Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 4 November 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Community Alert Programme: Muintir na Tíre
The purpose of this part of the meeting is to have an engagement with Muintir na Tíre on the community alert system and benefits thereof during the past 30 years. We are joined today by Mr. Niall Garvey, CEO of Muintir na Tíre. I thank him for being here. I also welcome Mr. Diarmuid Cronin, who is a community alert development officer.
The reason for this meeting is that it is 30 years since community alert was established in Carrigtwohill in east Cork. There was a commemoration recently there which I was privileged to attend. The invitation to the witnesses is a result of those 30 years of work, to take stock and to engage with Members of the Oireachtas to see what is needed now and how the Houses can help and learn from the experience of Muintir na Tíre and the work that is taking place. In some ways, the current situation mirrors what happened 30 years ago and there are things going on in the modern context that need to be dealt with in the same way as they were back then.
Before we begin, I draw the attention of our witnesses to the situation in respect of privilege. Please note that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter to only qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members should also be aware of the long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or persons outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Mr. Garvey has five minutes to bring the salient points to our attention.
Mr. Niall Garvey:
I apologise, my colleague, Paddy Byrne is stuck in Web Summit traffic but will hopefully join us shortly. We have given the committee a detailed written submission. In view of the time constraints, I will pick a few highlights from it and leave the committee to study the detail.
Muintir na Tíre is a national voluntary organisation dedicated to promoting the process of community development. It was founded in 1937 and aims to enhance the capacity of people in communities to become involved in local social, economic, cultural and environmental development. For the past 30 years, we have actively promoted the community alert programme in partnership with the Garda Síochána. This programme continues to harness the voluntary input of community members to provide a community crime prevention programme in over 1,400 community alert groups nationwide. The programme operates with the five principal partners, Muintir na Tíre, the Garda Síochána, the Department of Justice and Equality, the Health Service Executive and, most importantly, local communities. The programme is operated by five community alert development officers, one for each Garda region outside of the Dublin area. My colleague, Mr. Cronin, is the development officer for the south west of the country. The engagement that we have with all those local groups enables us to identify many issues arising in the area of crime prevention which is relevant to this committee. The current issues can be summarised under a number of categories - the seniors alert scheme, pendant alarms and changes that have been made to that scheme recently; Garda resources; the judicial system; adequate deterrents to crime, funding; and victim support. In our written submission, we have details under all of these categories but I will concentrate on the recommendations that we make in section 6.
We suggest the establishment of a special purpose committee to examine rural crime. This could be similar to the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, which had a limited lifetime and budget but which was asked to make specific and practical recommendations. This would allow for more public consultation than this committee will have time for and could instil a sense of participation in the communities that take part.
We strongly support the provisions in the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Bill - currently going through the Houses - regarding consecutive sentencing and refusal of bail for repeat offenders. We agree that the right to freedom and the presumption of innocence need to be weighed against the constitutional protection afforded to a citizen's dwelling and we feel this Bill offers a balanced approach to these issues.
We welcome the recent establishment of the second Special Criminal Court and hope it will significantly reduce the time it takes to process cases. However, it must be adequately resourced and must not simply be a reallocation of resources from elsewhere in the Courts Service. We request a review of the free legal aid programme, of its costs and efficiency of delivery. While recognising a right of legal representation, we feel this should be reviewed for repeat offenders. Consideration should be given to reducing the representation for legal offenders and possibly treating the costs of this representation as a repayable loan. We also request a review of the allocation of resources to crime prevention and crime detection and punishment.
We believe a slight shift towards prevention could have significant impact. This would include an expansion of the community alert, neighbourhood watch and crime prevention ambassador programmes. Such a review should also value voluntary input and examine ways of recognising it. For example, it may be possible to make a contribution towards the costs of properly established text message alert programmes. Currently, communities must cover all the costs associated with these programmes, including texts, insurance, signage and VAT.
We request a review of the prison system, including a review of the balance between cost and security. Such a review should also consider non-custodial options which might be appropriate in certain cases, including tagging, curfews, transport restrictions and expanded community service programmes. We would also suggest a review of anti-social behaviour in built-up areas, villages or estates and how anti-social behaviour is currently dealt with, and an examination of options for practical and fast sanctions and how to expedite landlords' abilities to terminate the leases of undesirable tenants.
Since Muintir na Tíre made its submission, the Minister has made proposals in a number of these areas, and we welcome the proposals as a first step. I thank the committee for its time and I am happy to take questions from members.
