Seanad debates

Monday, 26 April 2021

10:30 am

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion under Protocol No. 21 on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, to take part in the adoption and application of the following proposed measure: Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Regulation (EU) 2016/794, as regards Europol’s cooperation with private parties, the processing of personal data by Europol in support of criminal investigations, and Europol’s role on research and innovation, a copy of which was laid before Seanad Éireann on 11th January, 2021.

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators for agreeing to take this motion at relatively short notice. The motion relates to a proposal to strengthen and develop Europol to increase the services it provides to European Union member states within the boundaries of the mission and tasks of the agency as laid down in Article 88 of Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The deadline for opting in to the proposal under Article 3 of Protocol No. 21 is 3 May 2021.

Opting in under Article 3 will allow Ireland to take part fully in the adoption and application of the proposed measure and to influence the content of the regulation that is to be agreed. Negotiations are well under way under the Portuguese Presidency of the European Council.If the Houses support the opt-in, it is my intention to notify the institutions of our participation next Monday. I remind Senators that when Ireland signed up to the Lisbon treaty the Government of the day made a declaration, which is attached to the treaty, that we would participate to the maximum extent possible in the measures in the field of police co-operation, and I see no reason to deviate from that position.

Before discussing the proposal in more detail, it might be appropriate to give the Senators some background information on Europol. It is the EU's law enforcement agency, assisting national enforcement authorities by exchanging information, intelligence, analysis and threat assessments. It is based in The Hague in the Netherlands and it has more than 1,000 staff members, including more than 100 crime analysts and 220 liaison officers working across the world.

An Garda Síochána appreciates the central role that Europol has in supporting member states' law enforcement agencies and values its membership of the organisation. An Garda Síochána is represented on the management board at assistant commissioner level, and gardaí are seconded to the organisation on an ongoing basis. The Commissioner is of the view that An Garda Síochána's working relationship with Europol is invaluable in tackling serious cross-border crime.

Europol provides essential communication links to ensure the strong relationships are established and maintained, not only with other members states but also with third-party countries such as the US and, more recently, the UK.

This is very much a supplementary regulation. In 2016, the Oireachtas agreed to Ireland participating in a much broader regulation relating to Europol. The 2016 regulation reconstituted Europol as a European agency for law enforcement co-operation. It also created new governance structures and new relationships between Europol and the EU institutions, as required by the Lisbon treaty. The 2016 regulation will remain as the main Europol regulation, with the new regulation adding on specific powers and filling in any gaps that currently exist, which I will outline in more detail shortly.

Ireland is broadly supporting the proposed amendments in this draft regulation that seek to strengthen the existing mandate of Europol over eight key areas, and I will outline each of these proposals. The regulation will enable Europol to co-operate effectively with private parties, addressing the lack of effective co-operation between private parties and law enforcement authorities to counter the use of cross-border services such as communication, banking or transport services by criminals. The regulation will also enable Europol to effectively support member states' investigations with the analysis of large and complex data sets, addressing the big data challenge for law enforcement authorities. The regulation will strengthen Europol's role in research and innovation and its co-operation with third counties, and will clarify the rules whereby Europol can request, in specific circumstances, a member state to initiate an investigation into a crime that affects the common interests of the EU. The regulation will also strengthen Europol 's co-operation with the European Public Prosecutor's Office, EPPO. It will further strengthen the data protection framework applicable to Europol and will further strengthen parliamentary oversight and accountability of Europol.

I am conscious that in the past ten years, we have witnessed the Arab Spring and a major humanitarian crisis in Syria, both of which were followed by the migration crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. We have had the rise and fall of ISIS and experienced a number of devastating terrorist incidents on mainland Europe. Policing international crime increasingly gets more complicated. A decision by Ireland to opt-in to this measure would be seen as a demonstration of Ireland's continued commitment to the effective functioning of Europol and to the wider security of the EU. Our participation in Europol is vital to our national interest and we look forward to An Garda Síochána continuing to play an active role within this agency.

