Wednesday, 13 June 2018
Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 and Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009: Motions
That Dáil Éireann resolves that sections 2 to 4, 6 to 12, 14 and 17 of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 (No. 39 of 1998) shall continue in operation for the period beginning on the 30 June 2018 and ending on 29 June 2019.
I wish to share time with Deputy Brophy.
The House will recall that the 1998 Act was a necessary and wholly proportionate response to the barbaric murder by the Real IRA of 29 innocent people at Omagh in August 1998, almost 20 years ago. These robust provisions of the criminal law play an important role in enabling the Garda authorities and the courts to face down the threat from such terrorism. In accordance with the Act, I have laid before the House a report on the operation of the relevant provisions over the past 12 months. I will not take up the limited time by going through in detail each of the sections but I signal to the House that one element of section 9, that is to say, subsection (1)(b), is the subject of ongoing litigation. It was declared invalid by the High Court in February but that declaration is being appealed. The remainder of section 9 is not in question. The report sets out in more detail than in previous years an assessment of the security position and while I do not intend to rehearse that, I will highlight some aspects.
There remains a real and persistent threat from republican paramilitary groups on this island, the so called dissidents. These groups vehemently oppose peace and democracy and have spent 20 years trying to destroy the Good Friday Agreement and all it stands for. I am determined that these terrorists will not succeed and the bullet or bomb will not prevail over the ballot box. I refer also to the threat posed by jihadist-type terrorism.
The raw brutality of the attacks targeting innocent people that we have seen, including on our nearest European neighbours, is a stark reminder of the vulnerability of all open democracies to this threat.
I pay particular tribute to the women and men of An Garda Síochána, who continue to work tirelessly to preserve life and to counter all threats from terrorism. I pay tribute also to the men and women of the police and security services in Northern Ireland, with whom the Garda work closely every single day to enhance the safety of all communities on this island.
The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009 was a response to difficulties facing the justice system from certain organised criminal gangs behaving as though they were beyond the law. Section 8 provides that four particularly serious organised crime offences should be tried in the Special Criminal Court, subject to the DPP not directing otherwise. Again, I will not delay the House by repeating the detail of what is set out in the report I have laid before the House in accordance with section 8. That report notes that no cases came for trial before the Special Criminal Court under section 8.
No one can be under any illusion about the threat that society and the criminal justice system face from organised criminal gangs that will stop at nothing in pursuit of their criminal activities. The Garda authorities are working intensively to bear down on these criminal gangs and to disrupt their activities. The Garda deserves praise for the considerable success it has achieved against these gangs, and with the Government's support that work will continue.
As set out in the two reports I have laid before the House, it is the clear view of An Garda Síochána that the provisions in the 1998 and 2009 Acts continue to be most important in ongoing efforts in the fight against terrorism and serious organised crime. On this basis, on the basis of the information set out in the report and on the advice of the Garda authorities at senior level, I propose that the House should approve the continued operation of the relevant provisions of the 1998 and 2009 Acts for a further 12 months commencing 30 June.
I echo what the Minister has said in calling for support for the 1998 and 2009 Acts. It is very important that everyone in this House support them. I call in particular on political parties that have not done so in the past to consider that this is a time to choose. If a party sets itself up as a modern political party and as expert in so many ways on our Judiciary, our policing and our Garda Síochána, it must understand that dealing with the threats we face from organised criminals, paramilitaries and international terrorism is essential to An Garda Síochána and to the security of the State. This is no time for doubts or any kind of harking back to a past, a tradition and a history which caused one to oppose good, solid, sensible legislation that is vital to the protection of the institutions and security of this modern State, which some would seek to govern and be involved with other parties in that government. No party that would not support this would be fit to be part of any government. It is very important, and it is a challenge, perhaps, to some to support, but I call on all parties quite clearly to do so.
There is a certain element of repetition to this. This is the third time I have spoken on these motions since my election to the House and appointment as justice spokesperson. On each of the two previous occasions, I and Fianna Fáil have supported the motions. Without any question, we will support them again today. We support them because, regrettably, we believe they are necessary. We also believe they are a proportionate response to very serious criminal issues that this country faces. We need to address those criminal issues rather than hide from them.