I thank the witness for his excellent presentation. Before I invite members to make observations or ask questions on the points raised, perhaps Mr. Garvey would tell the committee about the crime prevention ambassadors and what they do.
Mr. Niall Garvey:
The crime prevention ambassador programme was run on a pilot basis in the north west. The programme recognises the fact that the Garda does not have the resources to personally visit everybody in a neighbourhood. Gardaí can respond to crime but they do not have the time to make preventative calls. The ambassador programme involved training those older people who had time to spare in issues around crime prevention and how they could advise others on crime. The volunteers then visited the houses in their area where older or vulnerable people lived. They were able to supply information from the Garda and advise people on how to secure their homes and look after themselves. The programme was primarily about crime prevention but included some health advice. At the end of the programme, the volunteers were rewarded with thanks and recognised with a certificate. It is a programme that works in partnership with the Garda but performing the kind of work that gardaí do not have time to do.
I thank Mr. Garvey for his presentation and for the great work that Muintir na Tíre does, particularly with the community alert programme. What does Mr. Garvey believe can be done to further strengthen the community alert programme? Is there any aspect of the programme that would be enhanced by using digital technology or CCTV, as used in urban areas? Could those technologies be effective or applicable in rural areas?
I will now turn to the victims of crime. I have researched the inconsistent spread of victim support measures around the State. There are certain black spots where there is very little by way of victim support, partly because it is so reliant on volunteers. What does Mr. Garvey think could be done to strengthen victim supports and to spread victim support services more consistently across the State?
Mr. Niall Garvey:
I will first answer Senator Bacik's second query on victim support and I will then ask my colleague Mr. Diarmuid Cronin to speak about community alert and CCTV.
The feedback received by Muintir na Tíre from victims of crime is that they would like more support and more feedback from the Garda. The EU directive, which has been partially implemented, does provide for that level of support. The Garda generally issues two letters to a victim, one at the beginning of an investigation and one when a perpetrator is identified. The feedback from victims is that this is not enough, as the correspondences can be too far apart. In order for victims to receive more feedback, they would like to have personal contact with a member of the force who is investigating the crime. There are restrictions on what victims can be told, but at least they could be reassured that something is happening. In a case that may take two years to bring to fruition it can be a long time in which to hear nothing. E-mail has been suggested as a quick way of keeping victims informed about a case's progression. Muintir na Tíre would concentrate on promoting victim support through the Garda, as that is what victims want and appreciate.
Mr. Diarmuid Cronin:
CCTV is an issue that is constantly raised at community meetings, and the major success of CCTV is seen in the divisions where it has been introduced on a fairly widespread basis. The area I know best is the west Cork division. Communities in west Cork, in co-operation with An Garda Síochána, the county council and local sponsors, have raised the necessary finance to install CCTV in various towns and villages throughout the division. The success of the CCTV can be seen in the division's crime statistics, which are among the lowest in Ireland. It is a very large area and it would take a person about two hours to drive in any direction north, south, east or west. Crime has a way of thriving in remote areas, but CCTV can be important at the choke points. Communities and gardaí are very good at identifying where the choke points are. In a large division like west Cork there are bridges and intersections that are difficult to avoid and must be crossed. The difficulty for many communities is in finding the necessary funding. Anything that can be done nationally to make a contribution towards the funding is really the game changer.
Mr. Niall Garvey:
I wish to follow up on Mr. Cronin's comments regarding CCTV and technology. The success of the text message alert programme over the past two years shows that technology has a place in assisting communities. We now have over 700 registered text alert groups, and more than 20,000 texts are sent each month to help prevent crime. Our experience shows that where groups are set up to implement the text alert guidelines correctly and where there is a body of such groups in a district then crime is reduced in those areas. The statistics do add up. That group, which is mentioned in the submission, must pay its own costs, which are not extortionate, but when one moves towards CCTV then the costs change completely.
The witness gives west Cork as an example. I grew up in Cork and I know west Cork well. Excluding cities such as Dublin, does Muintir na Tíre have a role or does it have a different approach in small towns or urban centres around Ireland? There are growing concerns about late-night public order offences in town centres. Can any of the work done by Muintir na Tíre in rural areas be replicated in the towns?
Mr. Diarmuid Cronin:
Muintir na Tíre community alert groups are set up in all the towns in west Cork: Clonakilty, Bandon, Bantry and Dunmanway.
