Wednesday, 10 July 2019
Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Bill 2019: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to present the Bill to the House. This important legislation will further advance the commitment on the part of the Government to addressing the position of all victims of the conflict in Northern Ireland and their families. Deputies will be aware that the 2015 Stormont House Agreement concluded on 23 December 2014, following 11 weeks of talks. As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade at the time, I was intimately involved in the negotiations and the agreement between the Irish and UK Governments with the parties in Northern Ireland on a range of measures to support political development there. Significantly, the Stormont House Agreement establishes a comprehensive framework for dealing with the corrosive legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. This framework includes an oral history archive, a dedicated historical investigations unit, which will investigate Troubles related deaths, and the independent commission on information retrieval, ICIR, to enable victims and survivors to seek and receive information about the death of their loved ones. The implementation phase, to fill out the detail and give effect to the agreement’s provisions on legacy, has been a complex exercise and is very much an ongoing project.
The Bill will address the legacy issue on two fronts. It will facilitate further co-operation by An Garda Síochána with coroners’ inquests in Northern Ireland in particular. What are in question are legacy inquests, which, in the main, take place in Northern Ireland and which will examine a number of Troubles related deaths for which there have not been previous prosecutions or convictions. Some such inquests will involve the coroners seeking co-operation from the Garda authorities, which will largely be in respect of paramilitaries involved in the incidents. Co-operation with the process of these inquests is self-evidently most important in the context of addressing the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This was and is an important issue to be addressed in the context of political development in Northern Ireland. While arrangements have been put in place to ensure that Garda records can be made available to the coroner carrying out the Kingsmill and Arlene Arkinson inquests, the coroner has indicated a desire to take testimony from Garda witnesses for the inquests but there is no existing legal mechanism to facilitate this.
The Bill will also create a new section in the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to allow the Garda Commissioner to enter into co-operation agreements with non-police and non-law enforcement bodies with the prior approval of the Government. This is an important element of giving effect to co-operation commitments under the Stormont House Agreement as it will underpin further co-operation with the historical investigations unit to be established in Northern Ireland, which will have certain reporting functions separate from its criminal investigation function. I envisage that it will also support co-operation with the ICIR, an Ireland-UK body to be set up under the Stormont House Agreement that will seek to make information on Troubles related deaths to victims’ families.
The Garda Acts provide a power for the Commissioner to enter into agreements with other police or law enforcement services and the Bill will expand that for non-police bodies that have functions relevant to the Garda. I have included a similar provision that will allow the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, to enter into co-operation agreements with similar police oversight authorities and law enforcement bodies. At present, GSOC has no such powers and the provisions of the Bill will facilitate co-operation agreements with, for example, the historical investigations unit and the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. Such co-operation agreements will also require the prior approval of the Government. Aside from these provisions that will deliver on our commitments on the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Bill will make a number of technical amendments to existing legislation relating to international co-operation in the criminal justice area.
The Bill has ten sections. Section 1 contains the definitions for terms used in the Bill. Section 2 provides for the Minister for Justice and Equality to designate a UK coroner’s inquest, subject to conditions, for the purpose of application of the mechanism for the taking of evidence for the purposes of section 3.
Section 3 provides for a mechanism whereby the testimony of members of An Garda Síochána can be obtained by coroners in the UK conducting inquests into deaths caused by violence connected to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The section will have automatic application to inquests that investigate deaths which are the result of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. For other UK inquests examining deaths that are not directly Troubles related but where there may be a substantial connection to the State, the Minister of the day may designate that inquest under section 2. Examinations under section 3 shall be conducted by a High Court judge in accordance with the specified rules and will be on the basis of written questions provided in advance by the coroner. Examinations will take place in the presence of the coroner and the examining judge may direct such provisions that are necessary to protect the safety of witnesses.
Section 4 will make a technical amendment to section 20 of the European Arrest Warrant Act 2003 to provide greater consistency in the 2003 Act with the relevant corresponding articles of Council framework decision of 13 June 2002 on the European arrest warrant and the surrender procedures between member states, for which the Act provides a legislative basis. This important amendment will address concerns expressed by the European Commission regarding the roles of the central authority and the High Court in arrest warrant proceedings.
Section 5 provides for a new section 28A to be inserted into the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to allow for the Garda Commissioner, on behalf of An Garda Síochána and with the prior consent of the Government, to enter into agreements with non-law enforcement bodies outside of the State. Such agreements may provide for general co-operation between the parties, including the exchange of information.
