, holding parades and forcing prison staff to withdraw from certain landings. It is outrageous that criminals put in prison for paramilitary activity should be able to glory in their paramilitarism within prison and use their status to intimidate prison officers. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform argues that special conditions for paramilitary prisoners are long established but we are now in a different juncture in our history and it is high time that such special treatment was reviewed. The Minister should give the matter his close attention in the context of the current prison crisis.
I welcome the fact that Declan Duffy is currently imprisoned in Portlaoise and the reports that the INLA in Dublin is no longer on active service, although I doubt the veracity of this claim. I would like the Minister to clarify whether the INLA remains active in Dublin. I ask him to give the House his view on the threat the INLA currently poses to the State as a terrorist organisation and a significant player on the drugs scene. Does the Minister accept that the failure of his Government to deploy adequate customs resources to ports, along the coastline and to smaller and private airports has given the INLA a lifeline by providing easy access to drugs? The same applies to the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA. By failing to stem the tide of drugs flowing into the State, dissident republican terrorists have a lucrative area of activity to turn their attention to and perpetuate their existence.
Like the INLA, the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA continue to exist and, therefore, threaten the pillars of democracy in this State. Tom Clonan describes the Real IRA and its counterpart, the Continuity IRA, as “a nucleus of hardened criminals whose ‘republican’ pretensions are in the main a front for organised crime in the Border area and in some inner city areas north and south of the Border”.
These individuals enjoy the power and prestige that comes with membership of a dissident republican organisation. It is widely believed that attempts by civil authorities such as the PSNI to tackle these gangsters and target their ill-gotten assets led to the recent flare-up of violence and murder in the North. Drugs and dissident republications clearly go hand in hand. Offences Against the State legislation will take us so far, but unless the Government agrees to dedicate the requisite resources to tackling drugs at the point of entry to the State, terrorist criminal gangs will continue to thrive.
I do not have time to go into detail on the drastic effects the €35 million cut in Garda overtime will have on the level of intelligence and Border security. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform’s briefing note for this motion refers to the importance of a prompt renewal in the context of “the importance of these provisions to the Garda Síochána in countering the activities of a number of dissident subversive groups”. Will this surveillance be hampered by a swingeing cut to the Garda budget? I am concerned about early retirements being encouraged by the Government at present to save money. The Garda representative bodies have warned of a brain drain being the likely outcome of early retirements and noted recently that of the 181 superintendents in the force, 101 were eligible to retire immediately if they so wished. At least 11 superintendents have retired already this year. A large spate of retirements within An Garda Síochána would have disastrous consequences in respect of expertise and experience and this is of great significance in the context of the renewal of the legislation.
I affirm Fine Gael’s support for the renewal of the provisions before the House today. Fine Gael has always supported strong measures to combat terrorism and we continue to put the safety of the people of this island first. This issue is not aired frequently enough in this House. We need to deal with the problem of dissident organisations, including the INLA, the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA. Offences Against the State legislation can only be truly effective if it is complemented by a drive to tackle the availability of drugs to criminal gangs.
I ask the Minister to reassure the House that the consequences of Garda cuts and changes in personnel will not give rise to a reduction of experience and expertise that will allow terrorist organisations of the type envisaged under this legislation to flourish in our communities.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: I agree with everything the Minister and Deputy Charles Flanagan have said about the origins of these measures, the gruesome circumstances of the Omagh bombing and their condemnation of the organisation responsible and associated dissident organisations who continue to operate in the jurisdiction and outside it. I join with the Minister in congratulating the gardaí on their continued vigilance and commending the co-operation that exists between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána on these important matters.
Having said that, I repeat what I have said in previous years in what has become a routine, brief and inadequate debate on these issues. I am not in possession of the intelligence information the Minister has. The Minister makes no attempt to brief Opposition spokespersons on the quality, nature, scale and significance of the intelligence information he has. We got a very slight communication on a half page from the Department or the Minister on today’s debate. Unless one was very alert one would miss the laying of the report before the Houses, as required by legislation. Usually it would go unnoticed.
I find it very difficult to second guess the Minister, who has the information. My party would be very reluctant to go against the advice the Minister offers the House. The Minister has this information. He says there is a real and definite threat from the dissident groups referred to and I find it difficult to gainsay that. However a great many people will be very disappointed that so many years after the Good Friday Agreement and relative normality returning to Northern Ireland and this island as a whole, we are still in a situation, as a modern, liberal democracy, where we have to rely on draconian measures that are not consistent with people’s civil and human rights in normal circumstances.
In one international instrument, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, one article permits a state to derogate in certain circumstances but only “in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed, and only to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation”. Only the Minister can say if the intelligence he is in possession of is consistent with our meeting our obligations on that.