There are also neighbourhood watch groups within the towns. The community alert can often be an umbrella organisation. The community alert has the advantage in that the development officers are in place. The neighbourhood watch group has the liaison Garda who attends the community alert meetings but the extra resource of the Muintir na Tíre development officer is a huge advantage.
The issues in towns are in many ways similar. Anti-social behaviour is one of the more important issues that needs to be dealt with in towns and housing estates where people who have purchased homes are unfortunate enough to be neighbours of individuals who are making their life a misery. It is an issue that has become more prevalent at the meetings I attend. In some areas, one would imagine there is an organised systemic campaign to drive people out of their homes. It is the issue of the future and it is growing. There is a victim-bully relationship in certain cases where the individual is afraid of the bullies and afraid to make a statement to the Garda and afraid to use legal means. It is necessary to create some system where a community group can act as an individual and make a statement of complaint and take a case on behalf of their community to change the way certain estates are being ruined by individuals who could not care less about their neighbours.
I am a great admirer of Muintir na Tíre and I thank the organisation for its help in establishing the community alert and text alert programmes in my county of Donegal. I attended a number of meetings at which Muintir na Tíre representatives spoke about their experience in other areas. It is a tremendous organisation. Its recommendations and the issues that arise at community alert meetings are a tremendous help because they are about people on the ground. Its recommendations and observations are food for thought for those overseeing the criminal justice system. Our committee compiled a report on penal reform which looked at community sanctions rather than imprisonment. I am interested to note that the organisation is looking at electronic tagging and other forms rather than incarceration, based on the analysis of the threat the person poses. There is so much I could say on this issue. The organisation's contribution is excellent and I am sure we will forward it to the Minister for Justice and Equality, although she may have it already.
In terms of the joint policing committees, I have been a bit concerned about them. The good news is that the new policing authority, when in place, will oversee joint policing committees. They were a very good initiative when introduced but, as with many things, over time they become stale. The witnesses may have different experiences from county to county but my sense is that with a new policing authority assuming responsibility for them, I hope they can get a fresh lease of life because it is important that senior police officers work at it. Obviously Muintir na Tíre's model is a partnership with An Garda Síochána and it works well, but extending that model to the wider communities urban and rural is the issue. I want to hear the observations of the witnesses on the joint policing committees and how they could improve.
Mr. Diarmuid Cronin:
I am a member of the Cork joint policing committee, having been recently elected to it. I was a guest of that committee and of the Limerick committee as well as being a member of the Kerry committee. I note a different approach from that of the past. After the new committees bed in it will be interesting to see if there will be a different approach or more commonality. They are an important forum for discussion and what happens after that. In some ways we have a dual system because in community alert we have regular district meetings. Our strategy document used to ask for four district meetings per annum. We now have two because of the sheer volume of meetings. Any forum where there can be a good discussion about issues affecting the community is positive provided there is a means to take the considered judgment of the forum up the ladder and make some effort to change. The important issue is the desire to change rather than the nuts and bolts of the actual change.
We mentioned sentencing earlier. Sentencing is probably the most difficult area in which to make major changes because if a person is sentenced to incarceration with limited space that will not go anywhere fast. We need to be more imaginative and always to follow the money. If an individual has finances, property or a vehicle, ways and means should be put in place to punish him by sequestering his assets. If a criminal is carrying out raids throughout the country and owns a vehicle, the vehicle should be seized. If he has a driver's licence, it should be taken from him. If he has a passport, his opportunities to enjoy his ill-gotten gains in Spain or wherever should be limited. If an individual comes into property and if it changes hands at some stage, the loans he receives for free legal aid during the course of his life should be paid back. If a young criminal starting out in life sees that this is a career that will give him a nice lifestyle, that can be countered by making the free legal aid a loan repayable out of his benefits. There are many imaginative ways of dealing with an individual besides sending him to jail. In the present age of development of technology, electronic tagging has a major future. The number of awful crimes committed - murders and worse, if anything is worse - by people who are out on bail is such that beggars belief that it has been allowed to continue for so long. The problem is that there is no space in jails to keep people. Therefore tagging is important.
There is a major security industry across Ireland. There are fleets of security vans criss-crossing the country as well as the Garda fleet. It should be possible to create a system where at any time of the day or night an individual can be checked to see whether he is where he is supposed to be. Does the Chairman follow me?
