The theme of the Summer School, looking forward as it does to governance in the next five years, brings to mind Winston Churchill describing an essential qualification in a politician: the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year – and the ability to explain afterwards why it didn’t happen.
For all that, I hope this afternoon to set out some of my priorities in the area of tackling crime.
It was another British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who, famously, at a party conference in Brighton in 1993 said: ‘Labour is the party of law and order in Britain today. Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’.
To his detractors it might seem like policy-making by soundbyte – though even they would have to recognise that it is a very good soundbyte. In fact, it summarises an essentially sound approach and one which in its generality I don’t think there would be much disagreement about.
But in a way that phrase hides more than it reveals because while we all know what crime is – the law tells us – the question of what causes crime is a much more complex one. The conundrum at the centre of this can be demonstrated by a simple – and regrettable – fact: the murder rate in Ireland is running now at a multiple of what it was in the 1960s.
How has that come to be? No-one could deny that in material terms we are disproportionately far better off now than we were then. Yet we cannot overlook the fact that young men in general and certain socially deprived areas and groups are still over-represented in our prison population, and that suggests a link between relative social disadvantage and crime. There is, though, a difference between a link and a cause. How is it that some people brought up in almost identical environments – even in the same family - go on to lead worthwhile lives in the community, while others get involved in a life of crime? There is the danger, too, in overemphasising social factors in the commission of crime that we might be taken as absolving people from their responsibilities for their actions. And an unfortunate truth is that it is often those suffering from similar disadvantage to the offenders themselves that are their victims.
We could have a very interesting discussion here today on the nature of good and evil and whether when that apple was eaten in the Garden of Eden, an inevitable consequence was a proliferation of busy Departments of Justice. I suspect, however, that people would be more comfortable with a Minister for Justice who has to deal with transgressions in the here and now setting out in practical terms what is being done and what will be done about the crime problem.
That said, as a Government we have to be conscious that a range of decisions we make on social issues can have implications as to the likely extent of our crime problem. Improving the lot of people and their opportunities to thrive is not only right in itself; it also can also have a substantial bearing on the nature and extent of our crime problem.
The reality is that as a society we have to build prisons and build schools, but it is hard not to have sympathy with the view expressed by Eliza Cook in A Song For The Ragged Schools when she said

Better build schoolrooms for the ‘boy’
Than cells and gibbets for the ‘man’

Patrick MacGill – in whose honour we meet - entitled one of his earliest works ‘The Children of the Dead End’ and, while the context and circumstances are different from our own, we have to give priority to how we deal with what can be, perhaps, our children of the dead end when they get in trouble with the law and, indeed, hopefully, before that happens.

That is why as Minister for Children I was anxious to put our approach to youth justice issues on a proper footing. Thankfully, we have made substantial progress, and I am confident that with the implementation of the Children Act and the establishment in particular of the new Youth Justice Service, we at long last have proper structures in place to deal with offending by young people. This is an area in which we must heavily invest. And it is an investment – not least because it provides us with a chance to tackle criminal behaviour by young people, by and large on a relatively minor scale ,and do what we can to prevent their throwing their lives away and becoming involved in serious crime later on.
It is no disrespect to those who were involved in this area previously to say that the State’s overall approach in this area lacked coherence. It is vital that youth justice is no longer regarded as the Cinderella of our system, and as Justice Minister, I will be fully supportive of the work of the Youth Justice Service and others working in this area. For example, the new Programme for Government commits us to doubling the number of Garda Youth Diversion Projects – projects that have, in a low-key way, been invaluable in keeping young people out of trouble. These projects too are examples of successful partnerships with the local communities – which is a theme of what I will be saying this afternoon. I am glad to note too that the Probation Service has been resourced and restructured in the context of the full implementation of the Children Act.
I want to talk now about the wider criminal justice system and its response to the problems it must tackle.
