I am disappointed that the Minister for Justice is not in the House to hear this part of the contribution to the debate. I say this because what I intended saying would have been very relevant to the Minister's presence. I intended appealing to the new Minister to use his good offices in improving the relationship between his Department and the Garda and also between himself and the Prison Officers Association. Without going into the implication, political or otherwise, of my plea, I put it to the Minister that it is very much in the national interest that in both instances relations are improved. Both the Garda and the prison officers carry out an exacting, dangerous and demanding job on behalf of the people. We cannot afford the waste of time and energy that is resulting from the impasse between the Minister's office and these two vital areas of law enforcement. Because of this new portfolio, the Minister has an excellent opportunity of taking the initiative in this area. I am confident that there is a wish on the part of the prison Garda and on the part of the prison officers also to have this undesirable impasse brought to an end. This cold war has gone on for far too long.
I am sure the Minister will agree that legislating in a vacuum and in the absence of dialogue and discussion as well as of goodwill, particularly in this sensitive area, can lead only to a weakening and a deterioration in an area of public administration which more than ever needs to be strengthened. We in Fianna Fáil do not regard this area in any way as one for political point scoring. The Minister can be assured of our assistance in bringing forward legislation which strengthens the law in this area following the full implementation of the Criminal Justice Act and which will also protect fully the public interest and the rights of the Garda. We must strike the right balance between protecting the public interest and the rights of individual gardaí who operate on our behalf.
The publication of this Bill, taken in conjunction with the Criminal Justice Act, has generated a considerable amount of interest and has resulted in a number of submissions from the representatives of the Garda associations and other interested bodies. This is a welcome development but it was to be expected. We on this side have given serious thought and consideration to the views that have been expressed to us in relation to this area. To the extent that the public do not have the same organised facility for the expression of views as we have, it is important that in this House we exercise our judgment and our interpretation of the public interest in this very important area. I trust that the end product will be an Act which will provide sufficient power for our Garda to enable them to perform their duty freely and unrestricted while at the same time containing adequate safeguards for our citizens.
It should be restated that for the first time since the foundation of the State we have on the Statute Book an Act which empowers the Garda to arrest any citizen on suspicion and to detain him for questioning for up to 20 hours. That is a significant departure from the legislation under which the Garda had to operate up to now. Because of the serious level of crime, we gave the Minister our full support for that far-reaching provision. We gave that support because we considered it necessary, particularly in view of the serious deterioration in law and order in recent years, the challenges facing the Garda force and the individual members of that force who place even their lives at risk in enforcing the laws which have been enacted in this House on behalf of the people.
I have no doubt that the provision of the Criminal Justice Act will be administered by the Garda force in a caring and professional manner. Nonetheless, we felt at the time — and it is still our view — that in the light of these new provisions the rights of the citizens need to be protected in legislation. We regret that the much needed provisions of the Criminal Justice Act have been delayed unnecessarily for a period of over two years pending publication of this Bill. If we in this House are as concerned as we say we are about the need to control violence and escalating crime, if there was the urgency for bringing into the House the Criminal Justice Bill, which certainly was the case at the time, it does not make any sense that the provisions of that Bill have not yet been implemented.
They were debated at length in this House over many months and contributed to in a significant way by Members from this side of the House, particularly our spokesman, Deputy Woods, and resulted in the tabling and acceptance by the Minister of amendments which totally altered the structure of the Bill as it was originally circulated. One of those amendments made provisions for the Bill which we are debating today. It was accepted at that time that there was an urgency and public demand — and even a demand from within the Garda force — that the new provisions of the Criminal Justice Act be implemented without delay. Yet we find over two years later that we are debating one of the provisions accepted on amendment on Committee Stage from speakers on this side of the House.