The issue of Garda station closures in rural areas has received much prominence. What Mr. Cronin has asked for, rather than focusing on Garda station closures, is more resources for community alert and text alert programmes. I am a big supporter of these programmes, having seen waves of crime and criminal gangs so many times in Donegal. The only way to truly defeat them is with the community working hand in hand with An Garda Síochána. I love the idea of whole swathes of townlands looking out for suspicious behaviour and, in particular, vulnerable elderly people. It is the way to go.
With Garda station closures, I am concerned about the perception of security, particularly for elderly people. Will the witness provide some thoughts on the wider issues? For example, if a Garda station is to be closed, we need to resource community alert and ensure it operates. If we are to lose one, we must reassure the elderly that something else will replace it and put the investment into the likes of Muintir na Tíre.
Mr. Diarmuid Cronin:
When the Garda stations were closed a few years ago, it just happened to be the time of the perfect storm because the Garda fleet was at an all-time low and the five-shift system came into place as well. The closing of the stations has not saved money. The problem is the local community wants to see gardaí around but without a fleet, that is not possible. The gardaí need to be mobile and able to put up a checkpoint on quiet rural roads. Besides the motorways, there is a fantastic network of roads in rural Ireland that takes people into the most remote places.
The garda in a local station must have a proper office. It is no use just having a building, as he or she needs a computer with broadband access and everything that goes with it. The garda must be able to do the job efficiently, and technology and up-to-date information in the office is an absolute must. There is that aspect to it. Where community alert groups and gardaí are working well, there is a low crime rate. Taking it by division and where district meetings are being held religiously, with a relationship built up by the communities and gardaí, and where information is coming in a two-way conversation, text alert has revolutionised the ability of the gardaí to get relevant information quickly to thousands of people in a district or division. We can see through statistics the divisions where this is working well and being used properly by gardaí against districts and divisions where the process is still only finding its feet. We can consider the figures, comparing towns, but the statistics speak for themselves.
I will mention Mallow district, which had 22 burglaries during September. The west Cork division, which encompasses the districts of Bandon, Clonakilty, Bantry and Macroom, and incorporating part of Kanturk district, had 12 burglaries. In October, west Cork had 11 burglaries.
Mr. Paddy Byrne:
To add to Mr. Cronin's comments and Deputy Mac Lochlainn's question, the reality of Garda station closures comes down to economics. Most of those stations were already closed or not functioning properly at the time. There are alternatives that have been put forward and we are a completely community-based organisation; the ethos is community self-help. There has been much talk of post office closures but post offices in some areas could be used as a one day per week Garda station at certain times. We also have a network of approximately 180 to 190 community councils dotted around the country. Most of those councils have community centres and halls, and there is also the possibility that Garda stations could be put in those on a day per week or fortnight. This would mean gardaí would be more visible in rural areas. The Garda stations would not be replaced but at least gardaí would be more visible on a weekly or fortnightly basis.
Mr. Niall Garvey:
To respond to the Deputy's question on resources and the allocation between gardaí and communities, to put it in perspective, Operation Thor was launched this week and we welcome it. It speaks of providing 40 new high-powered vehicles for the Garda, which are essential, but if there were 400 new vehicles, there still would not be one in every parish around the country. On the other hand, if there is a community alert group - particularly one actively engaging in text alert - there might be 300 people in a parish all watching and communicating with gardaí and receiving communication back for next to no cost, relatively speaking. That should be borne in mind in speaking about resources.
Mr. Niall Garvey:
We receive funding from the Department of Justice and Equality and the Health Service Executive that essentially covers the salaries of our five development officers. It does not cover the ancillary support from head office and various other costs. Effectively, it covers the salaries of those five people.
With regard to electronic tagging, I assume that is coupled with the seizing of assets in general. As we have noted in the past few days, there will be a Bill related to tagging fairly shortly. Many of these crimes are committed by a small number of people up and down the country. There is clearly not room in jails for all these people but at least there could be a tagging system, with which the witnesses have already agreed. If the people in question can be traced up and down the country, it would make it easier for gardaí and support teams to get to where the criminals are located.
What funding requirements can be met in the short and medium term to assist the project? I know the VAT on signage, etc., must be examined, as 23% VAT is being charged on equipment needed to protect communities. Perhaps we need to bring that to the attention of the Department of Finance, as 23% of the cost of those supplies would make a difference.