I have had the opportunity to read the reports the Minister has placed before both Houses of the Oireachtas. I found them helpful and informative. The first motion relates to the extension of the 12 sections of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998. Throughout the paper laid before the House, reference is made to the current security situation. It should be pointed out that the greatest domestic threat to our security in this country at present is, as the Minister stated, the threat that comes from republican paramilitary groups, so-called dissident groups. Sometimes people forget that there was a period in this island's past when we were plagued by violence. That was prior to the Good Friday Agreement. One of the great political achievements of the 20th century in Europe was the Good Friday Agreement. Many of us, when we were growing up, thought that the violence in Northern Ireland was intractable, that it was not capable of resolution. Fortunately, we have now set the pace for the world in showing that conflicts can be resolved and that no issue is too intractable to be protected from political resolution. Every political problem can be resolved. However, it is important to point out that there remains a domestic threat on this island from dissident groups. Because of this, the legislation we are discussing under the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 is, unfortunately, necessary.
It is also important to point out that the reports refer to the international threat. If one were to ask anyone outside of Ireland what the biggest threat is in respect of international terrorism, he or she would say it is religious extremism. We need to recognise that the report placed before the Oireachtas this evening is not alarming. All it says is that there are a small number of people here whose activities in support of extremism give cause for concern and that the authorities monitor their activities very closely. If we were solely dealing with the international threat, perhaps there would be a strong argument against renewing the legislation. However, in the context of the domestic threat, there can be no such uncertainty.
I wish to emphasise something else that is stated in the report. Sometimes there is a concentration on associating religious extremism with the Islamic communities. It is important to note that the following is emphasised in the report that has been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas:
the extremism underlying this threat is not characteristic of Ireland’s peace-loving Muslim community. Terrorism is not the product of one faith or belief system. The only people responsible for terrorist attacks are the evil people who carry them out.
I endorse these comments.
We know from the report in respect of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act that 23 convictions were secured in the courts in the period we are talking about and that a further 84 persons are awaiting trial. These are not academic pieces of statutory provision that are not used in our criminal justice system. They are used, and people are convicted as a result of the existence of this legislation.
It is also important to point out - not, though, that it is in any way determinative - the views of the Garda authorities. We note that the Garda Commissioner has made clear to the Minister his view that the key provisions of the Offences Against the State Act are regularly used and that the Garda Commissioner considers it essential that the relevant provisions of the Act be extended for a further period of 12 months. Therefore, having read the report, I think any objective assessment of it would lead a person to believe it is necessary for the 12 sections of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 to be renewed, and I and Fianna Fáil will support their renewal.
The other motion before the House relates to the operation of section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009. Again, we have a relatively detailed report from the Minister on this matter. One would want to be living in a parallel universe or on a different planet not to be aware that significant gangland issues face not just this city, but indeed the whole country. Unfortunately, the value of human life in this country has been reduced considerably by the extent to which people are prepared to kill other people as part of criminal feuds. Sometimes we seem to refer to this as being a feud involving two distinct groups. Unfortunately, I have no doubt but that these assassinations, as they should be called, will spread. Unfortunately, human life has become very cheap. If one looks at any case before the Special Criminal Court at present dealing with gangland feuds, one will note that there is a potential threat that people who are up on charges or subsequently convicted of charges will interfere with juries. We have seen in the past that witnesses have been intimidated in cases, that organised criminals have murdered journalists in this country and that lawyers are threatened in respect of cases they bring.
One cannot hide from the fact that, regrettably, the Special Criminal Court is necessary in this country. If we did not have a Special Criminal Court, there would be miscarriages of justice. Too often miscarriage of justice is taken to mean only those who are wrongfully convicted of criminal offences. However, it also applies when someone who is guilty of a criminal offence is wrongfully acquitted. We need to ensure that does not happen.
I was pleased that Deputy Brophy was present for the debate. I wondered whether it was a sign of his elevation to ministerial office. That is not yet the case, but I am sure it will happen.