If the Minister advises the House of a real and definite threat from dissident groups we must have regard to that, however I refer to the warning of Mr. Justice Anthony Hederman in the famous Hederman report: “Emergency legislation may be abused for pragmatic political purposes; special powers, introduced for special reasons, may continue to be used when those reasons no longer justify this, or for purposes extending beyond those that warranted their original introduction; and powers of detention or interrogation may be used cruelly or inhumanly upon innocent (or even guilty) people”. I am not saying that is happening here but the learned judge charged with chairing that committee and making his findings about the fact that such laws are extant on our Statute Book issued that warning. Last year in the Dáil I said the Hederman report acknowledged that the issues are complex and fundamental and said:
The Supreme Court has held that the DPP has discretion on resort to the Special Criminal Court for matters other than subversive crime and that this occasionally happens. We know from the Minister’s public statements that he is considering the extension of that power to attempting to deal with gangland crime in the jurisdiction. We need to have a major debate on that. Nobody on this side of the House is soft on crime, particularly gangland crime, which is motivated mainly by drugs trafficking, pushing and abuse. All reasonable measures should be taken to try to gain control of that phenomenon, but a debate needs to be had on whether resort to the Special Criminal Court gives us any hope of better success than we have had by using normal procedures. I note in passing that the Green Party now in Government is on the record in successive debates on this provision. For example, in 2003, Deputy Cuffe argued that “we should drop the use of the Offences against the State Act”. He also said that “the Green Party... does not want to see the use of the Special Criminal Court continue”. It may be that the Green Party has changed its view on that matter. If the Minister is able to bring before the House his package to deal with serious crime, we obviously will have an opportunity to debate it.
I cannot put my hand on my heart and say if the Minister says that the dissident republican groups referred to and their links with in some cases criminal gangs remain a threat to this country that we can do other than for the time being continue in force the measures that would otherwise fall if we did not pass this motion. I note the Minister’s remarks about significance of these measures in the context of international terrorism. I am somewhat puzzled that countries, which for obvious reasons would be on considerably higher alert than Ireland, do not seem to require extraordinary measures like this in order to deal with that aspect of it. If the mindless individuals engaged in threatening mayhem in Northern Ireland and threatening the peace process that is working out reasonably well in this country could be got under control, the time will come for us to look seriously at whether the measures here encompassed ought to continue.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Once again I am imploring all Deputies to consider the highly corrosive effect of the renewal of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act on human rights, democratic life and the safety and well being of citizens in this State before voting today. I will be giving Members of the House an opportunity to vote on this motion because I believe it is important that we are on the record on any occasion when human or democratic rights are being challenged in this way.
As we discuss this motion today, the spectre of paramilitary violence — criminal and sectarian violence — still hangs over our society. We have seen the fatal consequences of that with the brutal battering to death only three weeks ago of Kevin McDaid in Coleraine — someone who has not been mentioned to date. Others have mentioned the killing of a PSNI officer, Constable Stephen Carroll, and two British soldiers, Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, and the ongoing criminal feuds in this State using high-powered weapons and explosives.
Another matter that has not been mentioned in this House for a long time is the manoeuvrings of the British secret services on this island. Dissidents — some call them dissident republicans, but they besmirch the name of republicanism — by their actions have fallen into the trap of playing to the British securicrat agenda. They seem to want to perpetuate the conflict, the emergency and the repressive legislation and regimes we see on this island. The actions of those dissidents have included attacks on Irish republicans. So much for their claim that they want to reunite Ireland. They have no mandate, no support, no political strategy and no logic. They are dancing to the British piper’s tune.
It is quite clear to all that elements of Britain’s intelligence service are running agents provocateurs in these organisations. One such agent was exposed recently. Patrick Murray who lived in Antrim had set about undermining and destabilising support for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, and fomenting sectarian divisions in Ballymena, County Antrim and County Derry. When he was exposed, the British state jumped in to protect him. There are others and we have seen it over the years, including the Mount Vernon UVF, which was run by British intelligence for many years and was linked to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, and the attempted mass murder at The Widow Scallon and the death of volunteer, Martin Doherty. I call on the British Government, as a partner in the peace process, to call its dogs to heel and declare that the provocative actions of its agents in these dissident and loyalist groups are contrary to the peace process and perpetuate conflict on this island. I ask the Minister to categorically state that no State agents are working in dissident groups, that British agents operating in this State are targeted and expelled, and their activities exposed.
The UN fundamental human rights instruments to which this State has signed up make it very clear that fundamental rights protections may be derogated from only in times of emergency. No such emergency that could possibly warrant these draconian legislative measures exists. Sinn Féin has not been alone in demanding an end to these annual renewals. The UN Human Rights Committee agrees with me and has called year-on-year for an end to the jurisdiction of the Special Criminal Court. Nor was I alone in this House. Six years ago the Green Party spokesperson for justice, Deputy Cuffe, said: “...the state of emergency is over... we should drop the use of the Offences Against the State Act... the Green Party... does not want to see the use of the Special Criminal Court continue.” Each subsequent year the Green Party Deputies rightly voted against the renewal. They did that until they entered government and threw away their principles. However, I will not labour my condemnation of yet another human rights abandonment by the Green Party. The public has issued its judgment loud and clear on that party.