Section 6 provides for a technical amendment to section 51 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to remedy a potential defect identified by the Attorney General in respect of amendments made previously to section 51 by sections 91(a) and (b) of the Criminal Justice (Mutual Assistance) Act 2008 and section 35 of the Criminal Justice (Mutual Assistance) (Amendment) Act 2015.
The provisions in question concern the assignment for service abroad of members of An Garda Síochána, including, in particular, to joint investigation teams in accordance with the 2002 EU Council framework decision on joint investigation teams.
Section 7 provides for a new section 81A to be inserted into the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to facilitate GSOC, with the prior consent of the Government, to enter into agreements with police oversight bodies and law enforcement agencies outside the State to exchange information consistent with the functions of GSOC under section 67 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005. The legislation relating to GSOC does not have an enabling provision that provides for the commission to exchange information with appropriate bodies outside the State. This new provision will address that deficit.
Section 8 provides for an amendment to section 107 of the Criminal Justice (Mutual Assistance) Act 2008. This is a technical amendment arising out of an incorrect reference in section 208 of the Data Protection Act 2018 that provides for an amendment to the Criminal Justice (Mutual Assistance) Act 2008. There is an incorrect cross-reference in section 208(d)(i), which amends section 107(2) and (3) of the Mutual Assistance Act. The cross-reference in subsection (3)(b) should be to "subsection (2)(b)", not "subsection (5)(b)".
Section 9 is a general provision relating to the expenses incurred by the Minister in the administration of this Act being paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas and sanctioned by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Section 10 is the Short Title and commencement arrangements for the Act.
I inform the House at this stage that I will bring forward three minor amendments to the Bill on Committee stage. These are technical amendments to the Long Title of the Bill that will in no way change the substance of the legislation. Rather, they will simply modify the Long Title slightly to reflect accurately the Bill's provisions. I am bringing forward this legislation at short notice but it is essential, in light of the current political vacuum in Northern Ireland, that we continue and are seen to continue to make progress on these important matters. In that regard, I very much acknowledge the co-operation of Deputies, the Business Committee and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, which enabled this legislation to be taken tonight, or at least before the end of this Dáil term. The Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Bill 2019 is a clear statement of our continuing commitment to address these legacy issues in the interests of reconciliation on this island of Ireland. I commend it to the House.
This is a significant and important Bill. It is regrettable, however, that we will push through all Stages this evening, although the process may perhaps extend into tomorrow. Nonetheless, we will support the legislation.
As the Minister indicated, the purpose of this legislation is to try to deal with the troubled and difficult legacy of violence that exists as a result of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He pointed out that this legislation arises as a result of the Stormont House Agreement, which was signed on 23 December 2014. The latter is but another in a series of agreements between the Irish and British Governments, as well as the parties in the North of Ireland, the purpose of which is to try to deal with politics and legacy matters in Northern Ireland. We must realise, however, that there have been failings in agreements between the two countries in the context of resolving legacy issues.
We had the Weston Park agreement in 2001, under the terms of which the Irish and British Governments appointed an independent judge to consider a series of controversial killings in respect of which there were allegations of collusion to see if they merited a public inquiry. Subsequently, a Canadian judge, Mr. Justice Peter Cory, was appointed and he looked at a series of murders that took place in Northern Ireland and some in the Republic of Ireland for the purpose of assessing the need for a public inquiry. He concluded in respect of the murders of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan in the South that there should have been a public inquiry. Subsequently, the Irish Government fulfilled its commitment in that regard and there was a tribunal and full public inquiry into those deaths, with an assessment of whether there was any collusion.
Mr. Justice Cory also recommended that the British Government should establish a full public inquiry into the murder of Mr. Pat Finucane but to this day we are waiting for a full public inquiry into that murder. We cannot just move from one agreement to the next without recognising the failings on the part of the British Government with respect to the Weston Park agreement's terms regarding the establishment of a public inquiry into the murder of Mr. Pat Finucane. This must be communicated by the Irish Government to the British Government.
