Check Against Delivery
Speech by Minister for Justice and Equality in response to Fianna Fáil Private Members Motion on Rural Crime
21 November 2017
A Cheann Comhairle,
I thank my colleague, Deputy O’Callaghan, for providing an opportunity to address the topic of rural crime in this House. Public safety is an important priority for all Deputies, particularly those with largely rural constituencies. I know Deputy O’Callaghan is a Dublin Deputy but has family roots in Kerry in particular.
I have carefully considered the motion put forward and decided that a countermotion is appropriate. Therefore I cannot support the Fianna Fáil motion. The motion approved by Government today is lengthy and detailed and captures the breath of priority we rightly apportion to preserving the safety of communities throughout the State.
Ceann Comhairle, I am of the firm belief that all Deputies in this House are striving to achieve the same goal – that is the elimination of all forms of crime that affect our communities, and I look forward to listening to the various contributions here tonight. I hope that the debate will be constructive and not an attempt at political point scoring or the rewriting of history. The reality is that there are a wide range of Government supports in place; there are high levels of resourcing; and there are a number of schemes that I hope Deputies will encourage members of the public and communities to participate in.
I can assure the House, as a Minister who has represented a largely rural constituency for almost three decades, that I am very much aware of the impact that incidents of rural crime have on families and the communities in which they reside. Indeed, over the years I have personally known many victims of crime – from both rural and urban areas. These incidents cannot be tolerated in our society – indeed, we do not tolerate them. They are subject to robust laws and robust policing and this Government will continue to dedicate very significant resources to support An Garda Síochána in tackling gangs, including mobile criminal gangs, who target rural areas.
The Government remains committed to a vigorous and comprehensive response to burglary, theft and other property-related crime. This response is adaptable to changing circumstances – including changes in the modus operandi of the criminal gangs who would target our citizens. I am conscious that there have been many references to criminal gangs and I want to reassure the House that such gangs are relentlessly targeted by An Garda Síochána which continue to monitor the activities of criminal gangs who seek to target all areas of the country. An Garda Síochána are experiencing considerable success in targeting these gangs and are implementing strong policing measures to disrupt and dismantle their networks.
The House will appreciate that the deployment of Garda resources, including personnel, to specific areas, is the responsibility of the Garda Commissioner. In taking these decisions the Commissioner is privy to the sort of intelligence that no-one in this House can second guess. The Commissioner assures me that Garda management constantly monitor the distribution of these resources in light of crime trends and overall policing needs at local level – and this applies equally in both rural and urban areas.
As the Deputies will be aware, An Garda Síochána have already mounted a highly effective and determined drive against criminals who seek to prey on vulnerable householders with the implementation of Operation Thor.
The scale of Garda activity against burglary and property-related crime – under Operation Thor - has led to concentrated Garda activity resulting to date in over 92,040 targeted checkpoints and 71,700 crime prevention patrols nationwide.
This concentrated policing activity has produced in the region of 6,130 arrests and 6,920 charges covering a range of offences which, in addition to burglary, include handling stolen property, possession of firearms and drugs offences.
Very significant resources have been provided to An Garda Síochána, including an overtime allocation of €100 million announced in Budget 2018, to support large-scale policing operations including Operation Thor. It is also worth noting that Operation Thor has now entered its ‘Winter Phase’ which will run from 29 October 2017 – 1 April 2018.
In addition, Operation Thor has targeted mobile criminal gangs engaged in burglary and related crimes and it is encouraging to note that since the launch of the operation in November 2015, the burglary figures have shown a significant downward trend. Deputies will be aware that the CSO official recorded crime statistics for 2016 show a decrease in burglary offences of 30% when compared to the previous twelve-month period in 2015.
This reflects the success of the concerted Garda drive against crime being implemented under Operation Thor. It should also be noted that ‘Crime Prevention Officers’ actively engage with community groups to promote the Safer Communities Campaign and advise residents of ways to increase their personal safety and secure their property.
As part of the concerted strategy to combat burglary, this Government has made it a priority to secure the enactment of specific legislation targeting prolific burglars in the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Act 2015. These provisions are now available to Gardaí to support prosecutions arising from Operation Thor.
Furthermore, the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act introduced the DNA database, which provides Gardaí with investigative links (or ’hits’) between people and unsolved crimes, including burglaries. It is anticipated that this will assist in improving detection rates for burglary over the coming years.
I would like to turn specifically to the area of bail law which features in the motion put forward by Fianna Fáil. As part of the Government's response to crime, one of our major objectives is to focus on the key area of strengthening the law to get tougher on serious and repeat offenders. In that context the new Criminal Justice Act 2017, enacted in June, and fulfilling a commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government, specifically provides that the courts must have regard to persistent serious offending by an applicant for bail.
Among its key provisions, the Act expands the factors that a Court may take into account in refusing bail to include the extent to which previous convictions for serious offences indicate persistent serious offending, and the likelihood of any danger to a person or the community that could be caused by the release of the accused on bail.
Where bail is granted, the Act increases the range of conditions that may be attached to include prohibiting contact by the accused with the victim or the victim’s family and the imposition of curfews. The Act also provides a Garda power of arrest without warrant where a condition of bail is breached and it is necessary to arrest the person immediately to prevent harm to the victim or a witness.
Section 7 of the Criminal Justice Act 2017 amends the existing provisions for the electronic monitoring of persons on bail to facilitate the focused and targeted use of monitoring in cases where it is most likely to be effective. The Act provides that electronic monitoring may be imposed as a bail condition if the prosecution applies to the court for such a condition.
To facilitate the implementation of these provisions, my Department is currently chairing a Working Group comprised of officials from the Department of Justice and Equality, the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service, the Courts Service, An Garda Síochána and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Group has been tasked with examining a range of issues surrounding the implementation of electronic monitoring in an Irish context. I expect its report to come to me before the end of the year. Earlier this year I had talks with the New Zealand Police Commissioner and I observed the operation of electronic monitoring devices. It is clear that targeted use can be effective but that these devices are not a magic bullet and that a multiplicity of responses are required.
Visible Police Presence
The Programme for Government commits to ensuring a strong and visible police presence throughout the country in order to maintain and strengthen community engagement and provide reassurance to citizens and deter crime. Budget 2018 will support the continuation of the high level of investment in the Garda workforce and ensure that the vision of an overall workforce of 21,000 by 2021 remains on track.
A further 800 new Garda Recruits will enter the Garda College, an additional 500 civilians will also be recruited to fill critical skills gaps across the organisation and to facilitate the redeployment of Gardaí from administrative and technical duties to front-line operational duties. In addition, there are plans to strengthen the Garda Reserve with new Reserves expected to commence training early in 2018.
A Cheann Comhairle, we must all remain vigilant in the fight against all forms of criminality in our communities and I want to assure Deputies that the Garda Commissioner and I remain in ongoing contact in relation to countering new and emerging crime trends. Operation Thor has proved very successful to date and the Government remains committed to ensuring that An Garda Síochána have the necessary resources to tackle crime in all our communities.
My colleague, Minister McEntee and my constituency colleague, Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy will later address the House in relation to other crime prevention measures of note such as CCTV, the highly successful Community (Text) Alert Programme, Criminal Legal Aid as well as further actions being taken by An Garda Síochána in the fight against rural crime. I will just conclude by urging communities to avail of the range of schemes in place and to work with their local Gardaí and their local Joint Policing Committee to ensure we win the fight against criminality.