No. Deputy Brophy's comments were addressed to Sinn Féin. I looked back at the debate on this issue last year. Many of the contributions, including my own, were relatively repetitive. Sometimes we make the same comments on this motion, but I was interested by Deputy Jonathan O'Brien's contribution. He said at the time: "Sinn Féin does not oppose special courts to deal with the very specific circumstances of violent organised criminal gangs which present serious threats to the security of the State." I recall that statement and I detected a change in the Sinn Féin position. Unfortunately for Deputy O'Brien, his contribution did not receive much coverage but I noted the change. It is not for me to dictate what other parties should state in the House, but I detected that Deputy Brophy was making an invitation to Sinn Féin. The message to Sinn Féin is that it is time to choose if it wishes to go into government with Fine Gael.
If Sinn Féin choose to go in with Fine Gael, one of the obstacles that it will have to overcome is the need to say that the Special Criminal Court is necessary. I will not be a part of the political game between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.
One should look objectively at the matter, be aware of the nature of the trials that are held in the Special Criminal Court and consider this from a non-academic point of view. It can be easy for lobby groups or those with a particular agenda in respect of civil liberties to say that there should always be a jury trial. I am a civil libertarian and believe that there should always be a jury trial but I recognise there are occasions when a jury trial is not feasible. It may not be possible because of the threat posed to a jury. This is not an abstract threat. It is for that reason that I will support the motion as I have done in the past.
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.
It operates with a standard operating procedure of non-jury trials. We should protect the right to a jury trial and implement the protections I outlined a moment ago to ensure a fair trial and to ensure those guilty can be convicted.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish and British Governments have a responsibility to work towards the normalisation of policing and security matters. This means ending the state of emergency under which the Offences against the State Act operates. It is not sensible to perpetuate a situation in which we are relying on an annual renewal of outdated emergency legislation. We are using 20th century tools for what is now a very different challenge in the 21st century. Consequently, we need new legislation and new tools. Last year Deputy Jonathan O’Brien called for an a comprehensive review of the legislation that governs such trials and all related matters. It is unfortunate that suggestion was not taken up. I once again call on the Minister to take on this work. We will engage enthusiastically with him and play our role to ensure that organised crime is given no quarter and that we have an effective policing, legislative and policy response to shut down this threat. I hope that in 12 months' time we are in a position to consider the outcome of that rather than another renewal of archaic legislation.
I thought that Deputy Brophy's remarks were revealing when he said that to be "fit for government" one has to prove oneself by voting for repressive legislation and voting against civil liberties. That is unfortunately appropriate in a state founded in a counter-revolution and in bloody repression of which the political forefathers of Deputy Brophy and party of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, were in charge. We have an uncomfortable 100 year anniversary coming up, that of the massacre of prisoners without trial. That is unfortunately the real history of this State and it shows the need for a revolutionary break with that approach under which civil liberties and democratic rights have been sacrificed again and again in the interests of the establishment.
To be clear, we are absolutely opposed to the renewal of the continuing operation of these sections of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 and section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009. Every year for 20 years this House has renewed the operations of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act. It is an annual event which, as Deputy O'Callaghan rightly said, often features effectively the same speeches being given. I have spoken on this motion before, as have Deputies Coppinger and Barry on previous occasions. Former Deputy Joe Higgins was a Member of this House when the Act was rushed through in 1998, one day after the abhorrent Omagh bomb atrocity. That was a horrific act which resulted in more deaths than any other bombing in the course of the Troubles. The establishment at the time used the disgusting attack on the people of Omagh to bring in harsh legislation which has remained on the Statute Book ever since. Joe Higgins was correct to oppose these measures when they were proposed in 1998. The Minister at the time even described it as draconian legislation.