The purpose of the legislation is to give effect to the section in the Stormont House Agreement which deals with an historical investigations unit. Under clause 39 of that agreement, it is indicated that the "necessary arrangements" will be put in place to ensure the historical investigations unit can have the full co-operation of all relevant Irish authorities, including the disclosure of information and documentation. That was the commitment that was signed in the Stormont House Agreement and, as a result, this legislation is coming before the House this evening. I do not know why the legislation is being brought forward urgently at this point. We are all aware the Stormont House Agreement was signed four and half years ago. I am sure there is a legitimate reason the legislation is being expedited through the Houses of the Oireachtas but I would like to hear this from the Minister. The Minister indicated that because of the inquests going on into the Kingsmill massacre and the disappearance of Ms Arlene Arkinson, the coroners need information from An Garda Síochána. If that is the case and the inquests are up and running in Northern Ireland, it is a legitimate reason to enact this legislation as soon as possible.
We must engage in some broad reflections on legacy matters. The purpose of this legislation is to try to facilitate victims and their families from both communities in Northern Ireland in dealing with such matters. Neither the Governments nor the parties in Northern Ireland have been successful in trying to deal with legacy matters. Unfortunately, people on both sides of the community have weaponised legacy issues on both sides of the community. This is dangerous and it removes any objectivity from the examination of these legacy issues. The Kingsmill massacre was perpetrated on the Protestant population of Northern Ireland and the Ballymurphy massacre was perpetrated on the nationalist population of Northern Ireland. Both events merit equal investigation. There should not be a hierarchy of victims of the Troubles.
Nobody should have been killed in the Troubles and it is a great failure of politics on this island that we allowed so many people to be killed for so long in such a pointless struggle. I say this while recognising the legitimacy of Ulster unionism and Irish republicanism but there was a failure in politics that resulted in so many people dying. We may be getting to the stage where we need some outside assistance to facilitate us in legacy matters. The people on this island and in Britain are not capable of considering these tragic and brutal murders objectively. Neither are they capable of appraising them objectively to find where fault lies or, more important, where we can build a path to reconciliation. Ultimately, it is a matter for the two Governments to try to reach agreement in this regard but we got some assistance before from a Canadian judge. We need assistance from outside to deal with these legacy matters, although I do not have the full answers as to how we can resolve them. It is apparent to anyone who has looked objectively at what has happened on this island, and particularly in Northern Ireland since the violence stopped, that we are not capable of dealing with this by ourselves. Unless an international forum comprising outsiders who can examine these matters objectively is established, we will continue to move from the Weston Park agreement to the Stormont House Agreement and on to the various other agreements. I support the legislation.
I am supporting this legislation but, like Deputy O'Callaghan, I regret we are dealing with the legislation in this way. This agreement was reached in excess of four years ago but this legislation will have progressed from publication to being passed in 13 days. The timeline from publication to the first deadline for the submission of amendments was four days. The timeline from publication to the final deadline for the submission of amendments was five days. The first of those deadlines was notified at 6.40 p.m. the night before. This is a time when much justice legislation is passing through these Houses and it is difficult to try to get to grips with such an important piece of legislation in that time.
This is valuable legislation. I understand, as Deputy O'Callaghan touched on, that there is a rationale for trying to proceed with it now but this is not a good way to do business. It does not make it easy for Opposition spokespersons and it is less than ideal from the point of view of scrutiny that a Bill can progress from publication to being passed within 13 days. Having said that, there have been plenty of times I would have liked legislation to have been worked through twice as fast as that but it is not optimal.
The legislation is important and Sinn Féin supports it. Sinn Féin and others have long called for such legislation. Deputy O'Callaghan is right that there are ongoing issues in trying to deal with legacy and there is much more we need to do but the Stormont House Agreement was reached between the parties and both Governments on the issue of legacy. That was a difficult thing to achieve with a lot involved in it. The Minister was the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade at the time. The agreement was reached after difficult negotiations and the issue of legacy is sensitive.
To achieve that agreement was one thing but, unfortunately, we have not made progress on it. This is one of the obligations of the Irish Government and I hope the passage of this Bill will prompt the British Government to act and legislate. The British end of the legislation is more substantial and weighty. As Deputy O'Callaghan has outlined, there are ongoing requirements for inquests and inquiries, such as in the case of Mr. Pat Finucane and several others. The British Government has had this on its desk for a long time. It has gone out to consultation and that period of consultation has been extended, all the time trying to kick the can down the road. That is unacceptable and a failure of all victims. Indeed, the PSNI has identified the fact that it does not feel it has the capacity to properly investigate legacy cases. It needs the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval, ICIR, and the historical investigations unit but, unfortunately, the British Government has been very slow to act. I hope this will prompt some movement.
