Dáil Éireann

 

29 June, 2022

 

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“That Dáil 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 the 30 June 2022 and ending on the 29 June 2023.”

 

“That Dáil Éireann resolves that section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009 (No. 32 of 2009) shall continue in operation for the period beginning on 30 June 2022 and ending on 29 June 2023.”

 

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Opening Comments

 

I move the Motions, a Cheann Comhairle.

 

The motions before Deputies today seek the continuation in force of important provisions in law aimed at combating terrorism and organised crime.

 

As Minister for Justice, I am required to lay reports before the Oireachtas on the use of the relevant provisions in the two Acts covering the last 12 months up to 31 May 2022. Those reports were placed before the House on 7 June 2022.

 

Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998

 

Deputies will be aware that the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 was enacted in the aftermath of the atrocity at Omagh in August 1998. This was a necessary and proportionate response to a barbaric act and the murder of 29 innocent people by the Real IRA.

 

In the subsequent years there has been significant progress towards a lasting peace, and the recent lowering of the threat level in Northern Ireland from ‘severe’ to ‘substantial’ by the UK authorities is to be welcomed. Nonetheless the level of threat is substantial. Regrettably there remains a real and persistent threat from paramilitary groups. These groups remain committed to violence and are contemptuous of the vast majority of the people on this island who wish to live their lives in peace.

 

These provisions of the criminal law provide strong legislative powers to ensure that the Gardaí and the Courts are in a position to meet the challenge laid down by those opponents of peace.

 

Section 18 of the 1998 Act provides that sections 2 to 4, 6 to 12, 14 and 17 must be renewed by the Oireachtas at least annually if they are to remain in force.

 

The report laid before this House includes information provided by the Garda Commissioner on the use of the provisions in question over the past 12 months and a table setting out reported usage figures for each of the years since the Act came into operation.

 

It is notable that eight of the twelve provisions to be renewed (sections 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12 and 17) have not been utilised during the reporting period. Of course, the fact a provision is not used in a particular year does not mean that it is redundant or unnecessary as the usage of different sections can vary from year to year.

 

The report also provides a brief assessment of the security situation. I should caution, however, that there are clear constraints on the detail of what is and can be reported to ensure there is no danger of prejudice to the investigation or prosecution of crime or the security of the State.

 

The Garda assessment remains that the primary security threat in the State remains the threat from republican paramilitary groups, the so-called ‘dissident’ groups, who have their origins in the Provisional IRA and the INLA. We all know these groups are steadfast in their opposition to peace and democracy and regrettably they remain wedded to brutality and criminality.

 

It is imperative that our laws and our authorities are properly equipped to deal with the threat, and let no one be under any illusion that these groups do not represent a threat to this State as well as to Northern Ireland. It is clearly established that these groups operate hand in hand with organised criminals, and their behaviour is indistinguishable from such elements.

 

North/South cooperation in this area is crucial, and the benefits of that cooperation are obvious from successful joint operations between An Garda Síochána and the PSNI such as the cross-border investigation targeting organised crime connected to the INLA.

 

There is a long shared history between the two jurisdictions in counteracting terrorism on the Island. This strong cooperation continues post-Brexit and it is vital that we continue to preserve and build on this cooperation.

 

As Minister for Justice, I want to pay tribute to the members of An Garda Síochána and the PSNI who continue to work tirelessly to preserve life and to counter all threats from terrorism. 

Paramilitaries have consistently demonstrated that they are ruthless, reckless and cowardly. They continue with their attempts to murder and maim PSNI officers, and the despite the recent lowering of the threat level in Northern Ireland the State cannot be complacent in this regard.

We must be clear in our determination that they will not succeed. It is my firm view that the provisions I am seeking renewal of today are important in supporting An Garda Síochána in their efforts to investigate, disrupt and dismantle the activities of terrorists.

Of course, while the 1998 Act was a response to a domestic threat, as an open democracy it is very important that we do not lose sight of the threat from international terrorism. We are not immune from this threat. Many provisions of the Offences Against the State Acts forms part of the response to that threat, and it is significant that its provisions have been utilised in the context of an unlawful organisation outside the State. We continue to work closely with our EU and international partners in remaining vigilant against such threats.

