Dáil debates

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committee Meetings

4:35 pm

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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6. To ask the Taoiseach if the policy discussions on drug gangs take place at the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services or the Cabinet committee on security. [50087/19]

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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7. To ask the Taoiseach if the policy discussions on drug gangs take place at the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services or the Cabinet committee on security. [51822/19]

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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8. To ask the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee at which policy discussions on drug gangs take place; and when it last met. [52728/19]

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 8, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on security is the most appropriate Cabinet committee to discuss policy related to drug gangs, as it deals with issues related to justice, community safety and policing reform. The Cabinet committee on security last met on 30 October. Separate from that, however, I met Commissioner Harris on 3 December and he updated me on the work of An Garda Síochána in respect of drug gangs.

The Government is committed to ensuring that Ireland is a safe place for all. The continued disruption of the supply of all illicit drugs remains a priority for An Garda Síochána and for the other State agencies tasked with responsibilities in this regard. Garda management keeps the distribution of resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities to ensure that the optimum use is made of resources. Record investment is being made in An Garda Síochána. Some €1.76 billion was allocated to the Garda in 2018, and this will increase to an unprecedented €1.882 billion for 2020. This investment is aiding the sustained growth of the organisation. I understand that these additional resources have enabled An Garda Síochána to staff appropriately specialist bureaus such as the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, GNDOCB. It leads on the strategy for tackling drugs and works with Garda divisional drug units nationwide in demand reduction and supply reduction at local level.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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The first question was tabled by Deputy Michael Moynihan and Deputy Micheál Martin will speak on his behalf.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I suggest that the whole issue of drug gangs is also appropriate to the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services. Recent reporting about the scale and activities of drug gangs in Dublin, and increasingly throughout the country, has confirmed what I and my party have been saying for several years, namely, that there is a new and sinister level of drug activity taking hold and tackling it must be a core priority for the State at all levels. We believe the most important response to drug use is a return to the proven system of active and targeted community-based interventions. That is why we identify the social policy side of government. For this to work, however, we must also tackle the gangs spreading fear and destruction in their communities and using them as a base to grow their reach into the country.

Perhaps the most sinister part of what these gangs have been doing is recruiting and intimidating children into working for them. They do this because it spreads the legal risk and creates new networks for them. One part of the response to this issue must be to make it clear to the gangs that recruiting children opens them up to more severe punishment and penalties. Deputy John Curran, as the Taoiseach knows, has a Bill that does exactly this. The Bill passed Second Stage with all-party support and we need it now, not next year. The Taoiseach committed two months ago to looking at fast-tracking this Bill into law, but so far we have heard nothing. I ask the Taoiseach again to allow Deputy Curran's Bill to proceed immediately to committee and help ensure that it can become law without delay.

Another new element of the work of the drug gangs, as Interpol has said, is sending people down to provincial towns and cities to sell their product. This has been seen in Britain and America, in particular. The devastating impact of drugs in these communities can be swift and overpowering unless this activity is stopped early. Does the Taoiseach agree that this is an urgent issue, which must become a core priority for the Government?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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Some months ago, I had the privilege of bringing to the House a large group of men and women who are involved in the Coolmine therapeutic programmes. We had a conversation about what ages people were when they started to use drugs. These are people who have devoted many years of their lives to trying to quit drugs and become clean. In a great number of cases, their involvement with drugs started when they dropped out of the later stages of primary school. They started using and running drugs from the age of ten, in the case of the youngest man, and aged 12, 13 or 14 in most of the other cases. The damage is done at an early age. Earlier this year, the Blanchardstown local drug and alcohol task force produced a report about the fact that drug gangs are now specifically tackling young children. If young children, as the lowest points in the food chain, are caught, it is difficult enough to prosecute them. It means, in fact, that the godfathers of the drug gangs get away scot free.

At the Cabinet sub-committees on security and social policy, are there any serious discussions about the incredible damage being done to individuals, families and whole communities as a result of the fact that children not involved in drugs have to be kept indoors to play on their Xboxes and are not free to go out because of the risk of their being preyed upon by these drugs godfathers and gangsters? On behalf of these beleaguered communities, will the Taoiseach reinstate community policing to ensure that it will be safe for children to play in their neighbourhoods?

4:45 pm

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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Drugs gangs operate in most of our deprived communities. This is a reflection of how the Government's policy has consistently fallen short. A recent report published by the EU drugs agency and Interpol indicates that the drugs distribution networks in Ireland appear to be structured in three layers. There is a small top layer of serious players who control the upper end of the market. There is a middle layer made up of young people engaged in high-risk, low-reward activities such as transporting drugs and guns, as well as carrying out beatings and intimidation. Then there is a bottom layer comprising young people who are highly disadvantaged and who are involved in assaults and stealing, as well as spreading fear on behalf of the network in small communities mainly in urban areas. Johnny Connolly, an academic from the University of Limerick, published a report last week in which he found these criminal hotspots, particularly the one in the Dublin south central area, are more likely to be linked to small-scale drug crime involving drug addicts and the activities of drugs networks. Much of this needs to be dealt with in a targeted way but that is not happening.