Mr. Niall Garvey:
I should point out that the Minister announced we would receive an increase in funding in the coming year, and we are grateful for that. Something needs to be done in funding the wider programme and community groups. It is just over two years since the text alert programme was formally launched. Many groups at the time would have raised funds for the initial costs for signage, insurance and the first batch of texts. That funding has now run out as, generally speaking, they purchased approximately two years of texts. They now have to go back to people in the community to raise funds again. That is causing difficulty for groups.
The costs are small. It costs an average of five cent to six cent per text and most groups would only receive a text every couple of weeks. An allocation of hundreds of euro to a group rather than thousands would make a big difference. It would make them feel recognised, as they are assisting the Garda and, to a certain extent, doing that work for their own benefit. There should be some recognition and even a small gesture would go a long way.
I welcome the witnesses, thank them for the presentation and echo the positive comments from Deputy Mac Lochlainn and Senator Bacik about the organisation over the years. It has been super. The first recommendation is the establishment of a special purpose committee to examine rural crime. Has the group made a formal request to the Department for this or was that in the formal presentation today?
The committee might discuss whether to support that. I presume we want to do so. There is a recommendation about reviewing the allocation of resources and shifting a little towards prevention, which I would endorse. Has the group any analysis or figures in support of the suggestion or is it a more general recommendation?
Mr. Niall Garvey:
It is a general recommendation but it would be easy enough to put figures on it. To return to my last comment, there is a large number of community alert groups, but they have a very small cost requirement. A shift of €100,000 or €200,000 per annum would achieve an awful lot. That is obviously a very small part of the justice budget for the year.
Exactly. I am a great advocate of prevention. It might be useful to have some figures and to know the impact.
The Chairman asked questions on the crime prevention ambassadors programme. It sounds very impressive. Was it modelled on the practice somewhere else? Is it possible to obtain additional information on it, be it an evaluation or just a wider description?
I apologise for being delayed. I welcome the representatives of Muintir na Tíre and commend them on their valuable work in the community. I have two short questions. They pertain to the debate on resources and the importance of Garda stations. It is not just a question of having the necessary resources but a question of the management of those resources. This aspect of the debate is frequently left out. It is a matter of what gardaí stationed in a particular station are doing during their eight-hour shift. Consider the community policing practices of the Metropolitan Police in London. A regular police officer spends at least six hours of his or her eight-hour shift on the beat in the community. In Ireland, by contrast, officers have not reached that number of hours. Do the delegates accept that the management of Garda resources, and not just the availability of resources, is a very important aspect of this debate?
Mr. Diarmuid Cronin:
A greater amount of paperwork must currently be dealt with by a member of the Garda Síochána. That is what I am hearing. Paperwork and ticking boxes mean less time spent dealing with people face to face. It is important that, in each community, the garda becomes a familiar face. That is what Deputy Finian McGrath was speaking about in terms of the Metropolitan Police. In that force, the officer on the beat knows his or her patch and the people, and they know the officer. When one is on a first-name basis with one's local member of the force, it means one is much more likely to come forward and assist. One is much more likely to come forward on time rather than at a later stage. Time and again, I hear at meetings about the frustration members have experienced because of information being received days after the event. The text alert has come some way towards speeding up the flow of information. Sectoral policing, whereby the local member of the force has time to move around his own community, is desirable. Better transport and local stations aid all that.
My second and final question, in respect of which I am open to correction, is on the community text alert issue. Was there an event in recent days in which the text alert was used to apprehend two individuals? Immediately when the word went out that the alleged offenders were in the area, a text went out and a group of people followed them. Could this not lead to a very dangerous, volatile set of circumstances? If a group of neighbours follows somebody who intends to break into another neighbour's house, it could end up very negatively, perhaps owing to the use of a knife, gun or other weapon. One could end up in worse circumstances. Do the delegates have concerns about this aspect of the text alert system?
On that point, there have been calls for people to arm themselves in houses. This is linked to what the Deputy is saying. As a community-based organisation, Muintir na Tíre might comment on the calls that have been made, including at some public meetings, in fact.
Mr. Diarmuid Cronin:
I am not familiar with the incident the Deputy mentioned but believe it is completely and utterly against our ethos. Ours is not a vigilante organisation; we have no hand, act or part in that practice. We will not support or give any approval for any act such as that described. It is completely the opposite of what we repeat constantly at meetings, namely, that one must not get involved. One should observe and report. Individuals who take the law into their own hands, such as those referred to, are certainly not following our ethos. They are putting themselves and their families in danger.