It is also a matter of growing concern that the Minister has not brought before the House a Bill which is also necessary for the full implementation of the Criminal Justice Act. That Bill is for the protection of persons in custody. We are no nearer now, two years after the introduction of the Criminal Justice Bill, to its full implementation. I do not want to make a political comment, but it is an established fact that the life span of this Government must of necessity be running out. They are into their fourth year and, even if they go the full term of five years, it is difficult to see how they will be able to implement every aspect of the Criminal Justice Act unless the two remaining requirements of that Act are treated with some degree of urgency.
We are anxious to dispose of this Bill as quickly as possible and are anxious to assist the Minister in any way we can in that regard. I must ask him, through his Minister of State, when it is intended to bring before the House the additional legislation for the protection of those in custody. Until such time as these two provisions are debated, agreed on and eventually incorporated into legislation, the gardaí will not have the advantages which we told them they would have following the acceptance of the Criminal Justice Bill and the Criminal Justice Act which followed it. This is a serious situation. I do not want to repeat myself, but we all realise now that the position is very serious with regard to the steady deterioration in law and order. I shall make a few general comments on that topic later.
It is a shame that in their fourth year in office the Government have failed to introduce the supporting legislation needed for the full implementation of the Criminal Justice Act. This has led to frustration and uncertainty in the Garda force. In debating the Garda Síochána (Complaints) Bill we are dealing with only part of the overall problem now facing our Garda force. It is true to say that individual members of the force operating on our behalf do not know exactly where they stand and what new regulations will govern their behaviour as individual members of the Garda Síochána. The sooner we legislate finally and put on the Statute Book the exact requirements of this House with regard to Garda performance, the sooner we shall have a estabilised Garda force and the restoration of harmony within that force, and the faster we shall get the fullest implementation of the law.
It is not right or fair that so much of the thinking and time of our gardaí must be taken in wondering what we in this House will do in relation to this Bill and ever promised legislation and where they will stand when it is implemented. There is, indeed an urgency about legislating in this area and I hope that immediately after the passing of this provision the Minister will bring before the House the remaining provision for the protection of people in custody.
The new Minister comes into this office with a certain advantage. There is always the danger when a Minister has been in office for a considerable period of time, as his predecessor was, that one can become entrenched in one's views and become a prisoner of one's actions. A change of portfolio provides an opportunity for a new approach. I am a little disappointed that the Minister for Justice, Deputy Dukes, is not in the House today to hear what I say. I know that the Minister of State deputising for him will convey my views to him and we want to reassure the Minister that we are as concerned as he is about the need to tighten up and introduce this new legislation. I am sure he knows that the gardaí are equally anxious. The new Minister is a placid gentleman and should be in a position to reintroduce the dialogue necessary to create the goodwill which is essential in this very sensitive area. Legislating in a vacuum without the backing, support, understanding and goodwill of those for whom we are legislating could not work successfully.
I ask the Minister to initiate immediately a programme of action for the upgrading and improving of the performance and working conditions of the Garda Síochána, to bring the entire Garda force into line with the improvements and upgrading of the forces which have taken place in other countries. At present our Garda, apart from having to deal with localised crime, are faced with the ever more serious challenge of international crime. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the force are kept fully updated in terms of training and the most modern techniques which are available to police forces around the world.
Discipline within the force is no substitute for management. If we are serious about the organisation and management of the force, the first step must be the establishment of a Garda Authority. A lot has been said and written and many views have been expressed in this House in relation to the overall structure of the Garda and there are conflicting views in relation to the establishment of a Garda Authority. The establishment of such an authority would put the Garda on a new level and give them the independence they desire and which would assist them. When the Minister is replying I should like him to comment on this matter and to tell us if he is thinking of establishing an independent Garda Authority and if it is his intention to bring in legislation in this regard in the near future.