I also recognise that this is necessary legislation in the context of ongoing inquests into the Kingsmill massacre and the case of Arlene Arkinson. It is important for this legislation to be expedited if it can assist those inquests.
The Bill primarily facilitates the co-operation of An Garda Síochána with coroners' inquests and allows gardaí to give statements. It appears that the mechanism provided is tight, as it needs to be, as it relates to the coroner in the North or, in certain circumstances, a designated coroner in Britain could make a request for assistance to the Garda Commissioner. The Garda Commissioner can decide to agree, agree in part, or refuse. The coroner can be present while a garda of a rank no lower than chief superintendent is questioned by a High Court judge. That is appropriate. Gardaí have, in the past, provided documentary evidence but have not been in a position to provide testimony. Private individuals can do so, as things stand, but gardaí cannot. It will be of value to such inquests if gardaí can now testify.
The other issues are largely technical. Section 4, which relates to the European Arrest Warrant Act, involves a change of wording from "the High Court may" to "the High Court shall" when considering the need for further information in an applicable case. That relates to the issuing country so it is to ensure an imperative on the High Court to seek further information.
Sections 5 and 7 relate to the Garda Commissioner and Garda Ombudsman to enter into agreements on behalf of An Garda Síochána and the commission with relevant bodies. As I understand it, the Garda Síochána Act already allows for co-operation between the gardaí and policing organisations. This legislation facilitates the gardaí to co-operate with things such as a coroner's inquiry, a public inquiry, a tribunal in another jurisdiction, an ombudsman commission or policing authority. Likewise, it gives the Garda Ombudsman Commission the power to engage and co-operate with other, related bodies that are not necessarily policing organisations.
When the legislation finally comes through in Britain, the legislation before us would facilitate co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the Garda Ombudsman Commission with the historical investigations unit and ICIR established under the Stormont House Agreement. There may be a need for further legislation but my understanding is that this legislation will facilitate that co-operation.
The area of legacy is a difficult and sensitive one. Agreements have been difficult to come to. I listened with interest to Deputy O'Callaghan's suggestion about the need for international involvement. It has long been Sinn Féin's view that there is a strong case for an international truth and reconciliation commission. In the absence of agreement on a process of that kind, the best roadmap agreed by both Governments and political parties in the North and South is through the use of the Stormont House mechanisms. It is now past time to implement them. This is a step towards that but more is required in the South and of the British Government. I hope this encourages the British Government to finally move and deal with these issues.
As a Minister of State, I accompanied Deputy Flanagan, then Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, throughout both iterations of the Stormont House talks. It is perhaps apposite that Deputy Flanagan is now here as the Minister for Justice implementing some of the outworking of that agreement through the presentation of the legislation before the House tonight.
As part of that process, we looked closely at North-South co-operation at that time. Stormont House was an omnibus agreement that dealt with welfare, public infrastructure such as roads, north western gateways and flags. Most important, it dealt with the very legacy issues we are talking about tonight.
The Labour Party supports the Bill. I would have liked more consideration and briefings with officials from the Department of Justice and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to receive greater knowledge about the present context in which the legislation is being presented. That notwithstanding, it is vital that we push on with our commitments in those agreements and that is why the Labour Party supports the Bill.
We welcome that the Garda Commissioner can enter into co-operation agreements with non-police or law enforcement bodies outside the State.
Whether it is done on the island of Ireland, with people on the island of Ireland partaking in these processes, or whether we elicit the help of external people, we need to deal with these issues as they will not go away. Legacy issues and matters, such as the creation of the historical investigations unit and the independent commission on information retrieval, must all be dealt with. Anything which supports that process is worthy of support.
I reiterate our support of the Bill and acknowledge the words of the Minister on the vacuum in Northern Ireland at present and, to be fair to him, he was one of the architects of the Stormont House Agreement. One is always hopeful that we can reach some accommodation under the ambit of the two Governments' sponsorship and that we can get back to a position where we can deal with these issues on the ground through proper structures and that haste is made to set them up that we can move on and deal with the legacy issues. The Bill is part of that process.