I look forward to hearing the views of Senators and I urge them to support the motion.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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Ba mhaith liom fáilte ar ais a chur roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach seo tráthnóna. The Minister of State is very welcome back to the House this afternoon for this important debate. We in Fianna Fáil fully support Ireland's opt-in to the Europol regulation. The general objectives of this regulation, which the Minister of State outlined in his contribution, are to support and reinforce action by EU member states' law enforcement authorities and their mutual co-operation, preventing and combatting serious crime and terrorism affecting two or more member states. The EU Commission is of the view that due to the cross-border nature of serious crime and the need for a co-ordinated response to related security threats, member states cannot achieve their objectives by themselves and this support at Union level is absolutely vital. Europol needs to have the capabilities and the tools to support member states effectively in countering serious crime and terrorism.Europe faces a security landscape in flux with evolving and increasingly complex security threats. Criminals exploit the advantages that digital transformation, new technologies, globalisation and mobility bring about. The Covid-19 crisis has added to it as criminals have quickly seized opportunities to exploit it by adapting their modes of operation or developing new criminal activities. Since Europol was first established in 1991 as a central European investigation office in the fight against drugs, organised crime and corruption, it has done serious work on behalf of the citizens of Europe. The Garda can be very proud of the role it has played in that too. It is desirable that Ireland opts into this new protocol now so that we can have our say in shaping the final document. We need full co-operation between member states in our ongoing fight against crime of all sorts including drug trafficking, corruption, and the ever-increasing area of cybercrime. We look forward to it passing through the House.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this small but vital motion. Any blow against organised crime is welcome. Large-scale organised crime is not something that happens far away removed from the lives of ordinary people, it happens here and victimises people in a direct and painful way. The threat of terrorism is also something that must be answered. We are no strangers to terrorism on this island. We have seen at first hand the ugliness and devastation it brings about. The regulation we seek to opt into today mentions the stabbings outside the Charlie Hebdooffice in Paris last September, the senseless shooting of four people in Vienna in November and the disgusting, barbaric beheading of a school teacher in October. All of this happened last year alone in Europe. Something has gone seriously wrong and something must be done.

This proposal is a step in the right direction. Europol was set up to support and strengthen action by competent authorities, member states and their mutual co-operation in preventing and combating organised crime, terrorism and other forms of serious crime. Let us get all the help we can tackling these issues in our country and lend whatever hand we can to our European neighbours to help them do the same. I have spoken many times in the House on how the law needs to be updated to deal with the emerging technologies and practices of the time. The Commission's proposal puts this well when it notes that "Europeans today face a security landscape in flux", the criminals exploit the advantages that the digital transformation brings about. These threats stretch across borders and there is no reason the law should not be able to pursue them when they do so. One caveat to my welcome for the motion might be around data. Whenever we talk about individuals' personal data we must always ask who is watching the watchers. High-profile abuses of data hoarding and processing are never far from the front pages. We be sure not to open the door to future potential abuse with this proposal. What checks and balances will there be to prevent one or more people gathering and designating me as a suspect terrorist, who could then legally pull anything and everything about me for whatever purpose they see fit? Welcome as these efforts are to tackle crime and terrorism, we must always be aware of the right to privacy everyone enjoys and must protect this right. If those protections are in place and they work, then this is a motion that I am happy to support.

Crime is always one step ahead of the solution, particularly in data crime. I have a friend who is extremely security conscious. When I meet him, the first thing he asks me to do is to put my mobile phone in the car and then come and have coffee with him. He is acutely aware that someone is always listening and when they are, it is not for the good of our health.We need to support our European colleagues. We need the free transfer of information across the European Union and beyond. We need to be able to track and trace those who are living abroad and having crimes committed in their names in this country. We also need to be able to track and trace those in this country who are perpetrating crimes elsewhere in the world. We see how mobile and global criminals are now. Some of them are big as any multinational one would care to mention. This is a vital aspect of opting in on Ireland's part. It is a maturing of Ireland as it accepts its place on the platform with everybody else in order to tackle crime. I commend the Minister of State on bringing this motion, which I will be supporting, to the House.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit ar ais go dtí an Seanad. It is entirely appropriate that the Houses of the Oireachtas have a say in the Government's response to the regulation and that a motion be passed in both Chambers. On behalf of the Fine Gael Party, I say that we support the Government's motion and the regulation.

When looking at the matter, and in the context of what the previous Senator said, I was considering the downsides and reasons we should be opposed to the regulation. The concerns that come to mind are things such as data protection, abuse of data by agencies within the EU, including Europol, and perhaps the loss or ceding of powers from An Garda Síochána to a Union-wide police force. The first thing to do in that regard is to ask An Garda if it is in favour of this. I know from my work that An Garda values the information and intelligence it gets from Europol and other international agencies. The connection between An Garda and Europol is considerable and valuable to policing in Ireland. I understand that the European extradition warrant and the new Schengen information system of which we are now a part both benefit the ability of An Garda to do its job here.

Much of the crime or alleged crime, as the case may be, about which we are talking is not shoplifting or other small-time stuff that we associate with domestic crime, but is cross-border, international crime. It includes crime that falls into categories such as gangland, terrorism, drug and people trafficking. There are many areas involved. The reality is that a stand-alone island off the west coast of Europe simply has not the capacity to deal with these issues on its own. It is entirely appropriate that we should be involved in Europol to the greatest extent possible because our policing might benefits massively from that association because of the intelligence and information we get from it. That allows gardaí on the ground to do the job they do to the best of their ability. There is, of course, also a benefit to the wider European community in our sharing information, particularly as we are an island nation and, therefore, vulnerable from the point of view of drug and people trafficking. I think that is entirely appropriate.