It is a pity that we deal with legislation in such a fragmented way in this House. In my contributions on the Bill dealing with the reorganisation of the courts I made the point that there is far too much fragmentation of the various Acts with which people must comply. In the area covering the performance of the Garda Síochána I hope the Minister will lose no time in bringing provisions before the House which will, once and for all, consolidate the legislation under which the Garda operate and clarify the role of the force in the future, the need for an independent Garda Authority and all the other matters relating to this aspect of the performance of the force.
We must legislate for the protection of the public while, at the same time, protecting the rights and working conditions of members of the Garda Síochána. It is a difficult task, but it can be resolved to the satisfaction of both by reasoned and fair debate. I interpret the mood of the public at present in relation to the Bill as wanting and expecting us to give all the powers to the Garda which they need to enable them to perform their duties in a free and unrestricted way while at the same time — this is where it becomes difficult for us as legislators — endeavouring to protect the public interest arising from the strengthening of the legislation and the increased powers which we are giving to the Garda in the Criminal Justice Act. In the very disturbing social and economic climate at present this is not an unreasonable expectation on the part of the public. All that the Garda ask is that in performing that difficult task that they should be given the same degree of protection and privilege as other sections of the community and, as one garda put it to me, the same rights and protection which the criminals are given under legislation also enacted in this House. That is a fair, reasoned and understandable request.
The Garda should feel safe and confident in the knowledge that this House will legislate fairly on their behalf. The House and the Garda generally will accept that the full implementation of all aspects of the Criminal Justice Act will provide the force with substantially increased powers. I indicated earlier what these powers were, but I am sure Deputies will accept that the provision for arrest and detention without being charged for up to 20 hours is a far reaching one and was not conceded lightly in the House. Because it is far reaching, the House will accept — and I know the Garda will accept — the need to protect the public interest and also the need to protect those arrested and detained.
It is also worthy of note that the Minister's predecessor, who was critical and slow to accept the principle of an independent tribunal, has gone overboard in terms of the sanctions which he proposes in the Bill as circulated. In the debate on the Criminal Justice Act, Members on this side of the House, particularly our spokesman, Deputy Woods, spent many tedious hours trying to convince the Minister that, following the far reaching provisions of the Criminal Justice Act, there was a need in the public interest and that of the Garda Síochána for the setting up and establishment of an independent complaints tribunal. The public would be happy in the knowledge that there was a procedure on the Statute Book through which they could make their views known in relation to behaviour which was not in accordance with the normal accepted standards of Garda performance.
Members of the Garda Síochána would be equally happy to know that there was provision for a fair and independent examination of allegations which might be made against individual gardaí. That is why, despite the very lengthy, tedious arguments put forward on this side of the House, the Minister at that time was reluctant to accept the need for the principle of an independent tribunal. Yet, for whatever reason, by the time he got around to circulating this Bill, he had made provision for sanctions which far exceeded anything put forward by Members who spoke during the debate.
The Minister's action in this area fully vindicates the judgment and the foresight of Fianna Fáil on the need for the establishment of such a tribunal. It is obvious that, following the debate on the Criminal Justice Bill and the reasoned arguments put forward in the House, the Minister decided that such a tribunal was essential. What surprises all of us is that, despite his initial resistance during the debate, he has now circulated in this Bill provisions which are extreme and are viewed as being so by individual gardaí. I regret to say that this change by the Minister in relation to the Bill circulated and the establishment of a complaints tribunal reflect an over-reaction on the part of the Minister to a series of unforgiveable events within the Garda Síochána which have been condemned not only in this House but also within the force itself.
I do not have to spell out for the House the series of rather tragic events which took place within a very short period of time within the Garda. These actions were immediately condemned as being unacceptable by the representatives of the various Garda associations and by the Commissioner. It is sometimes forgotten that before this Bill came before the House there were in operation very strict disciplinary procedures within the Garda for dealing with any kind of misbehaviour by individual members of the force. It is sad and tragic for the force that these events took place because they have tended unfairly to mar and tarnish the image of the force in the public mind. All these matters have been dealt with within the existing disciplinary procedures in the Garda.