Thursday, 26 April 2007
Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998: Motion
The resolution before the House today seeks approval for the continuance in force of those sections of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 which would otherwise cease to be in operation on 30 June next. In previous years, this kind of resolution was usually moved in June. However, to avoid any uncertainty surrounding sittings of either the Dáil or this House between now and 30 June, the decision was made to bring forward the consideration of this issue. A similar approach occurred in 2002 and it is fully in accordance with the law.
The 1998 Act was enacted in the aftermath of the Omagh bomb of August 1998, which claimed the lives of 29 innocent people and injured more than 200 others. That callous atrocity occurred a few months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and was clearly designed to derail the peace process. Thankfully, that end was not achieved. We are now moving inexorably towards an historic new beginning with the re-institution of devolved administration in Northern Ireland. There is an ongoing criminal action against a person in Northern Ireland for those murders which arose from the Omagh bombing. A civil action is also being pursued by the families of the victims against a number of persons. The re-trial of another person in connection with the bombing is also pending in this jurisdiction. Moreover, the investigation into the bombing remains open on both sides of the Border, and there continues to be excellent co-operation between the Garda authorities and the PSNI in this regard.
In recognition of the exceptional circumstances surrounding the enactment of the 1998 Act, there was general agreement that certain sections of the Act should be regularly revisited by the Oireachtas. The purpose of this recurring Oireachtas scrutiny is to determine if current circumstances justify the continuance in force of those provisions. Accordingly, by virtue of resolutions passed by the Dáil and the Seanad on 14 and 15 June 2006, respectively, the relevant sections of the 1998 Act will cease to operate on and from 30 June next unless a further resolution is passed by each House, authorising those sections to continue to operate for a further period not exceeding 12 months.
Part of the process surrounding the Seanad's consideration of the renewal of sections of the Act requires the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to lay a report on their operation before the House prior to the resolution being moved. The Minister laid such a report before this House on 17 April. The conclusion of that report is that the relevant sections of the 1998 Act should remain in force for a further 12 months. In the first instance, this is the firm view of the Garda Síochána, which considers the Act to be vital in the continuing fight against terrorism. Secondly, the harsh reality is that, notwithstanding very positive developments in respect of the Provisional IRA, the dissident republican threat remains real and ever present.
As evidence of this unfortunate conclusion, I refer Senators to the 15th report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, published yesterday, which focuses on the period from December 2006 to February 2007. In that report, the Continuity IRA is found to have been responsible for a pipe bomb which failed to explode next to Lurgan PSNI station in December 2006. The Continuity IRA also attempted to acquire weapons and undertook terrorist training. It was engaged in smuggling, fuel laundering and robbery. Furthermore, the report states that the Continuity IRA was responsible for two murders. These will be more fully reported in the IMC's next report, as they fall outside the scope of the current report. The IMC's overall assessment of the Continuity IRA is that it remains active but, for political reasons coming up to the elections last month in Northern Ireland, it was possibly less active than it might have been.
Óglaigh na hÉireann, a relatively new splinter group of the Continuity IRA, has recently become dangerously active. In particular, it claimed responsibility for three pipe bomb attacks against PSNI premises and homes of PSNI officers, of which one functioned but only to a limited extent. Moreover, it is reported that persons associated with Óglaigh na hÉireann were discovered in possession of bomb making and other terrorist equipment in February 2007.
The IMC states that the Real IRA was responsible for a failed mortar attack on Craigavon PSNI station in December 2006. The organisation has continued to engage in serious crime, including smuggling, fuel laundering and robbery, and it has also continued to recruit and attempt to procure weapons. Although the Real IRA was less active recently, the IMC assesses that this was purely a tactical decision, so as not to weaken the position of the anti-policing republican candidates in the run-up to the recent Northern Ireland elections.
The pattern of dissident republicans lending their bomb-making expertise to organised criminal gangs is now well established and has become something of a cottage industry for some individuals. One of the most recent examples of this was in County Clare earlier this month, when a viable device was found under the car of a targeted individual. This is a deeply disturbing development and one which the Garda Síochána is actively seeking to counter.
In addition to domestic terrorist groups, the international terrorist threat continues unabated. The most recent example of this in Europe was the planned liquid explosive attacks on civil aviation targets between Britain and the US, which were thankfully foiled in August 2006. The consequences of those foiled attacks have been felt around the world through much more rigorous and extensive security arrangements at airports, including Irish airports. Although the extent of the terrorist threat within the European Union varies greatly from one member state to another, it would be naive to imagine that Ireland is completely immune from these new forms of terrorism.
The Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005 was enacted to deal with this international terrorist threat by enabling the application of the Offences against the State Acts, including the 1998 Act, against international terrorist groups and individuals. Other countries have enacted even more stringent legislation in response to the international terrorist threat. In Britain, for instance, 28-day detention is now permitted. In that context, the provisions of the 1988 Act can be seen as a very measured response. However, I would caution against any complacency in our response to the threat from terrorism.
I will not rehearse all the statistics provided by the Garda authorities showing the extent of the use made of the various provisions of the 1998 Act, as this information is already fully set out in the report laid before the House last week. However, in the reporting period in question, that is, from 1 June 2006, to 7 April 2007, the total number of persons arrested under section 30 of the Offences against the State Act 1939, as amended, was 692. Of these, 247 were arrested using the provisions of the Offences against the State Act 1939, as amended by the 1998 Act, or had the provisions of the 1998 Act invoked against them. In the same reporting period, 21 convictions were secured in the courts, with a further 102 persons awaiting trial. These facts speak for themselves in terms of the continued need for the 1998 Act.
The unfortunate fact remains that dissident republican groups remain active, ruthless and determined to strike if given the opportunity. They remain resolutely opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and to the peace and devolution of powers it has brought. They remain determined to destroy that agreement and I suggest they remain prepared and willing to kill indiscriminately to this end. As long as they continue to exist, there must be robust counter measures available to the State. The Oireachtas, and the people of this State, would rightly question the Government's commitment to defeating these organisations if we did not ensure adequate legislative provisions to meet that threat.
It is worth remembering, not as rhetoric but as a reflection of reality, that a terrorist organisation needs to get lucky only once to cause significant loss of life. It is essential, therefore, to have the means to prevent such acts. For such powers to work, they must work preventively. Otherwise, we risk handing the initiative to those organisations. We cannot do so. The Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 is one element of the State's ongoing defence against the terrorist threat. I urge this House not to countenance weakening any of the tools the State has at its disposal in the fight against terrorism.
Fine Gael supports this resolution to extend the provisions of the 1998 Act. This is not an academic exercise. A total of 247 persons were arrested under these provisions during the period under review. Alarmingly, we see more and more clear evidence of links between dissident republicans and gangland crime and of dissident republicans co-operating with crime lords. Unfortunately, the legacy of paramilitarism is alive and well, and it must be countered.
As part of this effort, we must ensure the availability to the Garda Síochána of the necessary powers to deal with those involved. It is not a question of isolated incidents; some 247 people were arrested last year under the provisions of this legislation. New crime figures released yesterday by the Central Statistics Office included one truly alarming figure. The number of offences for the discharge of firearms has increased by 41% compared with the first quarter of last year, an indication of the increasing incidence of offenders resorting to firearms. This offers clear proof that former paramilitaries are now making available their expertise and peddling their wares to gang overlords in our society.
We must confront this issue with every possible legitimate means. In the wake of the Omagh bombing, it was considered that certain measures were necessary to confront the dissident republican threat. That is why the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 was brought into force by the Oireachtas. Fine Gael supported the enactment of that measure and supports its continuation.
In some ways, the threat facing the people of this State is now even greater. There is clear evidence that the country is awash with firearms, and we have had a failed amnesty. There is evidence of increasing use of firearms in a growing number of crimes. We also have clear evidence that those who have acquired experience and expertise in this area in the past are now either directly involved in gangland criminal activity or are making their knowledge available to those so involved. This can be seen from the pipe bomb incidents the Minister of State mentioned. We must confront these people, and one way of so doing is to continue the operation of this Act.
It will not happen, however, while the Garda Síochána is continually denied resources in terms of manpower and equipment. Instead of an additional 2,000 gardaí, only 1,178 have been appointed in the five years the Government has been in power. There is also a problem with equipment, on which promises were made and not kept. Gardaí, in confronting armed criminals, are still operating walkie-talkies that are 20 years old. We have no option but to continue these provisions as one part of the legal armoury available to the Garda Síochána in enabling it to arrest people involved in these heinous crimes.
