This House has spent a considerable amount of time this week discussing the brutal killing of Shane Geoghegan. It is right that we should. We need to mark our horror and revulsion at the outrage which has taken place. We want to show solidarity with Shane's family and friends, and stand as one with the people of Limerick and all over Ireland in their sense of shock and grief at what has taken place. Above all, whatever political differences divide this House, we are united in sending a clear message to the perpetrators of this evil deed and others of their kind: no resources will be spared in hunting you down and bringing you to justice.
The bleak events last Sunday in Limerick highlight starkly the threat posed by members of criminal gangs. I hope in the time available to set out some of the measures which the Government has taken - and will continue to take - to address that threat.
I want to make one thing very clear at the outset: the Government will rule nothing out which is reasonable and consistent with the rule of law in tackling these gangs head on.
Various Deputies on all sides of the House have made specific suggestions during the course of this week and I have no doubt more will do so today. I will examine all those suggestions with an open mind. But it does no service to anyone to pretend that there is some magic solution to this kind of problem which simply requires some action on the part of the Government. Were that to be the case we would have taken it long since - as would the administrations in many other countries whose problems with gangland crime are far more severe and longer lasting than ours. That is not a counsel of despair, it merely serves to reinforce what I have said to the House before: the fight against gangland crime is going to be long and has to be waged relentlessly.
It is difficult in the wake of the tragedy which took place at the weekend to talk of the successes which the men and women of An Garda Síochána have had in trying to counteract organised crime. But in fairness to people who daily put their lives on the line trying to protect the community it is right to record the fact that they have had many successes.
There were 27 murders involving a firearm in 2006 and this was reduced to 18 in 2007. This year, homicide offences have dropped by more than half in the third quarter and almost a half year-on-year. Of course, these statistics represent a completely unacceptable level of killings and they do nothing to detract from the awfulness of what happened at the weekend. As Minister with responsibility for An Garda Síochána I would be failing in my duty not to recognise the improvements which the untiring work of An Garda Síochána has brought about. The reality is that, through the efforts of An Garda Síochána, there are many people in the prisons who are paying the price for their involvement in gangland activities. If anything, the callous nature of the killing last weekend has reinforced the determination of all members of the Force to pursue relentlessly for as long as it takes every single person involved in gangland crime. In doing that I have no doubt that they will have the full support of every member of the House.
Section 20 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 provides for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to determine, and from time to time revise, the policing priorities of An Garda Síochána. I can tell the House today that I have finalised those priorities for 2009. They will go to the cabinet next week for noting. The small number of policing priorities which I am setting will clearly reflect the paramount importance and absolute priority of - and I quote - "targeting serious crime, in particular organised, gun and drug related crime".
The House will understand why I do not want to go into any detail about the intensive Garda investigation which is taking place into the death of Shane Geoghegan. Many lines of inquiry are being pursued. The Commissioner is keeping me regularly briefed and, indeed, I spoke to him again before coming into the House. He has already indicated that he has all the tools he requires to deal with the situation. The Government, of course, relies on his professional assessment of the situation but we have made it clear if anything else is needed by way of resources or legislation we will act immediately.
I will not detain the House for long with a litany of the vast range of measures which have been taken in recent years designed to tackle the problem of serious crime. I believe it is incumbent on me, though, to help put the debate in context to mention some of them. Recent years have seen a great increase in the number of members of An Garda Síochána. And over 2008 and 2009 the attested strength of the Force will have increased by 1,100. In the past year alone there has been a 12% increase in Garda numbers in Limerick City and a 40% increase since 2003. In the past 21 months, the number of civilians employed by An Garda Síochána has increased by 59% to 2,038 including an increase of 20% so far this year alone. From the start of this year to the end of 2009, the attested strength of the Force will have grown by over 1,100 to almost 14,900. This will represent an 8% increase. The additional rostered hours available next year arising from the increase in the strength of the Force will amount to over one million hours. These are not new initiatives to be announced; rather they represent real new resources to be deployed in the fight against crime.