I speak as a member of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and chair of the Justice for the Forgotten group in the Dáil. In both capacities, I have met individuals and groups and supporters in organisations representing victims and survivors of the Troubles. They are all waiting on answers that will ensure truth and justice and an acknowledgement of what happened. Some are waiting close to five decades, and others three and four decades, which is a very long wait indeed. That waiting means there is a great deal of distrust that justice will ever be achieved because there has been so much frustration and disappointment, sadness and disillusionment over those years. It has been psychologically and emotionally costly as well as financially, with legal costs, costs of judicial reviews, etc. Everyone acknowledges that the situation is complex and difficult but what is obvious is the failure to deliver truth and justice with failures here, in Britain and in Northern Ireland.
It is to be hoped the approach will be victim-centred and that will be reflected in the Bill. It should also be inclusive so that atrocities such as the Dublin and Monaghan bombings receive the same treatment as atrocities committed in Northern Ireland and answers that will ensure truth, justice and an acknowledgement of what happened. Co-operation is key. It must not only be two way, but three way between Britain, Northern Ireland and Ireland. We cannot legislate for another jurisdiction but the flow of information cannot just be one way because legacy issues do not recognise borders and so many Troubles related events had cross-Border aspects to them.
When the Minister says that the Bill will facilitate further co-operation with the Northern Ireland coroner's legacy inquests and the legacy framework to be established under the Stormont House Agreement, that is very positive, but unless the information that people are waiting on here from other jurisdictions is also forthcoming, there will be an essential unfairness about it. Each time it seemed progress was being made there was disappointment. The three Dáil motions in 2008, 2011 and 2016 passed unanimously here were ignored by Britain. The compromise suggestion of the independent international judicial figure with access to all the documents was also rejected. The work the officials were doing between here and the Northern Ireland Office etc. to progress this came to nothing. The absence of a government in the North is not helping, and that is not to mention Brexit. There is a real fear that despite this legislation, which is a step in the right direction, legacy issues will never be resolved particularly for those in this jurisdiction waiting on information from other jurisdictions, and that is the crux. We have been told that this issue was of the upmost importance to the Government and it was included in the programme for Government but there has been no progress.
We know that the historical investigations unit is agreed for Troubles related deaths in Northern Ireland but Troubles related deaths are being treated differently here where they will be treated as a crime like any other. There is considerable difference between crime and what happened during the Troubles. By all means treat it like crime if it would lead to progress. We have been told the Garda will follow up on any new evidence but how can it be trusted as it has not followed up on evidence that has been made available since 1974. There was no follow-up to the Barron report and now the British are hiding behind and using the facade of national security and are being allowed to do so.
This legislation shows what this jurisdiction is prepared to do. This is basically about the right to truth and justice. The Irish Government cannot solve the issues alone. The British and Northern Ireland Governments must also be involved, although the Irish Government could have done more.
I refer to research undertaken by Dr. Thomas Leahy from Cardiff University on the Irish Government and dealing with Northern Ireland conflict legacy. He notes that the Irish Government has taken some steps towards dealing with conflict legacy since 1998 but more needs to be done to meet the needs of victims and survivors. I hope that some of his suggestions will be considered, including a victims' commissioner or a victims' forum, or a special citizens' assembly for victims and survivors.
The legislation is a first step but others must be taken if it is to bring about the truth and justice that victims and survivors have waited on for so long.
I have asked the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Taoiseach many times in this House about the level of co-operation with law enforcement agencies in the EU and further afield. Citizens rightly have a perception that much of the spate of drug-fuelled murder and crimes are directed from outside the State. There is also the perception that little is being done to prevent illegal guns entering the State and being used in dastardly and appalling murders. While the Bill before us deals mainly with the issue of legacy inquests in the North, does the Minister seek to bring forward further legislation in this area?
I note that section 5, however, inserts a new section 28A into the Garda Síochána Act 2005 which amends the power of the Garda Commissioner to enter into agreements with police and law enforcement agencies outside the State by permitting the sharing of information with such international law enforcement bodies equivalent to our Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, the Garda Inspectorate, the Policing Authority and a coroner under the Coroners Act 1962, a commission of investigation or tribunal of inquiry and particularly the Criminal Assets Bureau. It is to be hoped the flow of information, which the new section 28A will permit, will lead to arrests and prosecutions of any directors of serious crime in Ireland who live outside the jurisdiction. Section 7, of course, did not appear in the general scheme of the Bill but it proposes to insert a section 81A into the 2005 Act to allow the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission to enter into agreements with law enforcement agencies outside the State.
