Seanad debates

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

8:00 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, for coming to the Chamber to respond to this Adjournment matter. Given the amount of coverage and discussion already given to the particular incident I am raising, I will focus on several issues of particular concern. Several inner-city communities are under assault from the activities of a small number of families and individuals. The tragic murder of Mr. Aidan O'Kane in East Wall is the latest manifestation of this.

East Wall is part of my constituency and an area I know well. Much of the discussion that has taken place arising from this murder tends to include such phrases as "social breakdown" and "social decay" and references to the negative aspects of life in that community. One of the reasons I raise this matter on the Adjournment is to emphasise that some aspects of this analysis are incorrect. The communities in the East Wall and the adjacent areas of the North Strand and North Wall are the opposite to what has been depicted by the media coverage. These areas are characterised by strong communities and a spirit which is largely unique in the areas of Dublin I have tried to represent. It is almost a rural spirit in terms of people's relationship with their neighbours and their efforts to look out for one another and in terms of the strength of local institutions such as schools, churches and voluntary organisations, as well as the extent of co-operation with Dublin City Council. However, I am struck by the fact that in the discussion that has taken place thus far, the context is largely one of community breakdown. The opposite is the case.

The murder, and much of the criminal activity, took place against a background of amazing community strength, which makes what we are discussing here even more disturbing. The criminal activity and the terrorism in the area is occurring on roads in neighbourhoods and districts characterised by a strong community spirit, wonderful skills, great churches, neighbours and people who look after each other and themselves. The one point I want to emphasise to the Government is the need to take a different approach to the way we have tackled issues like this in the past in that we must accept that a very small number of individuals and families are causing the terror people are experiencing.

In terms of how we move the issue forward, we spend a great deal of time talking in this House about the need for stronger policing and, undoubtedly, there is a need for that. I am a member of the policing forum that deals with that area and there is no doubt about the need for stronger community policing in the area. Notwithstanding the brilliant work gardaí in Store Street and Fitzgibbon Street stations are doing, they need to have the ability to do more of that wonderful work.

There is also a need for a change of attitude on the part of the Judiciary and the institutions that support the work being done by the gardaí. In addition, there must be much more support for families in the area. On the one hand stronger policing is required but on the other we need stronger families because it is those family units that will stop children being out on the streets almost 20 hours a day. They will prevent children aged four, five, six and seven years being out on the roads intimidating people and creating the type of atmosphere in which serious criminal activity can flourish.

The approach we should adopt in areas like this one must include organisations such as the National Education Welfare Board and it must ensure that the funding and support some of the schools have in the area is not threatened but increased because, regardless of the funding we allocate to support the gardaí, they cannot patrol every laneway and street corner. A preventative model must be adopted.

I wanted to put my concerns on the record of the Seanad. I have done it elsewhere but I wanted to raise the issue here also. I emphasise to the Government that the issues we are discussing are not ones of community breakdown or districts and neighbourhoods letting themselves go, so to speak. In the areas we are talking about the opposite is the case. Communities are trying to look after themselves and they are doing that very well. That makes the episodes we are discussing more shocking and means we must treat them in a different manner from the way we have done up to now. I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House and look forward to his response.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Youth Affairs, Department of Health and Children; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising the matter on the Adjournment. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is unable to be present this evening due to other business but I assure the Senator and the House that the Minster and I share his concerns.

The death of Mr. O'Kane is deplored by all right-thinking people and our sympathy is with his family and friends as well as the community in East Wall. A person has been charged in connection with this killing and Senator Donohoe will appreciate that, consequently, I am greatly constrained in what I can say about the specific incident.

The Minister attaches the highest priority to tackling organised and gun crime and bringing those involved in such activities to justice. One of the main priorities he has set for the Garda Síochána in 2009 is to target gun crime, organised crime and drug related crime through a range of measures, including the use of the Garda specialist units and targeted operations such as Operation Anvil.