A discussion that crops up now and again but which has enjoyed greater impetus lately concerns the business of taking out a gun and confronting individuals. Once again, that is completely and utterly against the ethos that Muintir na Tíre and Community Alert have been preaching over the years. It is foolish to the point of being foolhardy. Individuals who pick up a gun thinking they are going to confront raiders on their property by firing a warning shot are, in the first instance, going to create two victims: the guy they fire at and themselves. A week later, they are going to be looking over their shoulder wondering when retribution is going to come, and their families are going to be doing so also. What happens if the gangs fire back? What happens if the gangs begin to arm themselves? It leads to chaos. We have a policing record since the foundation of the State in which guns have not been a factor, and there is no need for them to be introduced now. For any farmer or householder to fire warning shots or otherwise is foolishness to the point of being ridiculous.
I have a final question because a very important aspect was raised. I totally agree with Mr. Cronin's principles and vision on that issue. However, when one talks to people living in an isolated area or some people in an urban area such as the one I represent, where there is massive intimidation and fear, one realises they may have a different view. They say that if somebody is coming in their window at 3 o'clock in the morning and they have a legally held weapon, they are entitled to defend their home, property and life. It can just be a matter of seconds. Their argument would be that they have a right, and I can understand that view if someone is breaking in at 3 o'clock or 4 o'clock in the morning. Particularly where there are drugs involved in the urban areas, some of the burglars are just out of their heads. It is not just a matter of them nicking €50 or €60; they could be so high that they would thrash the house and householder, who could end up dead. People with legally held shotguns say to me they have a right to defend their life and family.
Mr. Diarmuid Cronin:
There is a major difference between defending one's life and family from imminent attack and firing warning shots. The other point to bear in mind is that the vast majority of people who go around the country breaking into homes are not going to give advance notice that they are going to arrive at one's door. In most robberies, the criminals go in and out and are never noticed. To have a situation where a guy is sitting armed and waiting reminds me of the Martin case in the United Kingdom. We do not want to go there.
Mr. Diarmuid Cronin:
The fear of crime is actually far worse than crime. Most people have perhaps one serious encounter with a criminal in the course of their lives. Many people never have an incident. However, there are people who cannot sleep at night because of the fear that they might be raided.
I cannot give an answer because there are two sides to it. Without a certain level of apprehension, people will relax and do nothing to protect themselves, such as become involved in community alert or neighbourhood watch groups. Without apprehension, they will not put up security lights, lock their back doors or invest in any of the facilities that people invest in. A certain apprehension is necessary but fear is a disease.
I have a number of questions before we finish. Mr. Cronin raised the issue of legal aid and has talked about restricting it and making people pay for it themselves. There is a practice of having a number of solicitors covering different charges against the same individual and the witnesses suggest that it should be changed to one solicitor per client. Mr. Cronin has said that there is a fear of restorative justice. Will he comment on that fear and where it comes from? He has said that it is a possible solution but at the same time there is a fear of it.
Mr. Cronin has already spoken about people being deprived of a driving licence if they are driving a vehicle that has been used in the course of a robbery, which is an interesting point. He has spoken about cross-jurisdiction policing. Could he expand on what he means by cross-jurisdiction policing and how it operates on the ground?
Mr. Diarmuid Cronin:
That comment came from my colleague who deals with the Northern region. It was evident there recently with the unfortunate death of Garda Tony Golden. Better flow of information between the different agencies on the Border might possibly have created a situation in which that incident might not have occurred.
Mr. Diarmuid Cronin:
Co-operation between different agencies is a solution to many different problems that we have in the community. The one that comes most to mind is the effort the Garda Síochána made to combat metal theft two years. It involved different agencies, including the Department of Social and Family Affairs, Customs and Excise, and the county councils. One interesting thing that came out of that was that many of the individuals involved in the theft of metal were claiming disability allowance. In recent times, a number of criminals apprehended after major chases were receiving disability allowance and their partners were receiving carer's allowance. There is room for the different agencies of the State to look at an individual's entire life history. It comes back to deterrence again; there is more to deterrence than sentencing.