As other Members have mentioned, there are concerns. We have a different legal system to most other countries in Europe. We have a system where the principle of the presumption of innocence is foremost in our minds. That is tremendously important and does not exist in the same way under the Napoleonic code or civil law systems that exist across a lot of continental Europe. That does not mean that those protections do not still exist because they do. The situation is similar in the area of data and their sharing. The general data protection regulation, GDPR, still exists and holds sway over a European regulation. There are, of course, aspects of it which need to be modified for the purposes of sharing information with other European agencies and that is appropriate.

A question that arises from what Senator Craughwell said regarding whether we should, for example, be concerned about the possible designation of me, him or anyone else as a particular category of individual? Does that then expose one to a load of other issues that may arise? It does, potentially, but protections are accounted for and built into Regulation 2016/794. As I said, the GDPR still exists. The people who should be afraid of the implementation of this regulation are the criminals, terrorists, money launderers, people traffickers and drug traffickers. Everything in this regulation is about strengthening the ability of An Garda and the Irish police and security aspects to react to and act effectively on the most serious crimes that affect our communities here and the people who might be brought here against their will. That is what it does and will do. It makes absolute sense that we support this motion and the Government's decision to row in with Europol and subscribe to the maximum possible extent to the frameworks and aspects of Europol that will allow it to deliver on security for the people living in this country and on this island.I support the motion and thank the Minister of State for introducing it. It is tremendously important that the Seanad and Dáil have an opportunity to weigh in on this matter, have their say and pass the motion. I encourage Members to vote in favour of it.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am speaking for the Labour Party. We are not opposing this motion. Like other speakers, we recognise the great importance of transnational mechanisms to tackle the scourge of transnational and cross-border crime. The Minister of State spoke about the sort of crime that is so much at issue here, that is carried out on a cross-border basis and has had such a serious impact on so many victims.

We are glad to see that, within the motion, there is further strengthening of the data protection framework applicable to Europol. All of us have major concerns about data protection, particularly in the very sensitive area of criminal justice and security. Addressing this is of importance. I very much welcome the fact that parliamentary oversight and accountability will also be strengthened. I am conscious that this proposal is very much an adjunct to the 2016 regulation but it is important that parliamentary scrutiny and data protection measures are to the fore in any further mechanisms under the original 2016 regulation.

I want to refer to a couple of criminal justice issues that relate to the prosecution of cross-border and transnational crime. I was very struck at the weekend by two stories or reports of relevance. The first was on an audiobook by Claire McGowan called The Vanishing Triangle. It relates to cases that everybody is, very sadly, all too familiar with, namely, the cases of eight women who went missing in a triangle going from Louth in the north and down past Offaly to Wexford in the mid-1990s, between 1993 and 1998. The names of the eight women who disappeared are sadly all too familiar to us, yet their cases have never been solved. Cases include those of Annie McCarrick and Jo Jo Dollard. These cases have given rise over the years to several books and reports, yet they have never been resolved. I was struck by the commentary of the author, Ms McGowan, who has taken a new look at the cases. She speaks about the Border element. What struck her in examining these cases some decades on was how poor the co-operation was between the North and South in the investigation of disappearances such as those in question. All too sadly, this has been a real issue. Ms McGowan stated that it did not appear there was enough joined-up thinking in the investigation of disappearances that may well have had a cross-Border element. Some of the disappearances occurred close to the Border. It brought home to me the great importance for victims and their families of ensuring seamless transnational co-operation between police forces in investigations of very serious crimes such as those in question.

In light of Brexit, I have a question. While this motion is about strengthening transnational mechanisms with Europol, what about the bilateral mechanisms we will need and that I am aware are built into and addressed through post-Brexit negotiation and so on? A genuine issue concerns ensuring that the sorts of strengthening mechanisms we see with Europol will be mirrored or reflected in mechanisms for the cross-border investigation and prosecution of transnational crime and, indeed, crimes that are being investigated between the two islands. That, to me, was an important issue.

The other issue I want to raise on criminal prosecution, although it is not so much a transnational or cross-border issue, is that of prosecution for child sex abuse. There was a very disturbing report by Ms Sarah-Jane Murphy in Saturday’s The Irish Timeson the case of a small child, one of the youngest complainants in a sex abuse case in the history of the State. Ms Murphy calls the child Zoe. Anyone who read the report will have been struck by the harrowing experience of a family when, despite a child having been a victim of some form of abuse, an allegation having been made and a prosecution having been initiated, a trial does not result in a conviction. I am referring to the fallout from that.I ask the Minister of State to raise with the Minister for Justice the need to look again at the way we investigate and prosecute crimes of child sex abuse.