Operation Anvil commenced in the Dublin metropolitan region in 2005 to deal with this type of serious crime and was extended nationwide in 2006. The primary focus of the operation is the targeting of active criminals and their associates involved in serious crime by preventing and disrupting their criminal activity through extensive additional overt patrolling and static checkpoints by uniform, mobile and foot patrols, supported by armed plain clothes patrols. Under Operation Anvil, up to the end of November, 1,200 firearms have been recovered in Dublin and 1,000 in the rest of the country. There have also been over 7,000 arrests for serious crimes, such as murder, robbery and burglary, and 67,000 searches for weapons, drugs and stolen goods. In this way, the gardaí will continue to address the issue of illegal guns relentlessly.

At a time when the public finances are under pressure, the Minister will ensure that top priority will continue to be given to frontline policing. Funding for Operation Anvil will increase in 2009 from €20 million to €21 million. Other key operations will be maintained through 2009, and any savings that have to be made will not be allowed to diminish frontline policing. While the allocation for overtime will be reduced, the increase in the numbers of gardaí which has taken place will more than compensate for that.

Since his appointment, the Minister has been concerned at the number of handguns that have been licensed in recent years, following a series of judicial decisions. While the vast majority of licensed firearms holders pursue their interests legitimately, the reality is that the overall number of weapons in circulation and the type of those weapons can contribute to the development of a gun culture. The Minister has therefore brought forward proposals which include, with limited exceptions in regard to Olympic sports, no new licences being issued for handguns and existing licences being renewed only if they fully meet the requirements of a much more stringent regime.

The Minister attaches great importance to tackling crime by juveniles in a focused and comprehensive way. The Children Act 2001 is now fully in force and provides a modern framework for responding to the needs of young people who come in contact with the criminal justice system. The Irish youth justice service has been established to develop an integrated response to youth offending. This response is set out in the National Youth Justice Strategy 2008-2010, launched last March.

Significant progress has already been made in implementation of the strategy. Additional funding has been provided for projects developed by young persons probation, a dedicated unit of the probation service, to allow for the expansion of the use of community sanctions. The Judiciary has been briefed on the non-custodial sanctions available under the Children Act 2001 and dedicated court officers have been appointed to courts in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Furthermore, the Government has approved the recommendation of an expert group on detention to develop new integrated national children detention facilities on the existing State-owned Oberstown campus to cater for all children up to 18 years old who are ordered to be detained by the courts. This will also facilitate the transfer of 16 and 17 year old boys from St. Patrick's Institution into the children detention school model.

The net effect of this effort is to create a more co-ordinated strategic approach, which makes better use of existing resources, creates positive working relationships among stakeholders and delivers better outcomes for children in trouble with the law and for the community in general. The Minister and I are convinced this is making a difference.

The Garda juvenile diversion programme is operated by Garda juvenile liaison officers. It has proved to be highly successful in diverting young persons away from crime by offering guidance and support to juveniles and their families. It also enables referral to the Garda youth diversion projects which are community based, multi-agency crime prevention initiatives operating separately from the diversion programme. There are 100 of these projects operating in various locations throughout the country, including four operating in the East Wall area.

The Minister believes there is a great responsibility on parents for the behaviour of their children. The Children Act 2001 provides a number of measures relating to parental responsibility in respect of children involved in anti-social behaviour and children found guilty of offences.

The House will be aware that public disorder offences make up a significant proportion of crime committed by juveniles and are an issue where co-operation between the gardaí and the local community is vital. That is why the Minister is proceeding with the roll-out of the joint policing committees, following their successful pilot phase. As part of this pilot phase, a committee was established in the Dublin City Council area and further sub-committees in each of the city's five areas. These committees enable local authority representatives and officials and the gardaí, with the participation of Oireachtas Members and community interests, to get together in a structured way to discuss matters affecting the policing of the area. The Minister believes that this approach has great potential.

I assure the House that the Minister attaches the highest importance to tackling the serious threat posed by firearms. The gardaí will pursue relentlessly those who use firearms in the commission of crime and the Minister will provide both the resources necessary to do this and legislation required to prevent the availability of such weapons. He is also committed to the implementation of the integrated response to youth offending set out in the national youth justice strategy.