CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Saturday, 13 January 2018.
Good evening Ladies and Gentleman,
I am delighted to be here in Kilkenny, one of my favourite counties – even if I can’t bring myself to support you in the hurling.....
I have always had a close relationship with the IFA. Like all relationships, we have had our differences from time to time but after a blip concerning General Election that I’d rather not dwell on….though some of you remember it…..I am pleased that we are on excellent terms again. And I am very pleased to be here with you tonight along with my colleague Minister Phelan, and to see so many familiar faces in the room.
With the Agriculture Commissioner hailing from Tullaroan, I know Kilkenny already has the best possible inside track on agriculture matters, so I would like to talk to you about my own area of responsibility and to highlight some measures in place to combat rural crime.
I know there is a lot of concern about crime. I know isolated farmers and farm families can feel vulnerable, that indeed, some have been victims of crime. But I also know that for a small minority of politicians and commentators, there is a gain to be made from fear mongering. I’m not denying that crime is a problem, far from it. In my capacity as Minister I spend a huge amount of my time being briefed on criminality and devising ways to better combat it…..but I want to caution against those who exploit people’s concerns to make a name for themselves, or pretend the solution to crimes in the 21st century is to use a 19th century model of policing.
We may look fondly back on olden times and believe there was no crime in the old days, but the reality is that crime is as old as time. And so is punishment. But just as criminals now operate in different ways – for example, using technology, sophisticated weapons, high speed cars, the motorway network......so too the State’s response to crime has evolved to better counter new threats.
As a TD representing a constituency with a huge rural area, indeed, as you know, we play regular host to one of the world’s largest agricultural shows – the Ploughing Championships – I am well aware of the challenges and concerns in rural Ireland.
Laois, like Kilkenny, is very accessible because of its motorway network and there is a particular concern about gangs, especially mobile criminal gangs, who target rural households.
As Minister for Justice and Equality I am 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 people. Since my appointment, I have had very regular discussions with Gardaí at the most senior levels about the need to counter criminal gangs and I am satisfied that the Garda response to this threat relentless and that the Gardaí are totally dedicated to putting these gangs out of business. Gang members are monitored, they are apprehended, they are prosecuted, and they are jailed.
An Garda Síochána has had considerable success recently in targeting these gangs and Gardaí are implementing strong policing measures to disrupt and dismantle their networks which are nationwide. The Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, now has a network of skilled asset profilers all around the country who are monitoring individuals and building up cases against them. To give just two recent examples:
On 21 November 2017, CAB conducted a search operation in Killarney, Co Kerry targeting the assets of individuals involved in incidents of burglary, theft and extortion throughout Ireland and Europe.In excess of €120,000 cash, £18,000 (Sterling cash), 9 motor vehicles, 11 high value watches and one stolen mobile home were seized as part of this operation.
It has also been widely reported that CAB are currently targeting the leaders of twenty crime gangs believed to be responsible for a major portion of the burglaries that have plagued the nation for the past five years.
I am fully supportive of the vital operational work being undertaken by An Garda Síochána in this area, often in very dangerous circumstances and I congratulate them on their recent successes. Everyone in this room is an active citizen – that is why you are in the IFA. I urge you to also work with your local Gardaí, with your local Joint Policing Committee, and at an organisational level to engage with national consultations. For example, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland is examining all aspects of policing. It is open to public consultation and its members have been meeting communities around Ireland. All the relevant information is on its website.
Further, I am pleased to inform you that on foot of a commitment in the Programme for Government, the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, at the request of the Policing Authority, is carrying out a review of the dispersal and use of resources available to An Garda Síochána in the delivery of policing services to local communities. The Authority has informed the Inspectorate that the review should take account of:
- the changing environments in rural, developing urban and suburban areas;
- the views of local communities;
- the allocation to and deployment of Garda resources at the local policing level, including the use of the Garda Reserve, Garda facilities and Garda equipment; and
- relevant recommendations made in previous Inspectorate reports.