We, and people out there, should remember that this law applies to everybody in the State, not just the tiny minority which may threaten to engage or may actually engage in acts of terrorism. The 1998 Act allows the rules of evidence to be changed and for an increase in the length of time for which a person can be detained. The State wants to keep these powers on the books and, even though the provisions are not used regularly, there is a reason it wants to retain those powers rather than to let them lapse. The 2009 Act allows for non-jury trials for certain offences related to organised crime. Let there be no doubt about it, organised crime is a blight on communities. It is particularly working-class communities and deprived communities that bear the brunt of organised crime, particularly in the area of drugs.
We support the right to trial by jury. We take that right seriously. We do not think that one can be half a civil libertarian or that one can support the right to trial by jury in some circumstances but not in others. The right to a jury trial is an essential question of civil liberties. Measures are needed to protect juries from intimidation, such as partly exist for witnesses, rather than throwing out jury trials altogether. The Special Criminal Court should be abolished in that respect. There is another particularly questionable aspect to the 2009 Act. Even if one concedes the idea of non-jury trials, the idea that the Director of Public Prosecutions should be empowered to decide how the courts will try these offences, which is the idea that the prosecution should have the power to decide whether to have a judge trial or a jury trial, is clearly repugnant to any basic idea of civil liberties.
It is unfortunately the case that when dealing with terrorism or organised criminal gangs the State primarily rests upon and puts forward the idea of repression and suppression of civil liberties. Any quick glance at history will show that throughout the years of the Troubles in the North no amount of repressive measures by the British, Northern or Southern states resulted in the ending of the conflict. Thousands were arrested and interned. Even when there were trials, they would not be what we would consider to be fair trials or to have resulted in reliable convictions. We obviously know of a number of very high profile cases of that nature.
The most effective way to overcome terrorism - we should be clear that socialists are absolutely opposed to the methods of individual terrorism - is to build a mass movement built on workers and young people on a cross-community basis. Terrorist methods inflame sectarian divisions and are absolutely counterproductive. The best opposition to that is mass opposition to a return to conflict. This provides a protection against terrorism. It is socialists and trade unionists who have continually held back sectarian conflict throughout the Troubles by bringing pressure to bear on paramilitaries on both sides while State forces have inflamed the conflict with repression.
Similarly with organised crime the main offer of the State is repression, which has not worked. Much of the organised crime is involved in the illegal drugs trade. As well as cracking down on those criminal gangs we need to see a complete change in how the drug problem is dealt with. The trade has to be taken out of the hands of these gangs that make massive profit preying off those who are vulnerable and those with addictions. Recreational drugs should be decriminalised, but that should be combined with significant investment in our communities, addiction services and so on. We will be voting against these renewals today because we are opposed to the continuation of attacks on civil liberties by the State and stand full square for people's democratic rights.
That is right. We know the reason for the original Special Criminal Court, which came out of the 1939 Act, was to protect Ireland's neutrality during the Second World War and we know of the circumstances of the Troubles in the 1970s. There is a longevity, however, to the Special Criminal Court. It now seems to be enshrined in our legal system and almost normalised as a court setting. That is not acceptable in a modern, democratic, functioning state with a small population such as Ireland has. We know of the overwhelming support for the Good Friday Agreement and we know of the peace that has prevailed in spite in some paramilitary activity. Violence is always regrettable but that paramilitary activity is not centre stage and is not threatening the State so those special circumstances do not prevail.
As the Minister has outlined, the main reason relates to a serious terrorist threat to the State and continuing violence on the part of dissident groups. However, this threat has been minimal. An increasing number of the dissident groups have announced they are turning away from the armed struggle. That should be reflected in this discussion.
As an aside, I wish to comment on that very undemocratic, unjust system that prevails in the North, namely, the parole commission system whereby there is closed evidence and a lack of access for people to appropriate representation. There are frequent delays and postponements, hence lengthy remands and people being kept in detention, sometimes for over two years, without a charge or conviction and then being released back into society. We just seem to accept this happening just 50 or 60 miles up the road.
