128. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if she has held meetings with the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice arising from the need for greater co-operation on combatting cross-Border criminal gangs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19281/15]
Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): I maintain regular contact with the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice, David Ford, to address matters of shared interest and to enhance cooperation on all policing and criminal justice matters on this island. Cross border criminality is one of several issues which we discussed at our trilateral meeting in February which was also attended by the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson. The issue will be discussed again at the forthcoming North South Ministerial Council plenary meeting to be held in Dublin on 5 June next. A key element of our discussions is to review the ongoing cooperation between an Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, as well as that between appropriate justice agencies in both jurisdictions - for example, the Revenue Commissioners and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. Minister Ford and I are very pleased with the the cooperation that currently exists but we are always open to explore how the relationships may be further enhanced.
The Gardaí work closely with the PSNI and the UK National Crime Agency in combating the activities of organised crime gangs, with a particular focus on cross-border crime. A key feature of the ongoing efforts to counteract cross-border crime is the inter-agency nature of the operational cooperation which involves the two police services and the two customs services on the island, and the Criminal Assets Bureau and the UK’s National Crime Agency. The two police services operate a joint Cross Border Policing Strategy which has as its objectives the improvement of public safety throughout Ireland, the disruption of criminal activity and the enhancement of the policing capability of both police services on the island. Both police services are jointly engaged in implementing a number of initiatives in all areas of policing in all these areas with a particular focus on areas close to the border.
Law enforcement in relation to the smuggling of tobacco products, the sale of illicit or counterfeit tobacco products within the State and fuel smuggling/laundering is primarily a matter for the Revenue Commissioners. However, in targeting the illicit trade there is close cooperation between the Customs Service of the Revenue Commissioners and An Garda Síochána. There is also considerable cross border cooperation in tackling these illicit activities. The work of the Cross-Border Task Force on Fuel Laundering and Smuggling, which comprises representatives from An Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, HM Revenue and Customs, the UK’s National Crime Agency and the Criminal Assets Bureau, has ensured that a number of groups involved in the laundering and distribution of illegal fuels, operating in both jurisdictions, have been specifically targeted by the agencies involved. A similar inter-agency group, the Cross Border Tobacco Enforcement Group, is in place to support the fight against the activities of gangs engaged in tobacco smuggling.
The success of this cooperation has been recognised by the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly, who met to discuss the issue of cross border cooperation and illicit trade at their plenary session on 23 and 24 February last. The Committee noted that cross border cooperation between justice and law enforcement officials and agencies is excellent and acknowledges those involved for their courage in tackling cross border crime and to make communities safer all across the island of Ireland. I am currently considering the report and recommendations of the Committee and I will communicate my response to the Committee in the near future.
I would also say that the Garda authorities are keenly aware of the links that exist between paramilitary groups and organised criminal gangs, and factor this into their strategic approaches to combating these serious activities. There remains a real and persistent threat from ‘dissident’ paramilitary groups on this island and the Gardaí and their counterparts are active in counteracting and disrupting their activities.