I do not intend to dazzle you with a blizzard of international crime statistics – many of which show Ireland in a favourable light. It is indeed cold comfort to a victim of any crime to show that statistically the chances of it happening were low. Crime statistics taken over time are the best indications of trends we have. But we cannot forget that behind every crime statistic is a story. Distinctions are traditionally made between crimes against people and crimes against property. But it is very hard to say that when someone’s house has been burgled that the feelings of distress, fear and sheer frustration that can be left in the victims when their houses have been ransacked don’t amount in reality to a serious crime against people. The larceny of a pedal cycle might sound trivial to some, but it’s not trivial, for example, to a young person who has worked hard part time to buy a bike and has it stolen.
My job as Minister for Justice, put simply, is to help protect and vindicate people’s rights. For whatever reason, discussions of human rights issues often concentrate on the individual and the State as antagonists. What can tend to be forgotten is that it is a fundamental duty of the State to vindicate people’s rights not to be subject to attack by others and to have peaceable enjoyment of their property. I am not suggesting for a moment that persons accused of crime are not entitled to due process. Of course they are, and we must defend that vigorously if we are not to cheapen the very basis of our society. What I am putting forward is the proposition that it is a blinkered approach to see the vindication of human rights as being irrelevant to the protection of people from crime. To see human rights as something a democratic state is inherently disposed to undermine rather than protect is, in my view, a fundamentally flawed analysis.
Day in, day out, week in, week out, people who have been involved in crime are successfully brought to justice. That is a reality that in the white heat of a particular controversy du jour can be overlooked. It is unfair to all those working in the criminal justice system to ignore that. What I hope to do is to build on those successes.
It is probably fair to say that social partnership has been the mainstay of building our successful economy. What I am anxious to do as Minister for Justice is to develop partnerships with communities as a mainstay of our efforts to tackle crime. Preventing or detecting crime cannot be done by agencies of the criminal justice system alone; they need the active help of communities. At the same time, as part of that partnership, the work of those agencies must be responsive to the needs of communities.
Joint Policing Committees provide a forum where members of a local authority, the senior Garda officers responsible for policing the area, with the participation of Oireachtas members and community and voluntary interests, can consult, discuss and make recommendations on matters affecting the policing of the area. Twenty two of these committees have been established on a pilot basis with a further seven being established. I believe that these committees can form a cornerstone of the sort of partnership arrangements I want to see. I am working with Minister John Gormley to see that we finish a review of the pilot project quickly and that these committees are established in all 114 local authority areas by early next year.
I have no doubt that a key issue that will be aired at these committees will be anti-social behaviour. The phrase ‘anti-social’ behaviour can cover a multitude. We should be in no doubt that in some areas behaviour of that kind is making people’s lives a misery. It has to be tackled effectively and the people who engage in it will have to come to appreciate – one way or another – that it is simply not acceptable and it will have to stop. Of course high jinks that spill over into disorderliness can be dealt with without necessarily turning it into a federal case. It is a different matter where people persistently indulge in behaviour that is adversely affecting the lives of members of their community.
People have to pay a price for that type of behaviour and, to underscore the type of partnership approach I am talking about, I have asked my Department to look at the question of what the Programme for Government refers to as Community Payback. This involves people who have transgressed providing real services for the communities they have damaged. It is the case that community service orders already mean that some offenders make reparation to society generally, but what we will be looking at is whether it is possible to make a more direct connection between the offence and reparation to a particular community.
A key to any successful partnership is the relationship between the parties involved. Of its nature one of the most important relationships in the criminal justice system is that between the Gardaí and the community they serve.
There is no point in pretending – particularly here in Donegal – that the past few years have not been troubled ones for the Garda Síochána. At a time when the crime problems they have had to face in the front line have become more difficult, they have had to live in the shadow of what has emerged – and will continue to emerge – at the Morris Tribunal. It is in the interests of no-one – except the criminals – for us to have a demoralised police force. By the same token, we have to take fully on board the lessons which can be learned from what happened in Donegal. Many reforms have been made to the Garda Síochána under the leadership of Commissioner Noel Conroy, and that programme of reform will continue. We have had the establishment as well of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the Garda Inspectorate. Those reforms arise not just because of what happened in Donegal but as part of the changes which are necessary to ensure that An Garda Síochána, while maintaining its exemplary and proud tradition, is properly equipped to do its work in an ever-changing society.