Why do we continue with the Special Criminal Court? We know the views of organisations such as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. The UN Commission on Human Rights has frequently called for the court's suspension. There is an irony in this because we know Ireland has a very considerable reputation when it comes to human rights, yet this is a human right that we are very conveniently ignoring. The criticisms are the lack of a jury and the increasing use of the court to try cases relating to so-called ordinary crime. The Minister mentioned serious gangland crime being used as a reason. I represent the constituency that has been most affected by the recent gangland feud. I acknowledge that there is some support for a special criminal court because of intimidation. However, that intimidation is of the witnesses. There are ways to deal with jury intimidation other than through the Special Criminal Court. We see this in countries that have much more serious gangland crime than that which obtains here. In 2009, the Minister criticised the use of a special criminal court in respect of gangland crime. The best way to cope with gangland crime is to hit the perpetrators where it hurts them the most, that is, their pockets. We saw the recent success of Garda intelligence-gathering in the prevention of murders and attacks, in addition to the seizing of money and goods. This is a much better way of tackling gangland crime.
We seem to believe judges are above reproach, beyond fault and perfect in all of the judgments but there are plenty of examples to the contrary. Why is there a discrepancy in their sentencing? We have to work towards eliminating the Special Criminal Court because, regardless of the crime, there is a basic right to justice, which means being tried by a jury of one's peers.
I have described this previously as a pantomime. It is a pantomime. That it is does a shocking disservice to the seriousness of the issues involved. We are being asked to renew absolutely extraordinary powers and provisions that apply to suspected organised crime and alleged terrorist offences. We are being asked to allow a special criminal court that admits hearsay evidence on the basis of very low thresholds of Garda evidence to continue in existence. We are being asked to agree to the continued exercise of emergency powers by the State and its agencies. I refer to powers that are supposed to apply only if the ordinary courts are not adequate in order to secure effective administration and the preservation of peace and order. We are being asked to do that without a single detail to support the request.
We have been treated to a six-page report without any of the threats being documented, be they domestic, terrorist, national or international. We are treated only to a summary of vague threats from dissident republicans and some absolute boilerplate stuff about international terrorism. That is all we get. Here we are, it seems, in a permanent state of emergency whereby detail does not seem to matter and human rights can be suspended on nothing more than a Government whim. This is despite the fact that I do not believe any reasonable person could today claim that there is a public emergency threatening the survival of the nation. Would the Government ever get over itself?
It should be pointed out that the evidence thresholds in the Special Criminal Court are lower than in the ordinary courts. The fact that the word of a senior garda could deprive somebody of his liberty for years or decades is absolutely frightening. There is evidence that the amount of evidence being required by the courts has been getting lower and lower in recent years. They used to look for three or four strands but two are now enough. Other organisations have pointed this out.
The United Nations and the Council of Europe have raised concerns about the proportionality of our emergency powers, including this legislation that we are supporting again today. The UN Human Rights Committee has criticised the continuing use of the Special Criminal Court and the arbitrary manner in which the right to a jury trial is denied to suspects in criminal trials, particularly where emergency legislation is applied to suspects in instances that are not related to terrorism. The fact that the DPP has unfettered discretion regarding who is sent before the court is absolutely appalling. We will be opposing these motions strenuously.
Over the years, we have made the usual arguments in here about how this legislation should be altered so the State would not be in violation of its human rights obligations under international law. Obviously, however, the main parties have a different idea. The refusal of succession of Ministers for Justice and Equality to pay any attention to this - despite all the statements from the various human rights groups - suggests that in order to hold the position of Minister, one has to fundamentally disagree with the principle of the universality of human rights.
During our debate last year, the Minister invoked the threat of international terrorism as a justification for continuing to have a no-jury court in Ireland. If the Government stopped allowing Shannon Airport to be used as a base from which to create untold destruction in the Middle East and North Africa, the threat of international terrorism to which the Minister refers would be far less significant. Why has the Government not considered this if it is serious about it and really worried about it?
That the Special Criminal Court is now being used to deal with the escalation in gangland crimes and murders is a load of nonsense. How do other countries deal with them? In America, they have juries for the same crimes. How do they do it?