Section 4 amends the European Arrest Warrant Act 2003 in relation to people before the courts who may have been extradited from our State. Section 6 allows the Garda Commissioner to assign members of the gardaí for service outside the State. It is directed mainly towards Europol. In 2015 we passed legislation permitting gardaí to be assigned to a special intervention unit in a crisis situation in another EU state which many citizens will also find controversial.
The Bill's main function is to allow gardaí to give evidence in the North when called to co-operate on coronial inquests relating to the Troubles. It will amend the Garda Síochána Act 2005, the European Arrest Warrant Act 2003 and the Criminal Justice (Mutual Assistance) Act 2008.
I note that when the Minister first published the Bill, and acknowledged the victims of the Troubles in the North, he said that the Bill shows “concrete demonstration of the Government’s commitment to dealing with the painful legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland”. From that point of view, the Bill is very welcome. As others have noted, the Bill will provide for a number of issues outlined in the Stormont House Agreement, which is almost five years old.
Very little progress has been made on establishing the various institutions over the past five years. This legislation will cover the work of the historical investigations unit.
I noticed a few days ago that the new head of the PSNI, Mr. Simon Byrne, asked that the Northern police force be relieved of the duty of investigating appalling historical crimes and murders during the Troubles. He said his force does not have the resources and was not best equipped, although I believe that at present 60 detectives are investigating 1,200 killings from the period outlined in the Bill before us. We have the decision of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal by the Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, on the depredations of the notorious Glenanne gang and this will have to be investigated. It was a very welcome development. Just the other night, and the Minister might have seen it, a very poignant documentary on the showband era was broadcast. It retold the story of the horrific attack on the Miami Showband in 1975. The Glenanne gang investigation seems to relate to well over 100 desperate murders and appalling events for which we need accountability.
The Bill defines a Northern Ireland Troubles related inquest and provides for the taking of evidence from gardaí for the purposes of the inquests. It also carefully sets out the procedure to be followed in those cases. Last February, we heard about additional funding to be in place by April and that the legacy inquest unit would be set up to deal with the 52 remaining legacy inquest cases of 93 deaths. Mrs. Justice Keegan is the presiding coroner of this.
As other colleagues have said, the Bill is a welcome step forward. It helps us to begin at long last to seek the closure we need on the appalling legacy of suffering and strife that happened in our country over the period of the Troubles.
I am happy to speak briefly on the Bill. I very much welcome some parts of what is in the Bill. Any measures that are introduced to strengthen co-operation between the Garda and general law enforcement should be welcome at all costs. The need for good relations between An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland is as necessary as ever given the uncertainty that surrounds Brexit and the possibility of a border, hard or soft, being placed around the Six Counties once again.
We all remember the struggles and hardships faced during that time and co-operation between both law enforcement bodies is crucial. Strengthening these ties in the Bill is most welcome. Under the Bill the testimony of gardaí can be made available to the Northern Ireland coroner dealing with inquests into events during the Troubles or as evidence in the UK or wherever else is necessary. As we strengthen our relationships in the European Union, the Bill offers a greater sense of partnership with all of the law enforcement bodies and can go a long way when it comes to combating international crime gangs.
The increasing power afforded to the Garda under the Bill is most welcome but I want to raise a few related points. It is necessary that gardaí are paid accordingly. We came very close to an all-out Garda strike some time ago over pay and conditions. It is urgent that the Government continues to look into such issues. Today, on Leaders' Questions, my colleague, Deputy Mattie McGrath, spoke about the high levels of crime in rural Ireland. Coming from the constituency of Cork South-West, I share these views. This increase in crime rates comes particularly as a result of closed Garda stations.
The closure of Garda stations, many of which are in west Cork, has had a devastating effect on many rural communities, with many criminals taking advantage of it and terrorising elderly and vulnerable people in their own homes. The Minister promised to reopen Ballinspittle Garda station in west Cork. He was in west Cork only a few months ago. I did not have an opportunity to meet him because nobody informed me he was coming. I apologise. Had I been there I would have pushed for an exact date for the reopening of Ballinspittle Garda station, which he promised, but the doors remain locked to the local community despite the promises made.
We have to tackle crime equally throughout the country, but how is this possible? I have to ask this of the Minister. Of the several hundred recently appointed gardaí, not one was appointed in Cork and, from what I hear, few or none were appointed in Munster. What is going on? Why were no new gardaí appointed to west Cork, Cork or Munster? Does the whole world revolves around Dublin?
