Wednesday, 14 June 2006
Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998: Motion.
Brendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
Like me, I am sure this annual renewal brings other Members starkly back to that awful day in August 1998 when a bomb was detonated in Omagh. At the time, all of us were imbued with the notion that there was light at the end of the tunnel and that we were moving away from the awful decades of terrible violence, carnage and mayhem. A peaceful resolution of the differences that long existed on this island had been brokered and although obliged to work through the tortuous layers of implementation involved in securing that resolution, it seemed we were embarked irreversibly on a path of peace where any act of violence would be totally abhorrent and unacceptable. We were rattled to the core, however, by the awful bombing of Omagh, which indicated that there were some who could not be convinced that the only future for this country involved a peaceful path. These were people who would resort to a level of carnage and mayhem that had no regard whatever for life. Everybody, including pregnant women and young children, was vulnerable to their slaughter.
Unfortunately, those people whose murderous deed brought us into emergency session and motivated us to introduce the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 still exist on this island. Some have moved some way down the path towards an acceptance of peaceful means as the only mechanism for advancing causes. Unfortunately, however, there is a coterie of persons with irredentist views who can never be convinced of this. It is clear the State must be robust not only in its determination to bring these persons to justice but in arming the protectors of the State to ensure citizens of this and adjoining states can go about their business without fear of being murdered and brutalised. As long as dissident groups, whether republican or Unionist, exist with murderous intent, we must have robust laws. I believe that the Provisional IRA exists still, unfortunately, but at least it is largely, if not totally, disarmed at this stage and is committed to the path of co-operating with the political solution on this island, as brokered by all parties and endorsed by the overwhelming majority of people, North and South, of this island.
I wish to refer to the legislation and the processes involved therein. The legislation, although enacted on an emergency basis, has a review mechanism within it and we are called to this House to review it annually. Unfortunately, sunset clause legislation has a habit on occasion, especially in the security area, of becoming a fixed entity. Laws enacted in the early 1970s are now permanent, although notionally temporary, features of our legal system and criminal code.
We must be clear about what we are engaged in here. If there are sections of this Act which should properly form part of the permanent law, we should have that debate and make the necessary arrangements. The annual notion that we are reviewing this legislation with a realistic intent to remove it should be addressed in a robust way.
The provisions of the 1998 Act are unusual in that they require a report to be laid before the House within a period of not more than 21 days from its production. There is no requirement in the legislation for the report to be laid before the House, as is the norm with other reports of a similar nature, 21 days before the debate takes place. The report was only laid before the House last Monday, and it is a flimsy document. It basically contains a recitation of the number of occasions on which the various sections of the 1998 Act were used, a general view from the Garda Síochána and from the Minister, none of which is particularly informative. It is certainly not nearly as informative as the Minister's speech to the House, which was much more expansive with regard to the matters at hand.
We must have a more robust interaction between the Executive and the Legislature on these matters. I have never had the privilege of serving in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, but there is a generally held view, which the Minister may share, that at the core of that Department, for a very long time, was a security view that almost deemed it an unnecessary liberty to share information with members of the Government. It was also deemed an extraordinary liberty to share information with, or ask the opinion of, Members of the Oireachtas outside of Government.
I had occasion to deputise for the then Tánaiste, the former Deputy, Dick Spring, at a Cabinet security committee. I had the sense that the then Secretary of the Department felt that he had to be very careful when sharing information with people who happened to be holders of Cabinet office temporarily. Whether they could be trusted with the security of the State was a question on which the jury was still out.
That mentality, quite understandably, built up in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform over a period because the security of the State was threatened and fundamentally assaulted over decades by people who wanted to bring down the Constitution, the constitutional authority and the institutions created by the people under the Constitution. Thankfully, we have moved beyond that now and that mindset, if it still exists, must be abandoned.
We must have a better debate, and I am addressing this point to a Minister who normally listens to points made, about the future of the security arrangements in place on this island in the changed circumstances. We also need an open and reasonable debate on some of the matters put forward by my colleague, the Fine Gael justice spokesperson, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, including the future of the Special Criminal Court.
The Minister referred to international terrorism and we are all aware of the terrible experiences endured by the United Kingdom and Spain in recent times. We have enacted the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005 as regular law. Do we need to supplement that with special law? If so, why? If we need more robust, permanent law, why not have the debate and enact such law?
In most developed democracies there is a security committee of the Legislature. We have the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights but it seldom, if ever, deals with matters in an open and robust way, with a realistic assessment from the Garda authorities, the Special Branch and those monitoring dissident groups of how real the threat is and what laws are required. Is there a need for the existence or, as was suggested last year, the expansion of the Special Criminal Court? All these matters could be usefully debated in an open forum that takes away the secrecy surrounding security issues that has overshadowed debates in the past. This would also reassure the public that their security is safeguarded, the most robust, but fairest, laws are being enacted and that the Oireachtas is not going too far in attempting to strike a balance between securing the liberty of the individual citizen and ensuring that terrorism is confronted robustly.
The Minister referred to a new issue that has arisen, that is, the dissident republicans, or others, who find themselves with no career path for the future and are embarking on criminal activity or using munitions and explosives expertise or arms, originally ear marked for the so-called cause, for nefarious, murderous, gangster purposes. We must be robust in confronting that overlap between criminal gangsterism and dying dissident republicanism to ensure a new monster is not created.
There is a certain pro forma or charade involved in producing a report that simply recites the number of occasions on which various sections of the legislation were used in the previous 12 months, accompanied by a few sentences to the effect that the Garda authorities believe the legislation remains a necessary arm for them and the Minister acquiescing with that opinion. That does not meet the requirements of robust, democratic scrutiny of the rights and protection of the citizen which must be balanced by legislators.
I hope that, in replying to this debate, the Minister will indicate his thinking on the future regime for security arrangements in the State, the future attitude to the special courts, how the Oireachtas, to the best of its ability, might best engage so that there will always be public confidence that it will protect the rights of the citizen, not only to life and liberty, but to freedom of movement, discourse and all other entitlements, without the intrusion of the State. In the aftermath of 11 September, there was an imbalance in the United States as it rushed to enact the Patriot Act. We have endured over a much longer period a more sustained assault on our democratic institutions. By and large, with a few mistakes, we have been reasonable in the legislative measures we have put in place and we have continued to function as a constitutional democracy mindful of our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and our international obligations under UN conventions. That is how we should advance and where we can set aside emergency or special provisions. We should always take the opportunity to do so, consistent with the well-being and protection of our people.