The review will be comprehensive including a consultative process with local communities. It is expected that the review will be completed in the first half of this year. If you as the IFA here in Kilkenny or nationally haven’t yet engaged with the Garda Inspectorate on it, I urge you to do so and consider a formal submission.
While the deployment of Garda resources, including personnel, to specific areas is the responsibility of the Garda Commissioner because it is primarily informed by intelligence and crime data, I am assured by the Commissioner that Garda management constantly monitors 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.
Visible Police Presence.
I know people can feel weary when they hear Government politicians refer to where we have come from when trying to explain the situation we are now in across a range of sectors, but I believe that as farmers who have to plan well ahead and can be affected into the future by a bad year or more in the past, you will understand where I’m coming from on this.
In 2010, the then Government closed the Garda college and there was a moratorium on Garda recruitment. The country was in danger of drowning under a tsunami of debt. When my party entered Government, we set about first stabilising the public finances, then returning to growth. One of our first actions as we emerged from the crisis was to re-open the Garda College and start recruitment again. We are now slowly re-building the organisation and reforming it as we do so.
Since the Garda College re-opened in September 2014, just under 1,600 recruits have attested and been assigned to mainstream duties all over the country, including here in Co. Kilkenny. Taking retirements into account, at the end of 2017, there were 500 additional Gardaí in place compared to the previous year.
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 criminals. 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.
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.
In addition, another of the Government’s 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 recent Criminal Justice Act 2017, enacted in June last year, fulfilled a Programme for Government commitment and specifically provides that the Courts must have regard to persistent serious offending by an applicant for bail. There has been a lot of talk about bail recently and maybe people are not aware of that new law that we introduced last year. 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.
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. These provisions are now available to Gardaí to support prosecutions arising from Operation Thor.
While violent crimes, such as assault and theft from the person, can have an understandably traumatic effect on victims, non-violent crimes such as trespass can have a similar impact. This is particularly evident with the effect that trespass can have on those living in isolated, rural communities, where the nearest neighbour may be a mile or more away. It is an issue I am acutely aware of, and one that Gardaí have a range of powers to address.
Trespass can be dealt with under a civil remedy. There are also a number of robust legislative provisions in criminal law which can see fines, and prison terms, handed down for trespass onto land or into a building which I would like to comment on briefly.
Part 2A of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 provides for offences in relation to unauthorised entry onto and occupation of land. A person who is guilty of an offence under this Part is liable on summary conviction to a fine of up to €4,000 or a term of imprisonment of up to one month, or both. Trespass in relation to buildings, as well as land, is also dealt with in the 1994 Act and a person who is guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to a fine of up to €2,500 or imprisonment for a term of up to 6 months, or both.
Other legislative provisions are in place that provide for situations where there has been trespass on a building or near a building in a manner that causes, or is likely to cause, fear in another person. There are also powers in place which allow An Garda Síochána to request the person concerned to desist from acting in such a manner and to leave the place concerned immediately.
I believe that there is, therefore, robust legislation in place in relation to trespass and, while I have no plans to change the law in this regard, the situation is of course kept under ongoing review.
I’d like to talk a little about Garda 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 100,000 targeted checkpoints and 85,000 crime prevention patrols nationwide.
To give you an idea of the impact of the Operation, I can inform you that this concentrated policing activity has produced in the region of 6,375 arrests and 7,134 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 almost €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. 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.
I understand that work is ongoing to ensure that the publication of the official CSO crime statistics can recommence in earnest. Recent operational figures would appear to indicate that certain crime categories are on the rise, but until such time as the CSO can resume its publication of the crime statistics it would be unwise to draw any firm conclusions from them at this point. However, I was pleased to note a Garda press release earlier this week which stated that, according to provisional figures, burglaries nationally fell by 23% during November and December under the Winter Phase of Operation Thor. Needless to say, An Garda Síochána will continue to monitor all new and emerging crime trends and deploy their resources accordingly.
A particularly important initiative that I would like to re-emphasise here this evening is the Community (Text) Alert Service. Earlier this month I was pleased to announce that my Department will be providing an additional €50,000 in financial support to Community Text Alert Groups as a further measure in this Government's support to crime prevention.
