Wednesday, 14 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality and the associated senior officials' group oversees implementation of programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, equality and public services, including matters relating to justice, policing reform and community safety; arts and culture; children; disability; social inclusion; gender equality; direct provision; the Irish language; and sport. The Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality last met on 30 November and will meet again shortly.
In addition to the meetings of the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I meet with Ministers on an individual basis to focus on particular issues. In this regard, I meet regularly with the Minister for Justice to discuss priorities in the areas of policing and justice issues and, in particular, policing reform and the policing response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, meetings are held between my officials and officials from the Department of Justice and other relevant Departments since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020. Furthermore, the policing reform implementation programme office, based in the Department of the Taoiseach, drives the implementation of A Policing Service for our Future, the Government's plan to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.
Last week, I spoke to a woman who was the victim of a blatant and gross abuse of power. She was in court seeking a protection order and was under immense stress. After the court case the Kerry judge, who is now retired and who I will not name, contacted her. He texted her and called her persistently. He told her she was beautiful and that she should not tell anyone else about the contact he was having with her. He pressured her to meet up with him. When she met up with him out of fear it became very clear that he was not interested in anything to do with the case but in pursuing a sexual relationship. She was afraid. She managed to cut off all contact with him but it was a very clear abuse of power. She pursued all the avenues for justice that were open to her. She wrote letters to senior judges, she went to the Garda, and she went to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, but she got no justice. What is being done to ensure that these sorts of abuses of power cannot happen again? Where is someone who perceives that there has been a significant issue of misconduct by a member of the Judiciary meant to go to get that issue resolved?
On 16 September, the day after we return to the Dáil, we will mark 16 years since the death of Terence Wheelock following injuries sustained while in Garda custody in Store Street Garda station. On that day I will once again join Terence's family and members of the north inner city community outside Store Street and march to the Dáil to call for an independent inquiry into the events that led to his death. I do that for a number of reasons. I do it because Terence was a childhood friend of mine and I want the truth. I do it because I stand with his family every year. I do it because the community I represent in the north inner city still has many questions about Terence's death and it blights their relationship with the Garda in many ways. I understand that there was a GSOC investigation into this matter 11 years ago but so many questions are left outstanding and so much more evidence has emerged in that time that it warrants an independent investigation finally to bring some finality, some truth and some justice to the Wheelock family.
I raise the issue of racism and abuse online and the need for new thinking regarding it. There has been much publicity recently about the abuse three English footballers got after losing on penalties in the European championship. That came just days after a Dublin team, Dynamo Ridgewood FC, was forced to walk off the pitch on Saturday when two of its players were racially abused. Ian Wright was also abused online by a teenager from County Kerry. In February of this year, the UK put pressure on social media platforms to remove racist contributions by threatening them with large fines. It is time we dealt with social media companies that are not taking their responsibilities seriously. This cannot be allowed continue. People anonymously troll people, abuse them, threaten them, racially abuse them and threaten them with various forms of assault. There is use of hate speech, racism and homophobia. As a country, we need to bring in these social media companies and explain to them that we are bringing forward legislation that will mean they have to take responsibility in this jurisdiction for finding and identifying people who behave in such a manner. If people behaved on broadcast media or in print media the way they behave online they would not get away with it. An Garda Síochána would be at their doors.
As a jurisdiction, we have to show leadership and deal with this. Will the Taoiseach commit to meeting the social media platform representatives to make progress on this issue? They are all in this country and most of them are in this city. As a party, we are looking at bringing forward legislation on it.
With reference to the ministerial and Government decision-making on policing and justice, I wish to refer to the need to establish a public inquiry into the death of Shane O'Farrell at Carrickmacross. The person responsible for the death of Shane had a litany of convictions, in courts North and South, for serious offences. It was an appalling failure of the justice system that this convicted person was free and driving a car, causing Shane's death in a hit-and-run accident. It is appalling that such a convicted person was not in prison. I listened on a number of occasions to Lucia O'Farrell outline in detail and with great clarity the dysfunctionality of so many elements of the criminal justice system that led to her son's tragic death. The O'Farrell family has campaigned with great dignity and fortitude in seeking justice. Justice needs to be done. The scoping exercise was established by a previous Minister for Justice and Equality a considerable length of time ago. We need this public inquiry process to be advanced without further delay. The O'Farrell family has been failed by this State for far too long.
The committee the Taoiseach is talking about also deals with social affairs and equality. A week or two ago, I raised the issue of St. Mary's Boys' National School in Booterstown with the Taoiseach. For months it has been seeking to get sign-off from the Government on an attempt to purchase the parish hall, which the parish is willing to sell, for an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit. At a large public meeting last night, the school community pointed out that there is a deficiency of 66 ASD places for the entirety of our area. Huge amounts of money are being spent on transporting people out of the community for special needs support because it is not there in the community. The school is asking that the Department would make a decision to provide this ASD unit by purchasing the parish hall. It is also asking that the Department provide assembly facilities for the school, which it lacks.
Another school that is losing most of its sports' facilities, Clonkeen College in Deansgrange, is still campaigning to ask the Government to prevent the Christian Brothers from selling off its playing fields to a property developer. Those playing fields are needed, not least for the ASD unit it has, but they are being sold off by the Christian Brothers in a school funded by public money.