The activities engaged in by some Gardaí in Donegal not only were inherently wrong in themselves but did the gravest of disservice to their honourable and dedicated colleagues. It imperilled the high esteem in which the force is held by the community. Thankfully, I believe that the vast majority of the community still have the greatest respect for the Gardaí but the Gardaí know that respect is earned. The interaction between the Gardaí and members of the public is the bedrock on which the partnership between the Gardaí and the community is maintained. This is one of the reasons why I am proceeding with an extensive programme of civilianisation in the force so as to free up Gardaí for the frontline duties for which they were trained, visible in the communities in which they serve.
My first official function as Justice Minister was to attend a passing-out parade of members of the Garda Reserve. The enthusiasm which those people had underlined both the high respect they had for the Garda Síochána and their willingness to give something back to their community. It is a true partnership between the Gardaí and members of the community. I do not intend to recount here the industrial relations difficulties surrounding the introduction of the Reserve. If there were reservations on the part of some that the introduction of the Reserve was intended to get around taking on the number of full-time Gardaí that were needed, then I think that matter is well and truly put to rest at this stage. As well as meeting the commitment to bring the strength of An Garda Síochána up to 14,000, the new Programme for Government pledges that we will complete the current expansion of Garda numbers to 15,000 by 2010 and 16,000 by 2012. I have no doubt that members of An Garda Síochána, against that background, would not for a moment spurn the help of those in the community who want to support them in a practical way.
Another important way of underpinning partnership with the community is through the expansion of Garda and Community Closed Circuit Television. This can play an important role in supporting the work of the Gardaí in deterring criminal and anti-social behaviour. CCTV is not intended to be – nor could it be – an alternative to Gardaí on frontline duties; but it can function as an effective aid to policing, assisting the work of Gardaí in communities.
We should never forget that fear of crime – rather than being an actual victim of crime – can deeply impair the quality of people’s lives. CCTV plays a valuable role in reassuring people. The Community CCTV Scheme has the added benefit of providing a forum for partnership with local communities of exactly the kind I want to encourage. That is why I will be attaching particular priority to the roll-out of this type of scheme.
There are some who have reservations that use of these cameras represents the intrusion of technology into privacy, but I would suggest that it far more sensible to see them as akin to a benign and helpful big brother rather than an Orwellian one.
Before I leave the issue of partnership, I want to make the general point that in my approach to my job as Minister for Justice, I do not operate on the basis that the font of all knowledge and wisdom on how to tackle crime lies in some repository on St. Stephen’s Green. I believe that the Programme for Government provides a sound basis for us to proceed, but I have both an open door and an open mind in considering any constructive proposals for tackling these issues.
It would be unthinkable, in dealing with the issue of crime generally, not to talk about the plight of the victim. The effect of crime on victims is bad enough; but for victims to feel then that they have been ill-served by the criminal justice system can literally compound a felony. The sad fact is that victims can feel that they are the forgotten part of the criminal justice system. In saying that, I am not at all to be taken as impugning the good work that has been done by all the agencies in the criminal justice system to improve how they look after the needs of victims. I want to commend in particular the work of the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime. Nevertheless, one of my first acts as Minister was to direct that we should move ahead as quickly as possible to get a Victims Support Agency up and running. Among its functions will be to provide a voice for those who often feel that their concerns are not being heard. That agency, too, will form part of the type of partnership I want to encourage in tackling crime.
There can be no doubt that the activities of gangs in Dublin, Limerick and elsewhere pose – to use an American phrase – a clear and present danger. Their activities are by and large inextricably linked with the market in illegal drugs.
I want to deal first of all with what I regard as the fanciful argument that if illicit drugs were legalised, we could, at a stroke, eliminate much of this crime. If you accept the proposition that harmful drugs should be freely available, that analysis may have some superficial attractions. I do not believe it is a proposition that would be accepted by the vast majority of people. The fact is that as long as you attempt to control the distribution of drugs – in other words that they are not freely available to anyone who wants them – an illicit market will exist with all its attendant criminality. Decriminalisation would be a recipe for vastly increased dependency on drugs, and the harm that would be done by going down that road would far exceed any benefits that might be gained from it. It would be a nonsense too to think Ireland could take such a step while drugs remained controlled in other jurisdictions. People who make the argument for decriminalisation rarely seem to carry its logic to its conclusion and say that if people stopped using illicit drugs then the crime associated with supply would disappear too.