To tackle rural crime more resources must be allocated to groups such as Muintir na Tíre so they can further allocate funding to community alert groups throughout the country. A scheme needs to be put in place whereby the elderly can apply for a grant for sensor lights and CCTV to protect their properties. This scheme could be similar to the successful personal alarms scheme that many elderly people wear around their necks and wrists and the successful text alert systems that alert communities to crime or suspicious activity in their neighbourhoods. These schemes are run by Muintir na Tíre.
I am happy to speak briefly on the Bill. As the explanatory memorandum makes clear, the Bill provides for a mechanism to take evidence in the State from a member of An Garda Síochána for the purposes of certain inquiries held in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I resent calling it this, as Northern Ireland is part of Éire as far as I am concerned.
The Bill also provides for An Garda Síochána and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission to enter into agreements for co-operation with a police service, law enforcement agency or another relevant person or body outside the State. When the Minister published the Bill in June, he noted that in addition to this international co-operation, the Bill is about enhancing the co-operation being provided to ongoing coroner's inquests in Northern Ireland into historical deaths, and there are many of them. We are also told the legislation will further underpin the Government's commitment to co-operate fully with the framework of the measures set out in the Stormont House Agreement and I hope so. It is something we all support.
We are a small island off the west coast of Europe and though we have different law enforcement agencies, there is surely plenty of scope to co-operate where and when possible. This is a welcome approach that has been adopted for many years, ever since An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, with the support of the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland initially published their cross-Border policing strategy. The strategy aimed to build on existing practical and strategic co-operation and identify a number of key strands of work where the public service feels that co-operation and supporting legislation can become even stronger. I note this with regard to where the public service supports legislation that co-operation can be even stronger. The public service? What are we? We are meant to be legislators. Does this mean the public service is controlling the agenda? I have many fears about this. The Bill is very much within this framework. It is also reflected in recent comments made by the new Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, and the PSNI Deputy Chief Constable, Stephen Martin, when they both stressed the importance of maintaining partnership arrangements that are facilitated by the two jurisdictions' membership of the EU. I wonder what will happen with Brexit and everything else.
It is fairly evident that we should support partnership arrangements where possible. Of course we should and it goes beyond being spoken about. This is especially the case where they can lead to greater common security for all of the people of Ireland.
Many people have spoken about legacy issues. What about the late Pat Finucane? He was a wonderful solicitor doing his job. What about the victims of the Omagh bomb? We are heading again to its anniversary. I raised it many times in the House with the former leader of Fine Gael and former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny. When he was the leader of the Opposition he spoke to Michael Gallagher at an Ard-Fheis and told him he would not get justice under Fianna Fáil but would under Fine Gael. What happened? He abandoned him. What happened there was a travesty of justice and there are many more such travesties, such as Loughinisland and the Kingsmill massacre. Will the Bill do anything for them? No it will not because we are burying the legacy. I support Deputy O'Callaghan and others who look for international people to come in to try to deal with this because we are too small a country to deal with it.
There are many things in the Minister's Department that are not well. At present, there is an investigation in Limerick, just up the road from me, in which senior gardaí are being questioned. Six months ago, I handed the Minister a dossier on the Irish Prison Service and Limerick. Today, I raised the issue of free legal aid with the Taoiseach. Of course, I always accept that people are innocent until proven guilty. Prisoners convicted by the court go into the prison in Limerick but the situation there is not right. There are now investigations going on and I salute the Garda Commissioner, Mr. Harris, on doing this. Will the next arrests be of senior prison officers? This is what is going on. We need to clean up our own act before we start these international treaties.
We have nothing of which to be proud. The corruption and the carry on involving the Prison Officers Association, POA, and the senior officers in this country are frightening. It is a time bomb waiting to explode and it is going to explode on the watch of the Minister, or someone else's if he is gone shortly. I warned him about this issue some six months ago. I handed him a dossier of information concerning what is going on. I am referring to the bullying and intimidation of good, decent, honest prison officers. They are being bullied and intimidated into making statements and accepting statements that are untrue, false in the extreme and very damaging to the careers, families and integrity of good prison officers. This is happening on the watch of the Minister. I am not blaming him personally. I did, however, hand him a dossier of information but he never responded to me.