It is not only our international commitments that necessitate opposition to the motion before us today, but also the Government’s own obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement places the onus on the Government to deliver security normalisation. Hence, scrapping the Offences against the State Acts is a pressing goal for all in this House. The provisions up for renewal and, indeed, the Offences against the State Acts in their entirety have no place in the present or future of this island.
The Garda special branch still operates as a political police force that systematically harasses citizens engaged in open, legal and democratic political activity, including people attending Easter commemorations or engaged in trade union activities. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission has no power to hold the special branch to account. The Garda Commissioner and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform have the power to deny the ombudsman commission access to anything they deem to relate to State security, which needs to be addressed.
This year again the report that is laid before us by the Minister is grossly insufficient for the purposes of scrutiny. Time does not allow us to address in detail the limited report. Simply listing the number of occasions on which the various provisions have been used does not allow for informed democratic scrutiny of their operation. There is not time available to me to discuss the various sections and the manner in which they breach fundamental human rights in detail. Sparse as it is, the report does at least demonstrate that sections 4, 8, 12 and 17 were not used in the past year. Section 12 has not been used since 2001 and section 17 has never been used. At the very least, they should be repealed. This brings into question any argument about necessity.
During the period from 1 June 2008 to 31 May 2009 the number of persons arrested under the Act was 930. However, the total number of convictions secured under the Act for the same period was just 39. There is no information on whether the convictions were on the basis of that section alone or if the same person was convicted under several sections. There is a huge discrepancy between the annual arrest and conviction rates, which strongly suggests the possibility that the provisions are being used for trawling exercises or are being abused by gardaí engaged in harassment in circumstances similar to those in County Donegal, as uncovered by the Morris tribunal.
If the Government wants to promote and protect the safety of the public it would financially and practically resource the Garda Síochána, the forensic laboratory, the DPP and the courts in order to enforce ordinary criminal justice legislation. Instead, however, the Minister is today proposing the lazy and unsafe continuation of emergency legislation. The Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government has approved the drafting of a Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill which will further extend the use of the Special Criminal Court.
I call on the Government to use the opportunity to live up to its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement. Other parties should bring pressure to bear on the Government in this regard. The full delivery of the Good Friday Agreement would do more to end paramilitary, criminal and sectarian violence on this island than all the repressive legislation ever will. It did not succeed in the past and will not do so in future. A properly resourced Garda Síochána and courts service, in addition to a properly working witness protection system, will address in some way the criminality of those who currently come before the Special Criminal Court. Normal courts and normal laws can deal with these cases if they are properly resourced.
Sinn Féin has consistently called on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to bring forward a robust package of realistic and effective measures to tackle serious crime, but we are extremely disappointed with the package the Government announced in May. Alongside it the Government has imposed restrictions on Garda overtime and a ban on recruitment and promotions. There is no logic to that. The force is to remain dependent on outdated and inadequate equipment. The anti-crime measures proposed by the Government constitute a lesson in how to lose the war on gangs.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Go raibh maith agat. Rather than addressing the real reasons gangland criminals seem to enjoy impunity for their crimes — by, for example, introducing and resourcing practical and sustainable measures to protect individuals, families and whole communities from intimidation — the package attacks fundamental justice rights. In addition, it rehashes old ideas that are already on the Statute Book in varied forms, or that even the former Minister, Michael McDowell, acknowledged were unworkable in the past.
I urge the House to reject the motion before it. We should end emergency legislation and start to build a normal society on this island by dealing with these matters through the normal courts instead.
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern): I will reply briefly to the remarks Deputies have made, although I cannot agree with anything the last speaker has said. I will not go into the detail of what he said, but I implacably disagree with everything he has said and particularly his reference to the Garda special branch, as he calls it. He said it was being used as a political police force, which I vehemently deny and reject.
Deputy Dermot Ahern: I thank Members of the House who spoke in favour of renewing the provisions of the Act. I accept that in the circumstances in which Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform find themselves, they cannot divulge to other Members the precise details as to why, other than the type of details we have given in this report, which has been laid before the House. Suffice it to say that it is not just my word or that of the Garda Síochána; one only has to read the remarks of the Independent Monitoring Commission specifically answering the question Deputy Charles Flanagan raised concerning the existence of the INLA. I suggest that Deputy Ó Snodaigh should re-read the most recent report of the monitoring commission, which clearly says that these groups, including the INLA, continue to represent a substantial threat to the security of our people in this State.
I again wish to thank Deputies who have supported this motion. As I outlined in my introduction concerning the use of the provisions by the Garda Síochána, in conjunction with the DPP and the courts, given the level of activity on some, but not all, of the sections in this Act, it is right and proper that this House should resolve to renew it for another year.
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