29 June 2020
Minister McEntee Seanad Statement on Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 and Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009
Check against Delivery
“That Seanad 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 30th June 2020 and ending on the 29th June 2021.”
“That Seanad 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 2020 and ending on 29 June 2021.”
I want to first acknowledge the honour that it is to serve the State as Minister for Justice. It is a somewhat daunting task but I very much relish the challenge and look forward to making a difference in this most interesting Department of State.
I also want to offer my warmest congratulations to all Senators, especially those who are taking up their seat for the first time today.
With the volume of legislation my Department deals with, it seems I am likely to be a frequent visitor to this distinguished House.
I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor Charlie Flanagan who served the State with devotion and capability for the past 6 years - firstly as Minister for Foreign Affairs and then as Minister for Justice.
As one of my first duties in this role, I propose the renewal of these vital provisions. The House is aware of the importance of these measures and I offer my thanks to the House for facilitating this session today.
Senators will be aware that we face the extraordinary situation whereby these provisions will fall in the coming hours if the motions are not passed.
The Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 was enacted in the wake of the barbaric murder by the Real IRA of 29 innocent people at Omagh in August 1998.
The awful carnage and grief of that event will never be forgotten.
The State in the intervening years has been relentless in its efforts to ensure that we have no more Omaghs.
I would like to pay tribute to the excellent work of An Garda Síochána, and indeed the PSNI, in countering the threat posed by those engaged in terrorism. I look forward to working closely with the Garda Commissioner and I want to assure him of my support.
I also want to express my deepest sympathy to the family and colleagues of the late Detective Garda Colm Horkan who was so senselessly killed just 10 days ago. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dilis.
As legislators, we have a duty to ensure that those like Detective Garda Horkan who serve on the frontline, tasked with protecting us from this threat – who frequently risk their own lives in doing so – have at their disposal appropriate measures to meet it.
Section 18 of the 1998 Act provides that certain sections must be renewed by the Oireachtas if they are to remain in force. Prior to moving any motion for renewal, the Act requires that a report on the operation of the relevant provisions is laid before the Oireachtas. That report was laid before the House by my predecessor on 19 June 2020.
I will not take up the limited time available by going through in detail each of the relevant sections of the Act – the report that has been provided to the House gives details of the various sections and the offences and other arrangements provided for.
While I have no doubt that every one of us in this House looks forward to a time when these provisions will no longer be required, the reality of the current situation must be taken into account.
When these motions were taken in the Dáil last week, my predecessor gave a commitment that these provisions will form part of an independent review of the State’s security legislation.
As many Senators will be aware, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland recommended a review of all our security legislation, and I believe it would be sensible to include these provisions within the scope of that review. My view is that such a review is timely to ensure that our legislation in this area is up to date, and fully meets the needs of the criminal justice system. It will be an independent review and my Department is currently undertaking work to define its scope which will inform the timescale.
In terms of the provisions before the House today, the Garda assessment is that there remains a real and persistent threat from republican paramilitary groups on this island. The threat level in Northern Ireland from these groups is currently regarded as severe. We know these groups oppose peace and democracy; and regrettably they remain committed to violence and criminality.
In the past year there has been an increase in paramilitary shootings and attacks in Northern Ireland. The continuing attempts to murder and maim, such as the attempt earlier this year to smuggle a bomb on a Belfast passenger ferry to coincide with Brexit, demonstrate a scant regard for human life. The cowardly attempts to intimidate journalists and politicians demonstrates a contempt for an open and free democracy.
The State will continue to confront those who act in opposition to the democratic wishes of the people of this island.
The report before the Houses provides data that these provisions have been utilised in excess of 70 times in the period under review.
The total number of people arrested under the provisions of the Offences Against the State Act 1939 is 146, with 40 people detained for offences contrary to the provisions of the 1998 Act. There have been 7 successful convictions in the Courts in the reporting period and a further 34 persons are currently awaiting trial.
It is the view of the Garda Commissioner that there is a clear need for the continuance of these provisions.
We see the use of these provisions culminating in the most serious cases being brought before the Special Criminal Court. Cases of the gravest nature such as directing an unlawful organisation, and murder, with significant convictions for directing terrorism as recently as 2017. These are very significant cases, involving those involved at the most senior level in these organisations. In addition, in recent years, there have been important convictions for membership of an unlawful organisation, where the Court has been able to draw inferences using these provisions.
Of course, many provisions of the Offences Against the State Acts could have application to the international terrorist threat. We are thankful that Ireland has not suffered the kinds of attacks seen in other European countries, targeting innocent people going about their daily lives, but the reality is that, as an open democracy, Ireland is not immune.
Our security services continue to monitor the potential threat we face and continue to work very closely with their international counterparts in identifying and responding to that threat.
It is the clear view of the Garda Síochána that the Act continues to be a most important tool in its ongoing efforts in the fight against terrorism. The report demonstrates that the provisions of the Act are used regularly.
It is my view that the State must retain in its laws the capacity to supress terrorist groups, and we have a duty as legislators to ensure that is so.
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 to remain in operation for a further 12 months commencing tomorrow, 30th June 2020.
I turn now to section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009, which is also the subject of a Motion before the House.
It refers to four 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. I believe, that this discretion for the DPP maintains an essential balance in deciding which cases are appropriate to be tried in the Special Criminal Court.
There is stark evidence of the willingness of organised groups to engage in murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, drug smuggling, counterfeiting and other serious offences. As public representatives we have witnessed its devastating impact on our communities.
It is clear that these groups have no respect for the laws of this land nor the safety of its citizens. By their behaviour, they demonstrate a callous disregard for everything that a stable and democratic society stands for.
It is clear that if these people are prepared to take human life in pursuit of their aims, they will have no hesitation in subverting the system of justice. Accordingly, the State requires legislation that can combat those who would seek to subvert the system through the intimidation of citizens.
The ongoing gang-related feuds in Dublin and Drogheda have brought into focus the depravity with which they operate. These feuds have resulted in appalling and barbaric murders that have shocked the country. Substantial Garda resources have been deployed to these areas and has resulted in significant convictions and ongoing seizures of drugs, firearms and ammunition.
Most importantly, Garda special operations - Hybrid and Stratus - which were established to target feud-related violence in these areas, have had some success in targeting these groups and in preventing murders since their commencement.
We are also aware that the activities of these groups are not limited to this State - nor are the efforts of An Garda Síochána who have excellent relationships with international counterparts.
Of real concern is the evidence that there are links between organised crime and those engaged in paramilitary activity.
In all the circumstances, I consider that it is necessary to continue section 8 in operation for a further period of 12 months beginning on the 30th June 2020.