 

Review of the Offences Against the State Acts

 

The House will be aware that in February last year I established an independent expert review group, under the Chairmanship of Justice Michael Peart, to examine all aspects of the Offences Against the State Acts taking into account:

 

 

The Chair of the Review Group has recently reported to me that the Group has had significant engagement with relevant stakeholders, statutory agencies and civil society organisations.

 

I expect to have the Group’s final report in the Autumn.

 

I would like to thank Justice Peart and the members of the review group for undertaking this very significant and complex task, and I look forward to engaging with any recommendations they might have for this important legislation.   

 

In the meantime, the Report laid before this House notes the clear view of the Garda Authorities that the Act continues to be one of the most important tools in ongoing efforts in the fight against terrorism.

 

In the circumstances, I must conclude that these provisions continue to be required and that they should again be renewed for a further 12 months.

 

Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009 – section 8

Section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009, is also the subject of a Motion before the House. 

 

It refers to a small number of serious, organised crime offences that are set out in Part 7 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006.

 

Section 8 of the 2009 Act makes these offences scheduled offences for the purposes of Part V of the Offences Against the State Act 1939 – that is to say, trials for these offences are to be heard in the Special Criminal Court subject to the power of the Director of Public Prosecutions to direct that the offences be tried in the ordinary courts.

 

The purpose of this provision is to guard against the possibility of interference with jury trial by ruthless criminal gangs. It was enacted as a response to a number of difficulties where the justice system was considered to be under serious threat from organised crime. Organised crime gangs had shown a particular ruthlessness in their activities, including attacks on witnesses and intimidation of jurors. It was an imperative that the criminal justice system was robust enough to withstand the assault launched upon it through intimidation and violence. That imperative remains.

 

The report on this section that I have laid before the House in accordance with section 8, covers the period from 1 June 2021 to 31 May 2022.  It includes information provided by the Garda Commissioner on the use over the past 12 months of the provisions in question and details of the offences in question.

 

The report outlines that in the past year there have been 16 individuals convicted in the Special Criminal Court in respect of offences to which section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act applies.

 

Of course, it is the case that jury trial should be preserved to the greatest extent possible.  However, we cannot ignore the threat posed to the criminal process by terrorist groups and organised criminal groups who seek to intimidate jurors or potential jurors. The Special Criminal Court continues to be play a necessary and important role in the State’s criminal justice architecture in dealing with terrorism and the most serious organised crime cases.

 

Every member of this House is aware of lengths these criminal gangs are prepared to go to thwart the justice system and to maintain a climate of fear and intimidation in our communities. They have no regard for the damage their activities cause for families throughout the country. They have no regard for the rule of law and they will stop at nothing in pursuit of their criminal gain.

 

Supporting the great work of An Garda Síochána in tackling organised crime remains a priority for the Government. I assure the House that the Government is fully committed to giving An Garda Síochána the necessary resources to continue the work of combatting those involved in organised crime. As Justice Minister, I want to acknowledge that work. An Garda Síochána continue to make significant seizures of drugs and firearms; they continue to bring organised criminals to justice and importantly they continue to prevent further loss of life.

 

The views of An Garda Síochána are set out clearly in the Report and it is that the continued operation of this provision is required. As Minister for Justice, I must have full regard for the views of the Garda Commissioner.

 

It is my view, therefore, that section 8 should continue in operation for a further 12 months.

 

Conclusion

 

As set out in the two reports that I have laid before the House, it is the clear view of An Garda Síochána that the provisions in the 1998 Act and the 2009 Act continue to be necessary and effective in ongoing efforts in the fight against terrorism and serious organised crime.

 

On the basis of the information set out in the Report, and on the advice of the Garda authorities, I propose that the House should approve the continued operation of the relevant provisions of the 1998 Act and the 2009 Act for a further 12 months commencing on 30 June.

 

ENDS