Thursday, 19 June 2014
Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998: Motion
That Seanad Éireann resolves that sections 2 to 4, 6 to 12, 14 and 17 of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 (No. 39 of 1998) shall continue in operation for the period beginning on 30 June, 2014 and ending on 29 June, 2015.”
The House will be aware that the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 was enacted in the wake of the murder of 29 people by the Real IRA in Omagh on 15 August that year. It was a necessary response to that atrocity and the loss of 29 innocent lives. The bombing and those murders represented a direct attack also on the fragile peace process and, indeed, on this State as a major sponsor of that peace process. It demanded a robust response from the State, and a clear statement that the morally bankrupt culture of death and destruction adopted by these murderers would not prevail and that the will of the majority could not be so contemptuously disregarded. Those responsible for these murders continue today to deny the people of this island the peace which they long for and which they deserve. I will return to this point later in my speech.
This democratic State's response was to provide strong legislative powers to ensure that the Garda and the courts were in a position to meet the challenge laid down by those opponents of peace. In that regard, the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 was a necessary and proportionate response. It is right, at the outset, that tribute is paid to the excellent work of An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland in countering the threat from the paramilitary organisations.
The Act contains a series of amendments to the Offences against the State Acts 1939 to 1985 to make them more responsive to the threat from certain groups. Principally, these amendments concern the following: changes in the rules of evidence for certain offences under the Acts, including the drawing of inferences in certain circumstances; the creation of new offences, such as directing an unlawful organisation, possession of certain articles and collecting information; and extending the maximum period of detention permitted under section 30 of the 1939 Act to 72 hours.
Section 18 of the 1998 Act, as amended by section 37 of the Criminal Justice Act 1999, provides that sections 2 to 4, 6 to 12, 14 and 17 must be renewed by the Oireachtas at specified intervals if they are to remain in force. By virtue of resolutions passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas in June 2013, these sections were continued in force for a period of 12 months. Prior to moving any motion for renewal, the Act requires that the Minister for Justice and Equality lays before the Oireachtas a report on the operation of the relevant provisions. The current report covers the period from 1 June 2013 to 31 May 2014 and was laid before the House on 16 June 2014. It also includes, following a commitment given previously, a table showing the figures for each of the years since the Act came into operation. This table is helpful in showing the importance of the Act in equipping the Garda to detect and prevent terrorist actions.
While some provisions were not used in the period in question it should not be inferred from this lack of use that these provisions are in some way redundant or unnecessary as the usage of the different provisions can vary from year to year. For example, section 3 was used on 19 occasions in the reporting period prior to this. It is the fervent wish of the Government and, no doubt, this House that the time will come when these provisions will no longer be required. However, the Minister for Justice and Equality must take into account the reality of the situation. The Garda assessment of the terrorist threat level in Northern Ireland, which is shared by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, is that it is regarded as severe. We all know that those groups vehemently opposed to peace seek to attack the institutions of Northern Ireland and to destabilise the peace process.
During 2013, there were 30 terrorist related attacks in Northern Ireland and there have been have so far this year. This includes such serious incidents as the planting of a bomb in a Belfast shopping centre in the run up to Christmas last year and the fire-bombing of a hotel in Derry on 30 May, where continuing scant regard for human life and the targeting of civilians were clearly demonstrated. While the direct threat level in this jurisdiction may be different, it is imperative that our laws and our police are properly equipped to deal with the threat, whether in this jurisdiction or in Northern Ireland. Let nobody be under the illusion that these groups do not represent a threat to this State as well as to Northern Ireland. By way of example, I point to the discovery by An Garda Síochána of an estimated €10 million in partially forged bank notes in April this year, the detection of a large improvised explosive device in County Louth, possibly destined for Northern Ireland, last May and the disruption of a Real IRA gun attack in Tallaght earlier this month.
North-South cooperation in the area of security is vital and it has never been better. As was the case with her predecessors, the Minister intends to keep in close contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, and with the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice, David Ford. Indeed, she recently met with the Secretary of State, on 29 May last, and is due to meet the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice, Mr. Ford, next week under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Agreement on Co-operation on Criminal and Justice Matters. The Acting Garda Commissioner also maintains close and frequent contact with her counterpart in the PSNI.
The powers available to the Garda under the 1998 Act are considered paramount in maintaining effective preventive action against the terrorist groups. It is the firm view of the Garda Síochána that the Act continues to be a most important tool in its ongoing efforts in the fight against terrorism. The Garda authorities have stated that the provisions of the Act are used regularly, which is evident from the report the Minister has laid before the House. It is therefore essential that the Act's provisions should continue in force to support the ongoing investigation and disruption of terrorist activity.