Operation Anvil, which was commenced in 2005 in the Dublin Metropolitan Region and extended nationwide during 2006, specifically targets serious and organised criminal activity. I secured a ring fenced budget of €20m. for 2008 and this has been increased to €21m. for 2009, despite the overall budgetary situation. The budget for CAB - which has proved to be invaluable in going after those involved in gun crime - has been increased by 20% next year. Indeed, I directed in relation to the preparation of my Department's group of Estimates that front line policing be given absolute priority and that is what has been achieved. That has inevitably led to reductions in funding for some other bodies under my Department's aegis. I make no apology for that. Funding must follow our priorities. And there is no more fundamental human right to which all our citizens are in equality entitled than the protection of their lives and property from those who break the law.
I can disclose to the House updated figures for Operation Anvil which I received from the Garda Commissioners yesterday. In the period up to 2 November of this year, in the Dublin Metropolitan Region, Operation Anvil resulted in over 120 arrests for murder; 1,192 firearms seized; 59,235 drug searches; 21,351 vehicles seized; 102,000 checkpoints carried out and €31.6m. worth of property recovered. Outside Dublin 23,346 arrests have been made and 983 firearms seized. Those figures, I suggest, are a good indication of the relentless and comprehensive nature of the activities being undertaken by the Gardaí.
We have made too an unprecedented investment in equipment and technology for the Force.
We have made substantial changes to the criminal law. While the 2006 and 2007 Criminal Justice Acts did not receive unanimous support in the House I do not believe anyone would dispute that they were a genuine attempt to take any and all legislative action which the Government believed was open to it to counteract the problem of gangland crime. I make that point because it is against that background that calls for further changes in the law have to be viewed.
Again, I want to make it clear that we will take any action by legislation or otherwise which is open to us to tackle the problem of gangland crime. On the other hand, it would be a disservice to the people we represent to engage in legislative acts of delusion for the sake of being seen to do something. There is a fundamental point which we have to bear in mind: we simply cannot legislate away the need for evidence.
This brings me to some suggestions which have been made by members opposite about changes that we might usefully make to our laws. I want to emphasise that I do not in any way question the good faith of those making the suggestions. In many cases I do not have any difficulty with the principle of what is being proposed. Instead, real problems arise in their implementation.
Calls have been made for the greater use of the Special Criminal Court. In fact, the Special Criminal Court can be - and has been - used in dealing with gang members charged with offences unrelated to paramilitary activity. The DPP has the power to direct that any trial take place in the Special Criminal Court where he is satisfied that the ordinary courts are insufficient to secure the effective administration of justice. It is also a matter of public record that many cases involving gang members have taken place successfully in the ordinary courts - for example, drug and firearms cases. Indeed, convictions against gang members from Limerick for murder have been secured in the ordinary courts.
The use of the Special Criminal Court has also been mentioned in the context of using opinion evidence from a Chief Superintendent in relation to a person's participation in a gang. I do not dispute the superficial attractiveness of that proposal. But all the advice available to me is that it could bring with it insuperable problems. Leaving aside the fact that of their nature gangs do not have the same types of organised structures as paramilitary organisations and so membership is much more difficult to establish, the Courts have already held that such opinion evidence is not conclusive and, in practice, the courts have tended to disregard such evidence if the accused denies such membership on oath - which would be bound to happen in the case of persons accused of participating in gangs. The situation is even more fraught with difficulty if such evidence were to be used in ordinary courts because of its prejudicial effect, thus - to put it mildly - raising grave doubts about its constitutionality.
The Garda Commissioner has already expressed the view that the laws are adequate for the Gardaí to tackle the particular issues they are confronting at present. That does not mean, of course, that either he or I have a closed mind on taking forward measured changes in the law as part of the process of keeping our general criminal law under review and these will include legislation on surveillance and DNA.
Only those brutal enough to murder Shane Geoghegan could fail to be moved by the scenes of deep and dignified grief at his funeral in Limerick yesterday. We can expect nothing we say here today to in any way assuage that grief. But his family and friends have whatever small consolation they can take from the fact that every member of this House - on behalf of the people we represent - is determined that his death will not be forgotten and that we will do everything we can to help prevent such tragedies happening in the future.
Ar dheis Dé go rabh a anam.