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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 May 2001

Vol. 536 No. 6

Priority Questions. - Organised Crime.

Alan Shatter


55 Mr. Shatter asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the steps being taken to tackle organised crime and bring the gangs responsible for organised crime in the State before the courts. [15094/01]

The policies I have implemented since I became Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform have resulted in a major crackdown on organised crime. Strong legislation specifically designed to target organised crime has been introduced, backed up by tough law enforcement measures. I have, for example, put in place the Criminal Justice Act, 1999, which provides for a minimum mandatory ten year prison sentence for persons convicted of dealing in drugs with a value of £10,000 or more. The Act has also introduced a range of new measures designed to prevent the intimidation of witnesses, jurors, those assisting the Garda in the investigation of an offence and their families, and provides for a maximum ten year sentence for such offences.

The Proceeds of Crime Act, 1996, which I introduced when in opposition, has been successfully utilised by the Criminal Assets Bureau to deprive those involved in criminal activity from enjoying the benefits of their ill gotten gains. This legislation and the operations of the Criminal Assets Bureau have received much praise both at home and abroad.

On the law enforcement side, specialised Garda units such as the Criminal Assets Bureau, the Garda national drugs unit, the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation and the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation have been established to tackle organised crime, seize assets of organised criminals and bring them before the courts. The successes of these units are well documented and it would be useful to refer briefly to them at this point. Since its statutory inception in October 1996 and up to 31 December 2000 the bureau has obtained section 2 interim orders on property to a total value of over £8 million and section 3 interlocutory orders on property to a total value of over £7 million under the Proceeds of Crime Act, 1996. During the same period the bureau demanded over £37 million in the payment of tax and interest from persons suspected of involvement in criminal activity and social welfare determinations and savings amounted to over £1.6 million.

From 1998 to 2000, seizures of illicit drugs amounted to an estimated street value of over £132 million and the money laundering investigation unit of the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation received almost 4,500 suspicious transaction reports with a value of over £590 million. In addition, special measures such as the witness security programme have been developed to prevent criminals from intimidating those who assist the authorities in bringing criminals to justice and has been used successfully to date in organised crime investigations.

Additional InformationOne of the difficulties facing all law enforcement agencies in their fight against organised crime is the fact that these criminal organisations are now operating at an international level and flexible enough in their operations to take advantage of any new opportunities that may arise. Accordingly, the response to organised crime must be an international one. Ireland participates fully in the fight against organised crime at both EU level and beyond. At EU level a range of measures from the 1997 EU action plan on organised crime have been agreed, with the intention of improving co-operation between national law enforcement agencies in order to tackle international organised criminal groups more effectively. Following on from this action plan a new EU strategy for the prevention and control of organised crime for the beginning of the new millennium has been adopted.

International agencies such as Europol and Interpol have an important role to play in dealing with international organised crime and the Garda is in regular contact with these agencies through the Garda liaison officers posted to Europol and Interpol headquarters. In December 2000, I signed, subject to ratification, on behalf of Ireland the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and two protocols to the convention – the protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children, and the protocol against smuggling of migrants by land, air and sea.

The legislative and law enforcement measures introduced have been recognised as a major step forward in the fight against organised crime in Ireland and resulted in the dismantling of major organised crime gangs and the imprisonment of a number of significant criminals. Our legislation is among the most effective in Europe when it comes to combating organised crime, a fact well recognised by our EU partners. That is not to say, however, that there is any complacency on my behalf. In this context, I am constantly evaluating our response to organised crime and whatever steps are necessary will be taken to deal with the situation.

Is the Minister aware of reports that since some of the gangs that existed in the mid-1990s were broken up, there are now 12 major gangs dominating drug and other serious crime in the State? Can he indicate what steps are being taken to target these gangs? When will action be taken to bring an end to their activities? Will the Minister explain the reason these gangs are not getting the same intensive Garda treatment the other gangs, some of whose leaders are serving terms of imprisonment while others have fled the country and are living outside the jurisdiction, received?

I am informed by the Garda authorities that the number of organised criminal groups is determined each year by using the European Union definition of organised crime in connection with the compilation of the EU situation report on organised crime. The most recently completed situation report identified 12 Irish organised crime groups and 68 other less significant organised crime groups.

It is untrue to suggest that these criminal groups are allowed to operate as if there was no police force or law enforcement agency in the State. The legislation introduced since the Proceeds of Crime Act, 1996 through to the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act and the Criminal Justice Act, 1999 contains some of the toughest measures ever introduced in a democracy to crack down on criminal elements. I have outlined the success of the Criminal Asset Bureau. Unquestionably, the people concerned who believed they were untouchable in the past now know they run a high risk of losing their illicit assets. They also run a high risk of being imprisoned for a long period, if convicted by the court.

It is also the case that since we created an additional 1,300 prison spaces and are well on the way to increasing it to 2,000, an increase of almost 100% since the Government came into office, those sentenced by the courts serve their sentences. This is of considerable importance because the fact that people were being released on the sole criterion that there was insufficient space for them in prison was leading to disrespect for the criminal law. I am satisfied that the Garda Síochána and the various units of that organisation concerned with organised crime are doing everything they can to enforce some of the toughest laws in Europe.

Will the Minister agree that to claim success in circumstances where an objective assessment identifies 12 new gangs, primarily involved in drugs, and another 60 minor gangs is a false claim? Will the Minister indicate what special steps are being taken to target these gangs? Does he agree they should be targeted? Does he agree it is contrary to the public interest that such gangs would be allowed to continue to engage in their current activities and will he explain why he failed to address this issue?

The time for this question has expired. I will allow the Minister to make a brief reply.

I certainly did address the issue but it appears Deputy Shatter did not listen to me.

The Minister told us about legislation; he did not say what steps are being taken to address this problem.

The crime rate has fallen by approximately 25% since the Government took office. Some 102,000 serious crimes were committed in the State in 1995 during the term of office of the rainbow coalition.

Serious crime levels have increased.

These gangs have increased on the Minister's watch.