Wednesday, 25 September 2013
Co-operation in policing and criminal justice on this island is a matter in which I have taken a particular interest since taking office as Minister. This co-operation takes place across many strands and at many levels from frequent ministerial meetings to day-to-day operational interaction between the police services and other justice agencies.
I maintain very regular contact with the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice, David Ford, to address matters of shared interest and enhance co-operation on all criminal justice matters. Under the Intergovernmental Agreement on Co-operation on Criminal Justice Matters, we operate a structured framework for co-operation involving the range of criminal justice agencies on this island. The personnel from these agencies work together in bringing forward an annual work programme of co-operation. The officials from our Departments also meet regularly to assess and report to us on developments. I also meet regularly with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, to address a range of matters of mutual concern, particularly with regard to the security situation. I met the Secretary of State during this week in one of our regular meetings.
There is close and ongoing co-operation between the Garda Síochána and the PSNI on all aspects of policing. The two police services operate a joint cross-Border policing strategy which has as its aims to improve public safety throughout Ireland, disrupt criminal activity and enhance the policing capability of both police services on the island. The strategy includes sections dealing with operations, cross-Border investigations, intelligence sharing and security, information and communications technology, training, human resources and emergency planning.
The two police services are jointly engaged in implementing a number of initiatives in all these areas.
Combating the paramilitary threat is a continuing priority for both police services. The Garda works seamlessly with its Northern Ireland counterparts in actively bearing down on these criminal terrorists and on the organised crime gangs to which they are inextricably linked. The Garda Commissioner and the PSNI Chief Constable place strong emphasis on the close and high quality co-operation between the two police services and its importance in combating the shared threats which they must address.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
The joint cross-Border policing strategy recognises the particular value of interagency co-operation in certain areas, for example, in ongoing efforts to combat organised crime. A cross-Border taskforce on fuel laundering and smuggling comprising representatives from the two police forces, the two customs services, the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency has underpinned successful actions to disrupt the activities of groups involved in laundering and distributing illegal fuels. A cross-Border tobacco enforcement group is also in place to support the fight against the activities of gangs engaged in tobacco fraud.
North-South co-operation in combating crime at the policy and operational levels is both positive and dynamic. The challenges that crime presents are shared ones and joint working will continue to support and enhance our efforts to improve community safety for all communities on this island.
I thank the Minister for his response. I represent a Border constituency and we have a particular interest in co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the PSNI. I recently wrote to the chairperson of the Donegal joint policing committee and the three chairpersons of the Derry, Strabane and Fermanagh policing and community safety partnerships asking them to convene a meeting. Responsibility for policing does not stop with the police services on the island. It is the responsibility of the Minister for Justice and Equality and the local public representatives who sit on those bodies. It was an important development that followed the Good Friday Agreement. Does the Minister support the proposal that the joint policing committees, and policing and community safety partnerships along the Border corridor should meet regularly? Would he consider issuing some sort of encouragement to those bodies or doing anything else in his power to support it?
Of course I support any co-operation that is of relevance to ensuring we have effective and co-operative policing on a cross-Border basis. The policing committees are independent in their operation. It would be a bad precedent and is not appropriate for me, as Minister, to start making demands of them or issuing instructions to them. Obviously if a request has been made for them to have a joint meeting, it is a matter for those committees how they respond to that request and to consider the benefit of such a meeting in the context of its contribution to cross-Border policing.
The cross-Border policing strategy recognises the particular value of interagency co-operation in certain areas, for example, in ongoing efforts to combat organised crime. A cross-Border taskforce on fuel laundering and smuggling comprising representatives from the two police forces, the two customs services, the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency has underpinned successful actions to disrupt the activities of groups involved in laundering and distributing illegal fuels. A cross-Border tobacco enforcement group is also in place to support the fight against the activities of gangs engaged in tobacco fraud. The agencies working in co-operation have had some substantial success in the confiscation of illegal fuel and tobacco.
I welcome any progress in tackling the criminal gangs involved in diesel laundering and cigarette smuggling operating in the Border area. They are a plague on those communities and anything that can be done to confront them should be done.
Would the Minister consider having a dedicated justice stream within the North-South Ministerial Council? I know he has a good relationship with his counterpart in the North, the Minister, Mr. David Ford, MLA. There was a bit of focus recently on a particular matter and I have no problem with the decision the Minister made. On an operational basis it should have been the Chief Constable and the Garda Commissioner dealing with those matters at the two-day seminar - I have no criticism of that. In terms of the wider meetings involving himself, is that something he can consider?
The Minister, Mr. Ford, MLA, and I meet with some regularity and also talk on the phone with some regularity about particular issues when they arise. So there is no shortage of connectivity between us.
When the North-South Ministerial Council meetings were established, it was not envisaged, for reasons of which the Deputy is aware, that justice would be formally included within them. There was certainly at least one meeting if not more attended by the Minister, Mr. Ford, MLA, and me, at which there were issues of relevance to the justice area that may also have had overlapping impacts on other areas. We have informally attended meetings where necessary where there have been issues on the agenda. I am very happy to meet the Minister, Mr. Ford, MLA. We meet in Dublin and in Belfast. We have met at a variety of events. From example, from recollection the probation officers North and South have an annual seminar which alternates between North and South. We have met at those occasions. We met on separate occasions and there is no lack of connectivity between us in any respect or of any nature.