Other Deputies have mentioned that one of the main reasons gangland crime is thriving is the drugs industry. Why do we not do something about it? What is the point in doing what we are doing? Why do we not consider progressive legislation in Portugal and Switzerland where they have tackled the drugs issue by regulating the industry and taking the gangs out of it? The Government is feeding the gangs with its draconian legislation on drugs and doing no one in this country who suffers at their hands any favours.
Human rights groups have been very critical of the expansion of the Special Criminal Court to hear cases relating to organised crime. There is no way on God's earth that we will agree to these motions. The human rights groups also criticised the fact that the court is being routinely used to charge people with the crime of membership of an organisation. This function of the court is particularly offensive as it is riding roughshod over international human rights law. Professor Dermot Walsh eloquently argued the following in the Hederman report in respect of the provisions in the Offences Against the State Act when he stated:
There is no requirement for the individual to have gone through a prior act of initiation into the organisation, nor is there any requirement for the individual to proclaim himself or herself a member or for the organisation to claim him or her as a member, nor is there any requirement for the individual to be in possession of property belonging to the organisation or to participate in the activities of the organisation. It is sufficient for an individual simply to bea member of the organisation, and that state of beingcan be established on the basis of the "opinion" evidence of a Chief Superintendent.
One could not make it up. It comes really close to using the criminal law to punish someone for a virtual offence. Given the apparent lack of concern with regard to having this kind of injustice baked into the structures of our legal system, it would seem this annual dance is doomed to continue for some time while the underlying causes of the rising crime rates, inequality, outdated drug enforcement legislation, homelessness and the disparity of opportunity in this country all remain thanks to the continuous failure of Government policy.
We came in here in 2011. The amount of policy we have seen implemented here since then that impacts so unfairly on so many sections of our society is remarkable, yet the Government is using this legislation in this manner. It is nonsense.
For my part, I will be supporting the continuation of the Special Criminal Court to deal with offences in the same way as it has been dealing with serious offences since 1998. In recent times, there has been a high level of serious crime and large quantities of drugs have been found.
Murders are being committed throughout the country almost on a daily basis. The villains who are perpetrating these atrocities will have to be dealt with, whether in the Special Criminal Court or another court. They have to be taken out of circulation as soon as possible.
In terms of membership of an unlawful organisation, if a superintendent or a chief superintendent believes, based on the information available, that someone should be locked up immediately, I do not see anything wrong with that. What is happening is ridiculous. Drugs and drug lords are causing mayhem in every part of the country. I have said here previously that the Garda needs many more resources to deal with the drugs problem. Drugs are so available now it is like going into a sweet shop; one can get them anywhere. How is that happening? The Minister should use the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act to ensure those people are locked up as soon as they are found guilty of carrying out these serious acts.
To go back to the time of the Troubles, we are all glad that the Good Friday Agreement saw an end to those but the country is facing a new challenge, which is dealing with the drugs issue and the drug lords. I ask the Minister to ensure that this Act is used in whatever way he can use it to deal with these villains who are causing mayhem throughout the country.
I am happy to speak briefly on the motion this evening. As the Minister is aware, the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 was enacted following the Omagh bombing in August 1998. It amended earlier offences against the State legislation and contains provisions on the rules of evidence regarding the offence of membership of an unlawful organisation.
As the report on the operation of the Act makes clear, the Government of the day moved to ensure that An Garda Síochána and the legal system had the necessary powers to deal effectively with those responsible for these murders and to make clear to all like-minded persons that the State would take appropriate measures to prevent further such atrocities. The Omagh bombing was a truly horrific atrocity as a result of which 29 people, including a pregnant woman, lost their lives.
The primary legislation also makes clear that the security threat in Ireland remains primarily from republican paramilitary groups, the so-called dissident groups, which have their origins in the Provisional IRA and the INLA. They rejected and continue to reject the settlement put in place under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and subsequent agreements, a settlement aimed squarely at securing peace here in the South and in Northern Ireland. We badly need that peace, which is fragile. The concern now about a hard border is fuel for their engines to get them started on a lucrative smuggling trade and other illicit activities along the Border.