I want to raise the delayed scoping exercise into the death of Shane O'Farrell. As the Taoiseach knows well, this is a process that should have taken months and not years. After a decade of campaigning, protracted delays by GSOC, a Dáil vote in favour of a public inquiry and the establishment of a scoping exercise in early 2019 that has yet to be completed, Lucia, Jim and their daughters face another anniversary without Shane and without the answers they are entitled to. In 2017, the Taoiseach told the Dáil that in all honesty and sincerity it was time the Oireachtas responded in the only way possible, which was the establishment of an inquiry. The State has let this family down in the most unimaginable way. Every delay and hands-off excuse deepens this wrongdoing. The Taoiseach is best placed to establish the public inquiry that he called for when in opposition. If there is no avenue open to the Government to expedite the scoping exercise, will the Taoiseach progress his existing commitment to a public inquiry?
Last night, there was an interesting debate about the fact that certain local authorities are being funded on an historic basis that does not represent their populations anymore. That is the case with the number of gardaí who are being assigned to counties. Counties such as my county of Meath, which has seen its population radically increase in the last ten to 20 years, have not seen the number of gardaí there increase at the same level. We have the lowest number of gardaí per capita in the State, which has a material effect on the level of crime and antisocial behaviour that is happening on our streets and in our estates. I call on the Taoiseach to signal that he means business by matching Garda resources to the populations that exist in certain counties.
On Deputy Paul Murphy's question, what he has articulated would represent a shocking abuse of power. I do not have the full context or story behind it but he said it went to GSOC and other avenues. The Garda has dedicated units within counties to deal with situations like this. It is clear to me that there are avenues for people to deal with the abuse of power. One of the issues in the country is that the existing authorities and agencies should deal with this robustly and clearly. Again, I do not have the background to this but perhaps the Deputy can share that with me.
On Deputy Gannon's question, I extend my deepest sympathies to the Wheelock family and to the Deputy and others who knew Terence. I realise that his tragic death has caused enormous sadness. These events were the subject of a GSOC inquiry and the report was published back in March 2010. Legal proceedings arose from these matters, which were settled in 2014. As the Deputy will appreciate, GSOC and the courts are fully independent in the exercise of their functions and I cannot intervene in or comment on that or on the inquiry carried out by GSOC. The matters were fully considered by GSOC and have been the subject of legal proceedings. It is not envisaged that there would be a further public inquiry into this at this particular time. That was communicated to the family recently but I take on board the sincerity of the Deputy in raising this.
Deputies Brendan Smith and O'Reilly raised the issue of the death of Shane O'Farrell and the desire of Lucia O'Farrell and her family to get justice in respect of the tragic loss of their son. Deputy Brendan Smith has been a long-term advocate for the family. As the Deputies know, a highly respected retired judge, Judge Gerard Haughton, was appointed to conduct a scoping exercise into the tragic circumstances surrounding Shane's death. The purpose of that exercise was to advise on whether a further investigation or inquiry should be carried out and the manner and form of such an investigation or inquiry and its terms of reference if he was of the view that there should be one, although I acknowledge the Dáil has committed to one. Judge Haughton furnished an interim report in November 2019. He stated at that stage that he would not restrict or limit Shane's family in their submissions to him or the nature and extent of the documentation they wished to furnish through any scoping exercise. The judge is independent in conducting this scoping exercise. I cannot comment on it or on any aspect of the judge's work but I fully understand the desire of Members, including Deputies Brendan Smith, O'Reilly, McGuinness and others who have consistently raised this, to bring the scoping inquiry to a conclusion and move forward.
I genuinely regret that the process has taken significantly longer than any of us would have liked. I am also aware that a judge is doing all he can to ensure the concerns the family have raised with him during the process are followed through on to the greatest extent possible. I understand that Judge Haughton has been in contact with the O'Farrell family throughout his scoping exercise. Judge Haughton has recently written to the Department of Justice on the week beginning 5 July indicating that there are some minor matters to be addressed on one aspect of the inquiry. Once those matters have been addressed, he intends to seek comments and corrections on that aspect of the draft report from interested parties, including the O'Farrell family. Following receipt of responses from these parties, Judge Haughton will be in a position to finalise his report.
The Department of Justice will continue to provide all necessary assistance to Judge Haughton. The Minister for Justice looks forward to receiving his final report and updating the House on the matter.
I appreciate that. It was important to the Deputies who raised those two matters that I deal with them at some length.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised a question about St. Mary's parish hall in Booterstown. Deputy Devlin has a particular interest in the matter. I cannot get involved in every case in every school in the country but I take the point and think we should be doing everything we possibly can to provide for additional ASD places. We must facilitate capacity expansion to ensure that there are enough ASD places and that schools meet the need for assemblies. I will engage with the Minister for Education again in that respect. Deputy Devlin has told me the matter is being assessed by the Department. I hope that will lead to a positive outcome.
In respect of Clonkeen, I have a general view that amenities and parks should be preserved for sporting activities. I do now know the council's position on the rezoning of such land but it is in short supply in Dublin, as I know from meeting many sporting organisations.
Deputy Kelly raised a key issue. I agree that we must engage with the social media companies in respect of the appalling racist abuse online because it is unacceptable. I engaged with the companies prior to becoming Taoiseach. I salute the Dublin team the Deputy mentioned for walking off the pitch. That is the kind of initiative we require to deal with this, once and for all. What happened after the final of Euro 2020 was shocking. I do not know what it is with the online world but certain people change their personalities online. The hate and bile is shocking and must stop. I support the Irish soccer team in what they did in their game against Hungary. They were booed for it but I am proud of the Irish soccer team for taking that initiative. The Oireachtas should work together on a collective basis to make this behaviour intolerable. Threatening people, hate mail and the homophobic material online, to which the Deputy referred, are absolutely unacceptable and simply must stop.
Deputy Tóibín asked about historic funding of local authorities. The Minister has certain mechanisms he can use, including equalisation and so on. There is a new reform programme in respect of policing and it is changing how the Garda is operating.