As I have already stated, terrorist groups remain a threat to the peaceful lives of people on this island. They are opposed to the benefits that have flowed from the peace process and are determined to undermine it. The State must retain, in its laws, the capacity to defeat them. On the basis of the information set out in the report and on the advice of the Garda authorities, the Minister considers that the House should approve that the relevant provisions of the 1998 Act remain in operation for a further 12 months commencing on 30 June 2014.
I commend the motion to the House.
We support the Government in this motion. We wish to send the strong message that the Irish State and its political system is united against terrorism.
We understand and recognise that the continuation in operation of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act, which was brought in after the Omagh bombing, is a vital legislative tool in the battle against dissident Republican groups engaged in terrorism. The legislation is so serious and punitive it must be renewed every year, on the advice of the Garda Síochána, and that advice must be taken seriously by all in elected office. Those people who choose to oppose that advice or not to renew the legislative provisions of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act show themselves to be not yet ready for Government.
When Éamon de Valera came into power, and throughout his period as Taoiseach, he took a very hard line against the dissidents of that time, which was appropriate in the formation of a new state. That work must continue on a cross-party basis with regard to issues of terrorism, threats to life and the security of the nation, and issues such as bombs in shopping centres, bombs being found on the way to the North or the discovery of partially forged bank notes to the value of €10 million. This State should be united politically in sending out a strong message that we will not accept that. There must be no weakening of the resolve and no shying away from doing what is necessary, and anyone who votes against this motion will be seen as members of a party of protest, a party that opposes everything and a party that is not yet ready to lead this country or even be part of the leadership of this country in a serious way.
We support the Minister for Justice and Equality wholeheartedly on this, and we support the gardaí wholeheartedly in their fight against terrorism. I hope the House unites without calling a vote to send that clear message from the political system.
I echo Senator Byrne's comments and welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, for what is vital legislation to protect the lives of our citizens. I am delighted, as we all are, with the advances made in the peace process in Northern Ireland. Many thousands of people are alive today because of the efforts of all parties, including Sinn Féin and its leadership, to bring people together. Unfortunately, there are many dissidents who seek to undermine that process and derail all of the good work that has been done. I suggest respectfully to everybody that it is just work in progress in that we have a long way to go.
This legislation is necessary to protect our citizens and respect their human rights. People have a right to move freely in a democratic country knowing that the institutions and the apparatus of the State will protect them.
The advice from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice and Equality, through the Minister, is that this legislation is necessary. Like everybody else I will be delighted when we can stand down this legislation but if the advice of the security forces is that there is just one life in danger were it to be discontinued, we have a responsibility to ensure it remains in force.
People who are going about on a daily basis minding their own business and not interfering with anybody would have no issue with this legislation. Along with Senator Byrne I hope that all parliamentarians will see this legislation as being on the best advice of the security forces North and South and that we would view it as an insurance policy to protect the people of Ireland and, ultimately, the peace process. We have responsibilities, and as parliamentarians we must take those responsibilities. I urge the House to vote in favour of this very important measure.
Ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuilimid i gcoinne an rún seo. Tá sé áiféiseach a bheith ag éisteacht leis an Seanadóir Byrne ag caint faoi de Valera. B'fhéidir gur cheart dó dul siar ar a chuid staire. Tá mé ag ceapadh go bhfuil go leor daoine nach n-aontódh leis an léamh a bhí ag an Seanadóir ar ghníomhaíochtaí an tIar-Uachtarán.
I propose amending the Order of Business to reflect the time originally allocated for this debate, given that the session with former judge and Senator, Ms McGuinness, went a little over time. I presume there will be agreement to enable everyone contribute.
We all know the background to the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act and Senators need to consider the destructive effect of this legislation on human rights, civil liberties and democratic life in the State. We are living in a new political reality and the Minister and the Government have an onus to live up to their obligations under the Good Friday Agreement to remove obstacles that hinder the normalisation of security.
In this context the scrapping of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act is a must. The provisions up for renewal and the Act in its entirety have no place in a modern democracy and have nothing to contribute to future peace on this island. The apathy of the Opposition, and of Fianna Fáil, on this issue and the ill-advised enthusiasm of others for specific aspects of the Act has negative implications for all of Irish society.
The Minister has referred in the past to upholding and implementing in full the Good Friday Agreement because it is the democratic wish of the Irish people. That means there is an onus on us to bring about, as quickly as possible, the normalisation of policing and justice on the island. In this context the Government has obligations under the Good Friday Agreement to work towards the normalisation of security in the Twenty-six Counties and in the Six Counties.