I want to highlight also the long and painful struggle that the Omagh victim support group has experienced in trying to establish a cross-Border inquiry into the very atrocity and slaughter that gave rise to the 1998 Act we are discussing here this evening. I have visited Mr. Michael Gallagher and his colleagues in the North many times. I brought him here for Leaders' Questions when the Minister's former leader, Deputy Enda Kenny, was Taoiseach. When in opposition, Deputy Enda Kenny brought him to a Fine Gael Ard-Fheis in 2006 where he pointed him out in the crowd, waved at him and told him that he would not get justice under Fianna Fáil but that he would get it under Fine Gael. However, when he came into power, the then Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, abandoned him. I had to bring Mr. Gallagher here so that he could meet him and shake his hand on the corridor but the Taoiseach ran away from him. All Mr. Gallagher wanted to know was whether he was the same person he had met when he was in opposition.
The cover up and the shenanigans that went on around the Omagh bombing are truly pitiful. I have met the families involved. I have met Detective Sergeant White and his family. I know a fair bit about that atrocity, which should never have happened. It could have been prevented but it was not. I support Mr. Gallagher. I asked the current Taoiseach, on the day he was elected Taoiseach, if he would try to get justice and meet the Omagh bombing victims and families but to no avail. The shutters came down. It is very unusual that on the one had we have done so much to address the terrorism problem on this island yet on the other, we still have not adequately responded to some of the families directly affected by the violence. We forget about them. We had the debate on the Shane O'Farrell case here last night. Where is the justice in that case? At the time of the Taoiseach's appointment, I asked him to demonstrate more effective political support for the victims and families of the Omagh bombing massacre than his predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny, promised but did not do. He literally used them to get votes to get into government, which is despicable.
Moving on from that specific issue, I want to finally acknowledge the views of the Garda authorities and the Garda Commissioner, who, as the report on the operation of the Act makes clear, is of the view that the key provisions of this Act are regularly used in the ongoing investigation of terrorist activity. I welcome that. The Commissioner is also of the view that this legislation continues to be one of the most important tools available to An Garda Síochána in the ongoing fight against terrorism. The Garda Commissioner considers it essential that the relevant provisions of the Act should be extended for a further 12 months. However, it is not enough to just have an Act on the Statute Book to help the Garda. It cannot do this unless it has the numbers, the tools of the trade and the basic equipment it needs. In terms of numbers, there has been a 40% reduction in community policing. There was a ban on overtime last December, and the Minister knew about it, but figures were used to say it was next year's money. That was at a time when we are dealing with the most obnoxious, deadly, violent terrorists in this city on a daily basis. A number of gardaí have told us that lives have been spared over this but they are haemorrhaging members. The Minister told me he is going to Templemore tomorrow, which I welcome, but they are all young gardaí who need experience. We are losing the best and the brightest who have the experience. They were ran out of the job because of cuts, restrictions, lack of support from this House in terms of getting adequate funding, vehicles and other equipment.
What happened at the Garda Representative Association, GRA, conference recently was pathetic. We had an officer from the United State of America here. It is pathetic. Members of the Garda cannot get simple tools of the trade to protect themselves when they are in the line of duty on our behalf and that of the public. Marauding gangs are spreading to towns and cities. I have them in my town of Clonmel, although I am thankful for some action taken today. The drugs trade is being run by a mob. Mobs have threatened me because I have asked about legislation here to curtail sulky racing. That is what we are dealing with. They are acting above and outside the law. The gardaí round them up and bring them before the courts but with the revolving door system and free legal aid, they are soon out. I refer to the debate here last night on the Shane O'Farrell case. That person had 52 previous convictions. In a recent case the person had 101 previous convictions but he got free legal aid and bail. We need to wake up the justice system. We need to wake up some members of the Judiciary, so to speak, to ensure they are able to deal with this problem.