I welcome an announcement made by the Minister earlier that she will be expunging criminal records for the sale of sex in line with the recommendations of the UCD sexual exploitation research programme and others and following our historic criminalisation of the purchase of sex in the 2017 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act. Many recommendations have been made to seek to help those who wish to exit from the exploitation of prostitution and with that perspective in mind I believe the Minister is proposing to expunge just over 600 convictions arising from sections 7 and 8 offences under the 1993 Act relating to the sale of sex. I very much welcome the Minister's announcement on that. We support the measures in this proposal.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit chuig an Seanad arís. Sinn Féin will not be opposing the passage of this motion through the Seanad today. Other colleagues have outlined eloquently all the reasons such a motion is felt to be necessary in tackling cross-border and international crime. However, we are parliamentarians and we have an obligation to scrutinise and weigh up such significant legislation and how it might compete against issues of civil liberties and human rights. I therefore welcome the opportunity for the Seanad to debate this issue with the Minister of State, albeit in a very short timeframe.

From our perspective, my colleague in the Lower House, Deputy Martin Kenny, will engage with the Minister of State further on our views on this particular motion. For my own information, however, he might provide clarification on his understanding of the definition of "private parties" and what they constitute in the context of this motion.

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senators for their contributions and their broad support for this proposal. This legislative initiative is part of a package of measures presented by the Commission in December 2020 to reinforce the Union's response to the threat posed by terrorism. Since the 2016 regulation came into force the operational support provided by Europol's counterterrorism centre has increased fivefold. Although the full impact of the Covid-19 crisis on security is not yet apparent, it is expected to shape the landscape of serious and organised crime in the EU in the mid- to long-term future.

With regard to this proposal, I should add that it is a negotiation process and it is not clear whether all of the issues raised in the draft regulation will be part of the final agreed instrument. There may be elements that would be of real value to Ireland and some elements with which we may have some issues. That is why it will be important for us to fully engage as an equal partner during the negotiation process. The benefits of Ireland's participation in Europol are and will remain critical to our national security and to tackling the most serious forms of organised crime in this country.

I would like to make a few points on the proposal. In respect of the initiative for co-operation between Europol and private parties, this could potentially have huge implications for An Garda Síochána given that the European headquarters of many Internet service providers and social media companies are located here in Ireland. It is important that An Garda Síochána can influence any outcome in that regard. Currently, all communications between Ireland and Europol go through the Europol National Unit,, which is located in Garda headquarters.

The proposed regulation aims to strengthen Europol's co-operation with third countries for preventing and countering serious and organised crime and terrorism. Serious crime does not stop at the European borders and co-operation with third countries will be of particular importance to Ireland given that our nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom, is now a third country. The 2016 regulation gave the power to the Commission to conclude agreements with third countries. Unfortunately, none has been agreed since and getting a more workable solution to this is in all of our interests.

The draft regulation aims to strengthen Europol's co-operation with the European Public Prosecutor's Office, EPPO. The EPPO was established as a new EU body by regulation in 2017. It is responsible for conducting criminal investigations and prosecutions for crimes against the EU's financial interests and will begin its operations in 2021.Ireland has not participated in the European Public Prosecutor's Office regulation and is not bound by it. I have been assured that the proposed regulation will not affect Ireland's position in that regard.

Senators will also be aware that Ireland only recently joined the Schengen information system, SIS, which enables Europe's law enforcement authorities to check and share data on banned, missing and wanted individuals, as well as lost or stolen property. This is the largest law enforcement database in Europe. Connecting to it has already enhanced our national security and strengthened our co-operation at a European level. This draft regulation is linked to legislative proposals amending the regulation on the establishment, operation and use of the Schengen information system in the field of police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters to enable Europol to enter data into the SIS.

If member states agree to this proposal Europol will be better able to enter data into the SIS on the suspected involvement of a third-country national in an offence in respect of which Europol has competence. Ireland is automatically bound by the SIS legislative proposal.

The Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I support the Garda Síochána in having access to the international systems, tools and networks available that assist it in achieving its ultimate goal which is to solve crime and make our communities safe. International co-operation in tackling crime is essential in the modern world given the nature of serious organised crime and terrorism. Full and active membership of organisations like Europol is essential and I ask Senators to support this motion and Ireland’s continued engagement with Europol. I thank the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach.

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his statement and for his commitment to this House.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended at 2.02 p.m and resumed at 2.30 p.m.