Wednesday, 13 June 2018
Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 and Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009: Motions
Gang crime has become an increasingly worrying and frightening aspect of life in this State in recent years. Violent, serious organised crime, has become increasingly prominent, and continues to claim many lives, with many more under threat. Since the killing of David Byrne at the Regency Hotel, gardaí believe that they have foiled 52 threats to life related to gang activity. However, there has also been considerable loss of life. Between 2016 and 2017, 22 people died in gang-related killings.
Against that background, and the violence, intimidation, drug running and other forms of criminality that go along with such gangsterism, there has been a devastating impact on communities, creating a climate of fear and concern. This is not a situation we can ignore, or lightly dismiss. We owe it to the communities who face this on a daily basis to tackle this head on, to take on these criminals, shut them down and put them behind bars.
I recognise this will not be easy. Tackling crime, particularly serious and organised crime, requires a resourced response, a legislative response, and a policing response. The front-line members of An Garda Síochána are doing all within their power to confront this problem. However, contrary to its soundbites, the Government is not putting in place the resources required to face it down. The figures tell us that Dublin has lost almost 100 gardaí since last year, despite what the Minister and the Government are telling us about increased resources and numbers. Dublin has lost approximately 900 gardaí since 2010. Last January, Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy stated, "Despite the fact that there are new personnel, drainage into specialist units and transfers continue to reduce frontline policing ... We've hit rock bottom." Last December ,there was an embargo on overtime for gardaí in Dublin, including the special detective unit. There has been a 40% reduction in community policing, with a greater reduction in some districts. The lack of front-line personnel has hit the ability of the Garda to be aware what is going on in communities, and it is crippling the force as a result.
The people who live with such hostility on a day-to-day basis often go forgotten because of the lottery of birth, and working class communities are disproportionately impacted as a result. Were this happening in some of the more affluent suburbs of our cities perhaps the response would be different, and more cohesive. Investment is needed in these communities. Crime can thrive where the State neglects communities, and it cannot be tackled by policing alone. We need targeted and substantial investment in community development, education and employment, particularly in areas where organised crime gangs are recruiting members and where their malign influence is having a devastating effect on social cohesion.
Last year, my colleague, Deputy Jonathan O’Brien, called for "a comprehensive review of the emergency legislation in advance of its renewal next year", which would focus on how to modernise the criminal justice system to make it responsive to the needs of Ireland in 2017. I regret that this has not happened. Sinn Féin believes new legislation is required to replace the outdated emergency Acts in place and to create a new legislative and procedural basis to deal with these particular cases. We recognise certain criminal cases are more difficult to prosecute given the nature of organised crime. The opportunity for well organised and well funded criminal enterprises to interfere with trials is greater than in the vast majority of criminal cases, and we are not ignorant of that. The manner in which serious crime cases are tried is not adequate, and we need to offer greater protections to jurors and witnesses to ensure greater success in putting these criminals away. We have always recognised that there may be - and in certain areas there must be - a requirement for specialisation of courts. We have supported the establishment of specialised family and commercial courts. We would consider favourably proposals regarding specialised courts, procedures and legislation for organised and serious crime, where it is shown to be needed.
The legislative change required has been debated, and aspects of this change have been considered by bodies such as the Law Reform Commission. There is a need to create a specific offence for jury tampering, as there is no such offence currently on the Statute Book. There is also a need to increase penalties for intimidation of jurors under section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1999. There are undoubtedly circumstances where it will be appropriate, necessary, and proportionate to provide for anonymisation of juries and witnesses. The Government, rightly, provided for the anonymisation of witnesses recently under the progressive Domestic Violence Act. I commend the Government on that but a similar provision can surely be made in this regard. This could be provided for via screens in court rooms or, in particular circumstances, through remote location of jurors with video links to courtrooms. It is difficult to understand if the Government is serious about ensuring proper protections, why this matter has never been given proper consideration. In such circumstances, there would also be a need for restrictions on access to jury lists and the abolition of daily roll call of jurors. We would also support this in those instances. We should take all steps necessary to ensure the safety of jurors and witnesses, but the Government has not even considered these matters. Such legislation could have an inbuilt independent review of the legislation to ensure its effectiveness and that it is rights-proofed.
We also need, outside of the legislative framework, to get more serious about tackling serious and organised crime in this State. I urge the Minister to ensure the full implementation of Garda Inspectorate report recommendations on serious crime.
There is also a need for an annual national threat assessment. This is a feature in numerous states, for example in Norway, the United States and Britain, that allows for evaluation of threats of international and domestic forms and which has application in evaluating security and serious and organised crime threats. The Irish approach of reports and threat assessments by the national security committee is ad hocand unstructured. This should be put on a more periodic basis.
These current motions relate to the Special Criminal Court and specifically to provisions under the 1998 and 2009 Acts relating to the same. The Special Criminal Court was first established under the Offences against the State Act 1939 during the Second World War to counter what the Government viewed as a threat to the State’s neutrality from the IRA. Its current incarnation dates from May 1972. The reality is that the Offences against the State Act and the Special Criminal Court are ineffective relics of a conflict era which have failed to deal with the new threats posed by organised crime.