What is reprehensible is that every day of the week, and there is a silent protest tonight outside Mountjoy, many members of the Garda are accompanying receivers to evict people from their homes. We are getting it all wrong. We are persecuting people instead of putting the rogues and vagabonds and terrorists off the road. Gardaí and members of the regional support unit, RSU, assisted a third force, former British army people, who came down here to evict a family in Balbriggan, and the gardaí stood idly by. It happened, and the Minister knows it. There is no point in him shaking his head. It happened under the Minister's watch. The gardaí were present. The car they had was parked in the Garda station. Those thugs were members of a third force who have no place in this country, no more than the terrorists. Some of them are former terrorists and former militia and they are terrorising people here who are trying to pay their mortgages. That happened. There is no point in the Minister shaking his head. He knows that.
I thank Members for their contributions. I wish to refer in particular to the Special Criminal Court, as it is relevant to both motions and it exercised some Members. It is my strong view that jury trial is to be preserved to the greatest extent possible but we simply cannot ignore the threat posed to the normal operation of the criminal process by terrorists and organised criminals who have nothing but contempt for the rule of law in the State.
The Special Criminal Court was established to respond to the threat to the State and its people from republican terrorism over the decades. It continues to be necessary to deal with the subversive threat from paramilitary groups. Indeed, the Government recently put the second Special Criminal Court into operation as a necessary response to the volume of cases that needed to be tried. Some have argued that the Special Criminal Court is no longer needed, that its use is unjustified or even that the Special Criminal Court has been partisan in some way. I reject the utterly baseless assertion made in this House that the Special Criminal Court has operated with bias. For the record, its judges have performed courageous public service in presiding without fear or favour over the prosecution of some of the most dangerous terrorists and ruthless criminals in the State. Are we seriously to accept that the threat from republican paramilitary groups and the brutality of ruthless criminal gangs do not need a particular response from our criminal justice system? Are we simply to ignore these realities and not retain at our disposal the best means to support the Garda Síochána and the justice system in tackling these threats? I cannot and will not accept that.
The 1998 Act remains an essential tool in tackling the activities of paramilitary groups across this island. It is complementary to the general criminal law. While the provisions may be out of the ordinary course of the criminal law they are not emergency laws, as some have presented them. Over the course of the State's history, especially during the Troubles on this island, these laws have served to protect and safeguard the State from determined efforts to undermine it and all its democratic institutions. It is surely beyond reasonable argument that a democratic state is entitled, and must make the measures it considers necessary, to protect itself and fundamental rights and freedoms, and allow civil society to flourish. I make no apology for defending our laws and the measures we have in place to combat serious crime and terrorism. The people require us to do what we reasonably can to protect them.
Many Deputies here will know from their experience as public representatives the devastation that organised crime in the drugs trade can wreak on individual lives and communities across the State. We must continue to confront this challenge by providing the necessary resources and legislative supports to combat those who seek to undermine the law and damage lives and communities in doing so. The renewal of this provision of the 2009 Act is a contribution to the overall framework of measures that seek to tackle the scourge of organised crime. While we have a comprehensive criminal law regime to tackle serious crime we must constantly see where it might be improved in the light of experience and changes in crime trends. Our laws in this regard remain under constant review to ensure they are proportionate and effective. Deputy Mattie McGrath referred to the Omagh group with which he is in contact. A reply is being prepared and will issue shortly.
I acknowledge the work of An Garda Síochána. The Garda Síochána has the full support of the Government in tackling serious crime and terrorism. We will provide whatever resources are required to keep our people and communities safe. Some €1.65 billion has been allocated to the Garda Vote for 2018, an increase on previous years. The Garda authorities work very closely with their international colleagues in their efforts to tackle terrorism and organised crime. It is vital that we continue to enhance the ability of law enforcement and security authorities to make better use of, for example, EU information-sharing databases and resources. Backed by an allocation of more than €200 million for Garda ICT under the capital plan, a significant programme of work is under way to improve connectivity with a number of the information-sharing databases in use throughout Europe.
In conclusion, I thank the Deputies who support the motions and the continuation of the use of these powers to ensure the protection of communities, the institutions of the State and our people. I commend the motions to the House.
That Dáil Éireann resolves that section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009 (No. 32 of 2009) shall continue in operation for the period beginning on 30 June 2018 and ending on 29 June 2019.