Will Mr. Cronin comment on something that seems quite sensible - the practical system of property marking and tracing? I understand that forensic marking is available in other jurisdictions and is very effective, but it is not available here. Will Mr. Cronin explain what would be involved in introducing it to this jurisdiction? Why is it not here at the moment? Is there a cost involved and has any work been done to explore how it works?
Mr. Diarmuid Cronin:
I have done quite a lot of work on it since 2011. I looked at the various markings. A common denominator of all forensic markings is that they need ultraviolet light to be seen. They come in many different shapes and forms but ultraviolet light is the common denominator. It is needed for the search parties that go out to search a criminal's property and in the district offices where a criminal is being proceeded, to see the markings if they are present. At the time there were a number of companies - the major players were SelectedDNA and SmartWater. However, none of the companies could get a major contract that would allow them to really develop the sales of their product in the country.
Copper cable is used by wind farms, telecoms companies and Iarnród Éireann and there could be major contracts with banks, credit unions, or any kind of a property on which an individual might carry out a raid. The Garda Síochána needs resources in order to have a system in its laboratory to read the markings. It is a game changer and is a major player in other jurisdictions. It is a crime preventative because if a property is marked, it creates a big reason not to raid it. I spoke about such a product at one of my community alert meetings and a person asked me where he could get it. I asked him what exactly he would be using it on and he said that he had a record collection of LPs, including some golden discs which were quite valuable, and he knew that if he marked his records that no matter where in the world they were distributed, whether the USA, UK or Europe, they could be traced back to him.
The Garda Síochána recovers an immense amount of property every year which has to be auctioned because nobody can claim it and the Garda cannot determine who is the owner. This is a crying shame. My predecessor in community alert was a retired garda sergeant called Pat O'Leary. He advocated that people stamp numbers, such as their telephone number, onto their property. Perhaps something like Eircode could be stamped. It is very difficult to etch or stamp but it is simple to use the equivalent of nail varnish and just mark little dabs here and there and have it traced internationally back to one's home and property.
Mr. Paddy Byrne:
I will comment on a number of issues. Deputy McGrath raised the whole question of the text alert system and the dangers that lie therein. Those dangers will be there regardless of whether we have text alert. We see text alert as a major benefit. We insist that all our affiliated members and community alert groups follow the guidelines that we lay down as strictly as possible. These were implemented by us in conjunction with the Garda Síochána. We hope that this would deter people from taking a more extreme route.
We have had much debate on rural crime. It would seem that all crime, in particular rural crime, is committed by extreme criminals and perhaps we are all a little bit responsible for that extremeness. If one looks at free legal aid, an offender can commit a number of different crimes, yet is able to carry on forever committing crimes without any sort of penalty or clause. We should ask ourselves if we are fostering a situation in which we are creating extreme criminals over a period of time. If all these other things were put in place and if people were sanctioned, perhaps by deductions in social welfare, the denial of free legal aid or changes to our bail laws, it would help to counteract the extreme element that exists.
I wish to point out that only an extreme element is involved in criminal activities. I shall not mention particular cases. However, in a recent case seven individuals broke into a family home which was an horrific experience for the victims and one can only imagine what they suffered. I have outlined all of these elements and we look for support in order to change the situation.
There is another element which is of huge concern in rural areas and it is one that crops up repeatedly. Community alert groups and community councils have told us about the issue of cash for scrap and cash for gold. It is accepted now that most farm machinery that is stolen in this country is cut down and sold for cash.
Mr. Paddy Byrne:
Yes but maybe they do so unknowingly. There are 12 or 13 main scrap dealers in the Republic but they seem to be unregulated. The rest of us must show a C2 certificate, a driver's licence or some form of identification if we want to do business but the scrap industry seems to be unregulated. The powers that be must put a mechanism in place to stop this trade and make people accountable. One way to resolve the issue is to discontinue cash payments and insist on invoiced receipted payments through the use of credit transfers, cheques or whatever. We seek the committee's support in all of these issues. We are grateful for the opportunity to attend today and the invitation was timely. We hope something good will come out of this meeting.
On behalf of all of the citizens we congratulate the organisation on 30 years of community alert. We will take on board the recommendations and points it has made. We will formulate a letter for the Minister that outlines the issues. This committee, and maybe the committee that follows us, can follow up on the good suggestions that have been made.
The delegation has made a number of interesting points. This is an important meeting and we have had a good engagement with the organisation. I thank the delegation for attending today. I propose we suspend for a few moments to allow a change of witnesses and I wish the delegation a safe journey home.