This is in addition to the €100,000 which I announced at the National Ploughing Championships in September 2017. The Rebate Scheme, which also ran in 2016, will allow Text Alert Groups registered with An Garda Síochána to apply for funding to contribute towards their yearly running costs. The new funding has been allocated to the 2017 scheme and the deadline has been extended to 31 January 2018.
The Text Alert Rebate Scheme will be administered by Muintir na Tíre and I would like to urge all those here tonight, wishing to participate in the Scheme to contact Muintir na Tíre for more information. The website is www.muintir.ie.
My Department launched a CCTV scheme in April 2017 to assist with the establishment of community-based CCTV systems. This scheme will run for 3 years from its launch, with up to €1million being made available for each year of the scheme to assist local communities – the application process is open and I urge communities to look into this, and see if it fits with their needs. The provision of CCTV schemes will assist in the prevention and reduction of local crime, disorder and anti-social activity and increase community involvement to prevent and reduce crime in local areas. The use of these technologies will help in the fight against rural crime.
Theft of Farm Equipment
I hope you will all be familiar with the Theft Stop initiative which was launched by the Gardaí and the Irish Farmers Association. Theft Stop is designed to deter criminals from taking and selling farm equipment by ensuring it is clearly marked with a unique ID (such as an EirCode) and then registered on a nationwide database. The clearly visible serial number should act as a deterrent to criminals. A further impediment for criminals is that the details and serial numbers of stolen equipment can be viewed by would-be buyers on-line at www.theftstop.ie. However, I would stress that we all need to be careful when buying equipment – if the sale price is too good to be true, questions need to be asked about the source, as the equipment may be stolen.
Before concluding, I’d like to make a few remarks about agriculture matters. As a former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I will refer to two particular issues – Brexit and international markets.
First, Brexit - a threat to Ireland and a particular threat to the agri-food sector. As you know, Minister Creed is working extremely hard on a number of fronts – through introducing supports in the last Budget to mitigate the impact here of currency volatility in the UK; to continue Fine Gael’s relentless agenda of breaking into new markets; and he is working with colleagues in the UK and around Europe to do what we can to ensure that the UK opts to remain close to the EU and maintain valuable trade relationships.
On a brighter note, the work done by Minister Creed, by his predecessor our now Tánaiste Simon Coveney, and by other members of Government since 2011, in building up international markets has resulted in someone of a boom for dairy farmers as foreign consumers discover the taste of Irish butter and the nutritional content of other Irish milk products. I was active myself in my previous role promoting Irish beef and dairy produce in China, in Canada, in UAE, in the USA, in France, in Germany, and on any occasion an opportunity arose overseas.
The CSO has reported that family farm income last year reached almost €32,000, an increase of 35% compared to the previous year. This increase was driven mainly by a significant increase in dairy farm incomes to over €90,000.
Direct payments made by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine averaged €17,000 per farm nationally, providing a strong support for farm incomes and a fundamental hedge against commodity price volatility.
A sample of the measures in Budget 2018 include the introduction of low-cost loan schemes for farmers and SMEs, as well as new agri-taxation measures and increased funding under the Rural Development Programme.
This Government is dedicated to ensuring that rural Ireland remains vibrant and a wonderful place to make a living, live, and raise a family. And anyone worried about a Mayo Taoiseach being replaced by a Dublin Taoiseach can be reassured that Leo Varadkar spent his childhood summers with his mother’s relations on their farm in Waterford and, as if that’s not enough, he has created a special Rural Affairs Ministry and put Michael Ring in charge of it.
I would like to thank the IFA for inviting me here this evening. I am delighted to have had an update to speak to you about the wide range of initiatives in place to tackle crime. These will remain under review to ensure that we are being as effective as we can be. The safety of our citizens and their property is vitally important issue to me personally - as it is to everyone in this room. Please be assured of the Government’s commitment to tackle criminality and, indeed, of our commitment to support farmers and rural Ireland.
I look forward to chatting to you more in person, and to hearing your views. Thank you for your attention.