There are real issues which we as a society have to address about demand for illicit drugs. It is a cruel irony that while the use of what would be regarded as hard drugs was once confined to areas of deprivation, there is evidence now that in many cases the use of hard drugs is the product of affluence.
The value of human life has been set at nought by members of the gangs at the centre of this pernicious trade. We have seen a spate of savage killings. Sometimes they happen because of rows that take place related to the drugs trade. Other times, the killings relate to feuds. Anyone who has any doubt about the dangers of illicit drugs and the corrosive effect they have on society just has to take a look at the savagery with which often ‘coked up’ young men take each others’ lives.
There is no point in underestimating the difficulties which the Gardaí face in trying to bring these killings to an end. They have launched – and will continue to undertake – countless operations aimed at saving the lives of those involved. They get absolutely no help from the people they are trying to protect, and when killings take place, they get no co-operation either. In my view to condemn these killings as in some way a failure on the part of the Gardaí - or, indeed, the Government - flies in the face of the harsh realities involved.
It is no consolation that the vast majority of these killings take place among members of criminal gangs. To take that view would be to share their disregard of human life. Tragically, it has been the case that their activities too have spilled over into the law-abiding community.
The truth is that the fight against the activities of these gangs is going to be long and has to be relentless. I am satisfied that the Gardaí have the resources – and are using them – to take all reasonable steps which are open to them to counteract this deadly menace.
They now have the benefit too of the Criminal Justice Act which was enacted by the last Dáil. Of their nature the effect of those provisions will take some time to fully work through.
I would say to members of those gangs who fear for their lives that they should break out of the vicious circle they find themselves in and talk to the Gardaí. I have told the Garda Commissioner that there is no limit to the funding that will be available under the Witness Protection Programme.
It is simply not possible in a democratic state to take the type of measures which would absolutely guarantee that shootings of this kind will not take place. To resort to those measures would be to hand a perverse victory to the members of the gangs involved. To pretend otherwise is no help to anyone. As Minister I will promise this: no resource or effort will be spared within the full rigours of the law to bring everyone involved in these activities to justice.
To return to the criminal justice system generally, it is hardly rocket science to say that the key to the effective operation of the agencies in the criminal justice system is that they be properly resourced and effectively managed. It is not special pleading on my part to say that that is what has been happening in recent years and what I hope to continue.
It is, of course, the case that it is not simply financial resources that are at issue. We have to ensure that all the agencies have the resource of a proper legal framework in which they operate. There is no doubt that recent years – indeed, decades – have seen a vast amount of criminal law reform. Of course, the criminal law has to be a living thing and has to take into account the constantly evolving nature of our society. But I am conscious of what Justice William Rehnquist said once about a judgement of his colleagues: ‘The court’s opinion will accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of leaving this area of the law more confused than it found it’. It is perhaps a danger that in the parallel sphere of the legislature ministers should have regard to.
That said, I will be bringing forward a series of legislative measures in the sphere of the criminal law. My priorities include Bills dealing with forensic evidence and people trafficking. I also regard the work of the Balance in the Criminal Law Group, chaired by Dr. Gerard Hogan, as a sound basis for taking forward the complex issues which they were asked to examine.
I have not tried this afternoon to take you line by line through the various commitments set out in the Programme for Government but to mention just some of the issues we face. There is a wide range of other no less important issues such as the area of imprisonment and rehabilitation, developments at European level and so on.
Perhaps too in relation to some other issues I have been conscious of H.L. Menken’s advice that ‘in skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed’.
Of course, I am deeply honoured to have been appointed as Minister for Justice. I do not underestimate the challenges which the job holds for anyone. Already I feel a bit like Henry Kissinger when he said that ‘there cannot be a crisis next week; my schedule is already full’.
My ambition as Justice Minister is as simple to set out as it is daunting to achieve: I want, in partnership with the people I serve, to help make Ireland a fairer, safer place.