Sinn Féin believes this legislation is counter-productive in the long run. The retention of these provisions is an admission of the failure of this and previous Governments. The challenge for us is to prove we have a normal society and that normal policing will convict those who seek to undermine it. Draconian legislation can never be a substitute for sound law and good and accountable policing. The continuation of this Act erodes the human rights ethos on which the State's legislation should be grounded. We are a normal society and our existing laws are strong enough, if properly resourced.
Is ar an mbunús sin atáimid ag cur i gcoinne an rún seo arís agus a bheimid ag brú vóta. Ní chóir go dteastódh a leithéid de reachtaíocht ar chor ar bith in aon phoblacht atá aibí agus atá ag dul chun cinn.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and welcome the opportunity to debate the review and continuance of the relevant provisions of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998. It is hugely important that the Oireachtas would maintain an overview of these provisions given their draconian nature and the fact that they depart from the normal criminal justice system measures.
I take issue with Senator Ó Clochartaigh's suggestion that some of us are enthusiastic about these provisions. I am certainly not enthusiastic about them. I believe, as the Minister of State has said, it is the fervent wish-----
I am not. I believe it is the fervent wish of the Government that the time will come when these provisions will no longer be required. That is right, and all of us should wish for that time and it is important that we would move to normality. All of us very much welcome the peace process and the continued steps towards normality but it is difficult to oppose the request by the Garda to maintain these provisions in force. I should acknowledge my own interest as having appeared in the Special Criminal Court representing people in connection with this legislation on previous occasions when I was in practice.
We all appreciate the ongoing nature of the terrorist threat about which the Minister of State has spoken. There were 30 terrorist related attacks in Northern Ireland in 2013 and five so far this year. We know the original impetus for this legislation was the appalling atrocity in Omagh. However, we must ensure balance between this sort of legislation and adequate protections and safeguards.
I am grateful to the Minister that this year the report she has provided us with provides not only a table of usage of the Act over the past 12 months but also a table of usage going back to 2000 when it first came into force. It enables us to examine in a balanced way the way in which the sections have been used, and some sections are being extensively used by the Garda. For example, section 2, which deals with membership of an unlawful organisation and inferences to be drawn, was used 62 times last year and 41 times already in 2014. Section 14, a different provision with offences under the Act to be scheduled offences, was used 52 times last year and 53 times so far this year. The need for those provisions is on the table, so to speak.
As I said last year, some provisions are used far less frequently, in particular, section 4 - referring to guilt by association - regarding how membership of a proscribed organisation can be inferred from certain matters. I have misgivings about this section, particularly when I note it has not been used since 2009. It was last used in 2008, on 13 occasions. I am conscious that there are provisions which might be unused for a number of years such as section 17, the section which deals with the forfeiture of property and which was used for the first time in 2012. Therefore, I am not saying that just because a section has not been used for a period, it should be repealed. Section 5 was repealed. We should look at the Act section by section regarding ongoing usage. That is why this debate and review are so important. I support the Minister, but it is up to the Oireachtas to scrutinise each of these provisions and their usage in particular years. That is what makes the 12 month review important.
I thank the House for giving time to consider this important amendment. As I said, there remains a substantial threat from terrorist activity, in particular dissident Republican paramilitary groups, which warrants the continuance in force of the provisions of the Act. The message needs to be sent loud and clear that the State will not bow to the self-serving interests of such individuals and will continue in its resolve to see them defeated.
Comments have been made that the Offences Against the State Acts have been destructive of life in the State. However, there would surely have been destruction of our society by terrorist groups if the provisions of the Offences Against the State Acts were not in force. The Government could not contemplate such a scenario, although I accept that it and our legislation must respect fundamental human rights. That is why the majority of Members of the Oireachtas recognise we have an independent judicial and courts system. However, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Government have a responsibility to recognise and protect the human rights of all citizens. There is no greater human right than the right to life and the groups against which the 1998 and 2009 Acts are targeted are ones which have shown scant regard for this fundamental human right. I will not be put in the same bracket as such groups.
- Ivana Bacik
- Colm Burke
- Thomas Byrne
- Michael Comiskey
- Martin Conway
- Maurice Cummins
- Jim D'Arcy
- John Gilroy
- Aideen Hayden
- Fidelma Healy Eames
- James Heffernan
- Lorraine Higgins
- Caít Keane
- John Kelly
- Denis Landy
- Terry Leyden
- Marie Moloney
- Paschal Mooney
- Rónán Mullen
- Michael Mullins
- Hildegarde Naughton
- Brian Ó Domhnaill
- Pat O'Neill
- Averil Power
- Tom Shehan
- Jillian van Turnhout
- John Whelan
- Mary White
- Diarmuid Wilson