Other Questions. - Offences Against the State Acts.

Willie Penrose

Question:

34 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform when he will receive the report of the review group examining the Offences Against the State Acts, 1939 to 1998; if the Government is considering the establishment of a second Special Criminal Court; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24315/99]

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Question:

40 Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform when the committee to review the Offences Against the State Acts, 1939 to 1998, and related matters will report; and the public consultations, if any, which will be undertaken in the review of these Acts. [24335/99]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 34 and 40 together.

The agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations in Belfast on 10 April 1998 included a commitment on the part of the Government to initiate a wide-ranging review of the Offences Against the State Acts with a view to both reform and dispensing with those elements no longer required as circumstances permit. Arising out of that commitment, I obtained Government authorisation to establish a committee to carry out such a review under the chairmanship of former Supreme Court Judge, Mr. Anthony Hederman. The committee also includes a number of independent legal experts as well as representatives from interested Departments, offices and agencies.

The terms of reference of the committee provide that it will examine all aspects of the Offences Against the State Acts, 1939 to 1998, taking into account the view of the participants to the multi-party negotiations that the development of a peaceful environment on the basis of the Agreement can and should mean a normalisation of security arrangements and practices; the threat posed by international terrorism and organised crime; and Ireland's obligations under international law. The committee is to report to me as soon as practicable with recommendations for reform.

The work of the committee is still ongoing. Deputies will appreciate that the terms of reference are very broad, requiring the committee to examine all legislation related to offences against the State over a period of 60 years and to consider how legislation might best respond to current threats from various sources while also bearing in mind our obligations under international law. Covering such an important issue is a heavy workload for the committee and it would be both unfair and unwise to impose any deadline on it for completion of its report. Suffice to say that the terms of reference ask it to report as soon as practicable. I am, therefore, unable to give a precise date for completion of its report.

On the matter of the Special Criminal Court, any decision to establish a second or additional number of such courts is a matter for the Government and I could not say in response to a parliamentary question what action the Government might decide to take on a particular matter. The workload of the court is under continuous review in my Department.

Deputy Ó Caoláin asks about public consultations undertaken as part of the review. While this is a matter for the committee to decide, I understand that newspaper advertisements were placed in the newspapers, North and South, on 23 July inviting written submissions from interested individuals or groups before 30 September. For obvious reasons, I am unable to say at this stage, in advance of receiving the committee's report, what the response was to this invitation.

Does the Minister acknowledge that in the Good Friday Agreement the Irish Government undertakes "to further strengthen the protection of human rights in its jurisdiction" and to initiate a widespread review of the Offences Against the State Acts, 1939 to—

It is not in order to quote. The Deputy should put his question to the Minister.

Does the Minister acknowledge the Government's position in the context of the Agreement? Does he agree that the review should not be confined to the deliberations of the committee but that it should be a widespread review with public consultation and debate, inside and outside the Oireachtas, taking into account all the arguments, including the argument for repeal of the Acts? I acknowledge the Minister's point about the advertisements in newspapers, North and South. However, it is my understanding that the responses elicited have not been of the order they might be—

The Deputy's minute is concluded.

What steps will the Minister take to ensure a widespread review and will he consider public hearings throughout the country on this important review?

I acknowledge the Government's commitment under the Good Friday Agreement. However, the review of the Offences Against the State Acts covers all legislation since 1939. It is, therefore, comprehensive in its work and terms of reference. All legislation is to be reviewed, including, for example, the 1998 Act which was introduced by me in response to the bombing in Omagh.

With regard to public consultations, the review is not like the Patten Commission. This is a review of legislation and it was believed that advertisements inviting submissions from the public would be sufficient to obtain the views of interested parties. It is a matter for the committee to work out a modus operandi based on its assessment of the best way to obtain people's views. I am not involved in this respect. The committee placed advertisements in newspapers, North and South, seeking submissions from individuals, groups and so forth. I am certain that interested parties, including the Deputy, will avail of the opportunity to make their submissions.

Will the Minister agree that it is inappropriate for the Government to decide to open a Special Criminal Court until the full review he commissioned is available? Will he also agree that the Special Criminal Court is the centrepiece of cases taken on foot of the Offences Against the State Act? Does he believe it is the right of Deputies to question Government policy in this House and that if a decision is given to the security correspondent of the Irish Independent, such as that reported in the papers on 11 November, that information should also be given to Members of this House?

I have always acknowledged that it is the right of Deputies to ask questions in this House on policy.

It is also their right to get answers.

Yes. That is why I will try to facilitate the Deputy in so far as I can.

There has been a considerable amount of criticism of the Special Criminal Court over the years, but much of that criticism was uninformed. While the court was originally used for the trial of subversive related offences, the courts have recognised that trials before it were not confined to those associated with subversive activity, but the question of which cases may be prosecuted by the Special Criminal Court is a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions.

At present, the future of the Special Criminal Court is being considered in the context of an examination of the offences against the State legislation. The Government has not made a decision to have a second Special Criminal Court. It might decide to have a second Special Criminal Court, but it must be recognised that such a decision would merely mean the court would hear two cases at the one time. In other words, it deals with the realities on the ground rather than being geared towards a major crackdown. The Special Criminal Court sometimes hears cases related to organised crime on the basis that the ordinary courts are not effective in securing the administration of justice in such offences. The debate on this matter should not only concentrate on the offences against the State legislation but should recognise that the Special Criminal Court has been used to deal with other types of offences in the past.

Does the Minister accept that the nature of the Special Criminal Court is exceptional and should not be prolonged beyond its absolute essential timeframe? Will he accept that in the height of the threat against the foundations of this State, one Special Criminal Court sufficed and this is hardly the time to consider having a second one?

The Government has not made a decision on this. The Special Criminal Court decides to hear cases where it considers the effective administration of justice cannot be secured through the ordinary courts. That would be an exceptional decision for the court to take, but it has been deemed to be necessary in cases not dealing with subversives.

So the report on this is negative?

A decision has not been taken on it.

I wish to ask the Minister about the concluding point of my earlier questioning. I urge him to consider exploring the possiblity and potential of a public hearing mechanism to be employed by the review body of the Offences Against the State Acts from 1939 up to 1998. Will he indicate to me and to the House that he will explore this course of action, which I believe, from the information I have, would be a very useful and important step to take?

I am sure the Deputy will understand the difficulty is that the committee is deciding on its own modus operandi. It is chaired by a very experienced former judge of the Supreme Court, Mr. Anthony Hederman, who knows precisely what he is doing. It has sought written submissions and, if people have submissions to make, they can make them adequately in writing. On the question posed by the Deputy, I advise him to take that matter up with the chairperson of the committee.

I call Questions Nos. 35 and 47. I point out for the benefit of Members that as they come under the heading Other Questions the time allowed for them is 12 minutes.