There are situations where people find themselves in the grip of these drug gangs and then become addicts. When they seek help, it is clearly a health issue. They are sent to a health service that is dysfunctional and that does not work, however. This is a significant problem for many urban communities and across Ireland. These people want to get assistance and communities try to bring people forward. I have come across a number of young people who have sought help. When they go to a service, however, they find in a short time that they are back in the rat race again because the services do not work for them. This is the biggest shortfall we have. While this is about criminality, there is also a health aspect and this is not being dealt with.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputies for their contributions. I agree with them. This is an urgent issue that relates to social policy and health policy, as well as to security and criminal justice. It is intended to review the implementation of the national drugs strategy at the next Cabinet sub-committee meeting on social policy.

Reference was made to the Building Community Resilience report by Dr. Johnny Connolly. I welcomed the publication of this report. Dr. Connolly was a member of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, CoFPI. His report feeds directly into initiatives already under way across Government as we implement that report. His report explicitly situated its recommendations in the context of the developments within the community safety network that were at the heart of the commission's recommendations. Deputies support the commission's view that community safety, community policing and Garda visibility are of paramount importance. I was pleased Dr. Connolly spoke of the importance of the policing and community safety Bill that is being drafted, as well as of the new Garda operating model that is being phased in. Work on these initiatives is advancing well.

I am particularly concerned about children being lured into criminality at a young age. The Greentown study is contributing to the development of policy and practice in this area. In this regard, I highlight the ongoing work of the innovative the joint agency response to crime, JARC, programme, which aims to develop and strengthen a multi-agency approach to the management of prolific offenders, prioritise such offenders for targeted interventions and tackle their behaviour. In this way, we will reduce crime and victimisation in communities. As Dr. Connolly pointed out in the Building Community Resilience report, an initial report into the effectiveness of this programme has shown it is promising and can be an effective approach for such offenders. It is essential to recognise that only a small proportion, as few as 1%, of residents in the communities in question are involved in criminal activity. As the report rightly points out, we should not unfairly stigmatise those communities as a whole as the majority of people in them are hard-working, law-abiding citizens. Only a small minority are involved in crime or organised crime.

On the actions we are taking to deal with drug gangs across the country, the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, GNDOCB, leads in tackling all forms of drug trafficking and the supply of illicit drugs. The bureau continues to have significant success in tackling these issues. While it was only established in March 2015, it has already seized controlled substances worth almost €167 million, €10 million in cash believed to be the proceeds of crime, 108 firearms and over 3,000 rounds of ammunition. To date in 2019, the GNDOCB has been responsible for the seizure of controlled substances to the value of €20 million, €2.4 million in cash believed to be the proceeds of crime and 17 firearms. A large number of seizures and arrests have been made in recent weeks and months. Some of the recent successes in this area have included the seizure of approximately €100,000 worth of suspected cannabis in Roscommon and the arrest of two people and the seizure of €100,000 worth of cannabis and cocaine and €2,250 cash in Tipperary. There was a seizure by the Garda, as part of an intelligence-led operation, of €400,000 worth of cannabis herb, cocaine and diamorphine in Ballymun and Santry on 16 November. There have been significant seizures in Drogheda. In Ballymascanlon, County Louth, a haulage vehicle in which cannabis herb valued at over €3 million was being transported was seized. There was a seizure in Ballyfermot and Park West of €3.5 million in cocaine and diamorphine.

Regarding Europol’s 2019 drugs market report, the Government’s policy on drug and alcohol misuse is set out in the national drugs strategy. The latter represents a whole-of-Government response to the problem of drug and alcohol use, adopting a balanced health-led approach aiming to reduce demand as well as access to illegal drugs. While we seek to help to treat people who use drugs consistent with that strategy, the Garda will continue to be relentless in pursuing those involved in the sale, distribution and supply of drugs. Targeting the supply of lesser drugs is a priority for An Garda Síochána. As recently as 27 November, the Garda Commissioner, the Minister and the assistant commissioner for special crime operations were briefed on the energetic approach being taken by the Garda. The GNDOCB leads in tackling all forms of drug trafficking. As already stated, the bureau has had significant success since its establishment in 2015.

Deputy Micheál Martin referred to Deputy Curran’s Bill on stopping criminal gangs from grooming children. The Government very much appreciates Deputy Curran's work in this regard. As mentioned by the Minister for Justice and Equality last summer, the Department of Justice and Equality is already working on the matter. Officials are closely monitoring the findings of the University of Limerick's Greentown study. The Department of Justice and Equality provided a preliminary analysis of Deputy Curran’s Bill which highlighted some significant legal, policy and operational difficulties, including the possibility of inadvertently criminalising children. However, the Government sees merits in the proposals it contains. The Minister will engage with Deputy Curran to ensure that these difficulties can be ironed out in order to allow the Bill to progress to Committee Stage. In the meantime, the Department will continue to consider the most appropriate approach to counteract the grooming of children for criminal activity. Any solution will need to be developed with the utmost care and co-operation with the Garda, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Departments of Health and Children and Youth Affairs.