The State has a duty to defend the rights of citizens. If citizens' lives are threatened by groups that contemptuously consider themselves to be outside the jurisdiction of the State, the power to protect such people must be given by the State, and the Legislature, to the officeholders of the Government, the Garda and the courts. For as long as there are groups and individuals bent on usurping the democratic institutions of this jurisdiction, the State must have at its disposal the means to protect itself and its citizens. I fully support the continuation of these provisions.
I welcome the Minister of State. At the time this legislation was introduced, we all hoped its provisions might be made redundant in time. However, the Minister of State has made a strong argument for their retention. It is worth pointing out that many of these provisions, which were introduced following the Omagh bombing, will be transposed into the Criminal Justice Bill 2007 which we will debate shortly.
Although the provisions are sensible, I am of the view that some of them should be in place only as long as is necessary. I note the Minister of State's comments in this regard and I have read the report showing the use that was made of the legislation, particularly in the period from June 2006 to April of this year. I was surprised at the number of times certain provisions of the Act were used by the Garda and the courts.
While a threat remains, it has undoubtedly diminished significantly. Tremendous progress has been made in the peace process which hopefully obviates the perceived need, as the perpetrators would see it, for any such terrorist activity. All of us who are republicans appeal to those people to cease their activities. Many who were involved in such activities in the past have slowly come to the view that the best way of achieving long-term stability and the unification of the people of this island is through the democratic and peaceful process. As progress continues, one hopes that others who have not yet come to that conclusion will do so without delay.
The provisions of the Act relate to such issues as the following: the right to silence; inferences that may be drawn from an accused's exercising of that right or from a failure to mention certain facts; notification of witnesses; directing of an unlawful organisation; possession of articles for purposes connected with certain offences; withholding of information; and so on. These are commonsense arrangements. If a person seeks to rely upon witnesses, for example, it makes sense that he or she must notify an intent to do so in advance. The Act provides for a period of detention of up to 72 hours, but I understand a period of seven days is provided for in the Criminal Justice Bill. Some of the measures in the Act have, therefore, been overtaken by the need for more stringent regulations.
It is desirable that these provisions should be incorporated into mainstream legislation, whether in the criminal justice area or otherwise, rather than specifically targeting a particular category of offenders. The legislation has been used primarily against republicans. We must be mindful, however, that since the introduction of this legislation, international terrorism has become a major threat to the civilised world. Many unfortunate incidents have highlighted that. We know some of those involved in this activity are living in this country. It strikes me as a little odd that the provisions of this legislation have never been used against that category of person. I hope it is focused not just on the republican side but that the international aspects of terrorism are considered.
Legislation is only one element of the armoury for tackling this area. It is not a replacement for good Garda management. Effective management is a challenge facing all layers of the public service. That is not to take from the many fine people in senior positions, but in general management is not uniform. It is like a patchwork quilt. The legislation is not a substitute for good policing practices or effective gathering of intelligence. That we have had no major incidents gives credence to the belief that the Garda is operating effectively. The preservation of evidence in files and the sensible exercise of judicial discretion are important factors of an effective system in countering criminality in general.
I was shocked also at the poor performance of the Garda over 20 years in preserving vital and crucial evidence, which would be elementary, and in maintaining files in a manner to allow cases to be prosecuted. I hope the failures of the past have been put right, but I am not convinced. I hope the recently established inspectorate will examine all these regularly and systematically to ensure the failures are not repeated. I would like to see a holistic approach to the implementation of the legislation. We look forward to the day when such legislation will no longer be necessary.
Nine years ago I opposed this legislation when it came before the House. I will not give the Minister of State or the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform an opportunity to take a cheap shot at the Labour Party in the period leading up to an election by calling a vote. I will put on record my scepticism about this type of legislation.
Terrorism is dreadful but looking back over the past century, in every decade nasty governments killed more people than any group of terrorists. Governments are maintaining that record. That is not a justification but is a fact that informs this debate. Dealing with the threat of politically driven violence against civilians, which is my definition of terrorism, requires appropriate legal powers and a well trained and equipped police force.