This is going to blow up in his face. I am told that at the moment there is a very selective and secretive, and rightly so, unidentified unit set up by Commissioner Drew Harris to investigate corruption among senior and middle-ranking members of the Garda. I am not talking about ordinary officials or gardaí. I welcome the establishment of that unit. It is now going to move on to investigate officers of the Irish Prison Service. That is right and proper. The cartels and the vagabonds are not only on the streets, they are also operating in the prisons. They have co-operation from senior prison officers and, unfortunately, members of An Garda Síochána. People are innocent until proven guilty but arrests have been made. I do not know much about them. The sooner this is sorted out, the better.
I am referring to bullying and intimidation. I think that the POA union is intimidating, threatening and bullying good, honest officials doing their daily work to protect us here and to keep people who are sent to prison safe, first of all, and incarcerated to do their punishment. Those decent officers are being bullied and intimidated. Hearings are going on which are charades. Senior union officials are sitting in arbitration and finding people guilty. They told one prison officer that he would never again be allowed back into the union because he dared to ask questions. What is going on here under the auspices of the Department of Justice and Equality?
We can deal with these international affairs and I support them. We saw, however, issues regarding where information was given to An Garda Síochána in respect of the Omagh bombings and other incidents. I supported the Minister's earlier Bill but I am not supporting this Bill. We are dancing around on the head of a pin while huge, explosive issues are going to come down the track regarding what is going on inside our prisons. We can see examples of what is going on all over the country. I am referring to drugs and all of the other things going on inside prisons. Criminals are operating better inside than outside and they cannot do that without co-operation. That is not because of the ordinary prison officers. It is because there is co-operation at very senior levels and intimidation and bullying of people who dare to be whistleblowers and do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay.
I acknowledge the contribution of Deputies and the broad level of support that has been expressed for the Bill and its objective. The legislation is a demonstration of our conclusion that there is an urgent requirement for a fresh initiative and progress on addressing the needs of the victims of the conflict in Northern Ireland and their surviving family members. It is time for leadership and action to demonstrate to all other actors that progress is indeed possible. I know that the House is somewhat frustrated that there has been no response to the all-party motions calling on the British Government to allow an international, independent judicial figure access to all of its original documents relating to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. I acknowledge what Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, and others, stated in that regard. I share that sense of frustration. However, we cannot allow that to warrant procrastination on the part of the Irish Government.
I acknowledge the comments of Deputy O'Callaghan and the support of Deputies Ó Laoghaire and Sherlock. I also acknowledge the work of Deputy Sherlock when he was a Minister of State dealing directly with the mechanism that ultimately became the Stormont House Agreement. I also acknowledge the role of his party in that regard. The needs of the victims and their families cannot be allowed to become a negotiating position. I am sure that every Deputy here shares that view. I welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland Department of Justice was in a position to announce earlier this year that the necessary funding for a reform of the system for legacy inquests will be in place from 2019. These inquests will benefit from the Bill before the House today.
I acknowledge the contribution of Deputy Broughan on the various points that he raised. All of those are valid in connection with the portion of his speech which referred directly to Northern Ireland issues. I also acknowledge the engagement by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Karen Bradley MP, to see that progress has been reported on the matter of the legacy inquests. It is important that we demonstrate to the families of victims that steps forward can be made. The Irish Government is determined to play its part in ensuring that Stormont House legacy bodies are established in a way that will meet the legitimate needs and expectations of all the victims and survivors. I state that on behalf of the Government and I also know that I am stating it on behalf of the Oireachtas. I value the support that this Bill and this initiative has garnered here this evening.
There is an urgency with this Bill, as Deputy O'Callaghan mentioned. I am pleased in that regard that the all-party talks are continuing. I am hopeful that those talks will deliver a successful outcome leading to the re-establishment of the power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland. Dealing effectively with the legacy of the past will be one way to honour the memory of all those killed and injured in the dark days of the Troubles. This Bill will further provide for the assistance of the Irish authorities within the legacy framework for the benefit of victims, survivors and our society as a whole.
Some 21 years on from the Good Friday Agreement it is important that we remember what has been achieved since 1998, renew our commitment to the full promise and the spirit of the agreement and challenge ourselves to continue the vital work of reconciliation. The enactment of this Bill was indeed a commitment given by the then Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, and myself during the talks on the Stormont House Agreement. Some years later, it is important that we progress the Bill this summer. That is why I am very grateful for the support for this Bill, albeit in a somewhat restricted debate. There is an urgency with this Bill and I am grateful to Deputy O'Callaghan and others for acknowledging that.