Some of the reports from the new Garda inspectorate, which are very pro-gardaí, identify a list of things which we would associate with the complaints of the Garda Representative Association but which have turned out to be factually based, such as inadequate and out-of-date equipment, incomplete training and the upgrading of technical and other equipment at a pace incredibly unrelated to reality. We now know this is a fact. It is important that some sort of commitment is made to ensure the Garda does not spend an inordinate amount of time and energy seeking equipment we take for granted. I recall when it emerged that the Garda fraud squad did not have a fax machine because it had been in existence for only five years. What the Garda needs and is entitled to is cutting edge equipment and skills, and when new forensic systems or skills become available, we should ensure they are available to the Garda Síochána immediately and not after a process of evaluation, questioning and checking. Once it works in one country, we should use it.
We must ensure powers are used as intended. The disturbing report from the Data Protection Commissioner, about which we cannot get a detailed response from the Tánaiste, despite the best efforts of Deputy Howlin, states that phone messages of innocent citizens are being intercepted by the Garda, which in his view is out of proportion to any perceived threat. We now learn that Army intelligence is doing the same. Apart from the fact that parallel agencies are doing the same job when one agency could deal with external threats and the other with internal ones and be more effectively deployed, this gives rise to many issues.
I am always suspicious that when terrorists perpetrate an appalling act, we get another raft of legislation. That is the cheapest way to respond. It does not cost much to amend the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act but it would cost a great deal more to give the Garda the secure, powerful radio and computer systems, secure and powerful forensic back-up, high-quality, up-to-date modern training and a continuing process of professional renewal. The idea that the Garda could deal with the threats of 2007 with the training of 25 years ago is nonsense. That would not work in my profession.
I do not welcome this resolution. I tolerate it but I believe it is a smokescreen for the more difficult, demanding and expensive parts of the struggle against national and international terrorism, those parts being resources and training for those who have the job of defending us.
I thank Senators for their contributions. In an ideal world we would not need this resolution but as long as there are groups and individuals who are bent on usurping the democratic institutions of this jurisdiction, the State must have the means at its disposal to protect itself. We know from bitter experience that these organisations have few qualms, if any, in the methods they use to further their aims. It is their willingness to bomb and kill and the contempt they show for the democratically elected Government that maintains the need for this Act. The people of this island, North and South, have already shown through their endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement their rejection of violence as a feature of political struggle. Until the various offshoots of the republican movement who remain committed to violence give up the gun, the State will be required to continue to take various measures to ensure the safety of the public.
In my earlier statement I mentioned the threat posed by international terrorism. It is no exaggeration to state that the environment in which the State seeks to protect itself from terrorism has undergone drastic transformations with the rise of certain forms of international terrorism. Ireland, in common with its EU partners, continues to have a duty to contribute proactively to international security in the interests of public safety, domestically and internationally. The Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005 was enacted to deal with this international terrorist threat by enabling the application of the Offences Against State Acts against international terrorist groups and individuals.
Although I do not wish to be in any way alarmist, it would be naive of anyone to think that Ireland does not need to have at its disposal the instruments necessary to fight international terrorism. Notwithstanding significant and welcome progress in Northern Ireland, the fact remains that this will not impact in the slightest in the short term on those groups which have never acknowledged the legitimacy of the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Ireland, North and South.
As is evidenced in the report laid before this House, the provisions of the 1998 Act remain actively in use and are yielding results. Equally, the Garda Síochána is clearly adopting a balanced and reasoned approach to the powers at its disposal. As the Garda authorities themselves state, the 1998 Act is regularly used and is proving to be a vital piece of legislation in the continuing fight against terrorism.
I join with colleagues in this House in looking forward to a time when the Act is no longer needed. Unfortunately, that day has clearly not yet arrived. In the meantime, the State must use all legitimate means to respond to the dissident paramilitary threat.
I wish to clarify a few issues that were raised in the debate. The total number of gardaí, including recruits, now adds up to more than 14,000. The Government is committed to increasing that number to 16,000. With regard to crime figures——
While some forms of crime have increased, overall crime figures are down by 5.6% in the first quarter of 2007, compared to the first quarter of 2006. That is another fact that was released lately. This follows reductions of 2.3% and 1.2% in the fourth and third quarters, respectively, in 2006.
The statutory provisions on data retention and access provide for independent oversight by a judge of the High Court. The report laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas confirmed that access requests were being made strictly in accordance with the law. I thank Senators for their attention.
According to the procedures agreed this morning, I am advised that it is appropriate to suspend the sitting because people have been notified that the next business is starting at 1.45 p.m. Otherwise, they would not have an opportunity to address the House before then. I ask the Acting Leader to move the suspension of the House until 1.45 p.m.