Adjournment Debate. - Street Violence.

Mr. Coveney

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea for being here although I am disappointed that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform cannot be here. This is not the first time I have raised the issue of street violence with the Minister and I regret to say I do not think it will be the last time.

Street violence and safety on our streets, at night time in particular, is of major concern to young people and to their parents. It has recently become a real concern to the gardaí, whose job it is to police our streets. Last weekend again saw vicious attacks in Cork and Dublin, with people being stabbed, slashed with broken bottles, punched and kicked. This was just another normal weekend in Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Galway.

I find it frustrating, as a public representative and legislator, that there seems to has been no improvement in safety on our streets in the three years I have been in this House, despite the Minister's talk of getting tough on street violence and the introduction of encouraging plans such as Operation Oíche and others. Last May, at the conference of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, the Garda commissioner himself admitted that the present policing measures are not having an impact on the level of public disorder and street violence. The person who has responsibility for policing is himself expressing real concerns and frustrations. This concern was backed up by the GRA at its recent conference when a clear frustration was evident at the level of street violence and public disorder, and the safety concerns of the gardaí themselves was stressed.

The Minister must take tough action and start by meeting the Garda Commissioner to devise new and more effective ways of policing our streets at night time and at weekends. There has been an increase in Garda visibility on the beat but this needs to increase further. When gardaí are present in numbers trouble does not seem to occur. The recent Cork jazz festival in my own city was a good example of this. There was a significant increase in Garda presence for that weekend and it was more or less trouble free.

I would also like to see the Minister address the issue of equipping the gardaí for night time duty on the beat. It is totally unacceptable that any member of our police force, male or female, should face the risk of being beaten up while on duty at night time. We should be looking at police forces across Europe and at how they are equipped to deal with violence at night time. We should not go so far as arming our police with guns but we should consider equipment such as extendable batons, stun guns and stab-proof vests. All of these options should be discussed by the Department and the Garda Commissioner.

I would like the Minister to report on the effect of the introduction of CCTV cameras throughout the country and on whether it has led to a decrease in street crime in the 14 areas where they are in use. Has this helped surveillance and policing generally?

The total solution does not lie with improved policing. Measures to tackle under-age drinking, which in Ireland is the worst in Europe although the Government has done nothing about it, to improve the courts system to have person's causing public disorder before a judge quickly and to decrease the general level of alcohol and drug use would all be major contributing factors to reducing the level of street crime.

However, improved policing is a good place to start if we want immediate results. We must improve dramatically the numbers on the beat and increase the Garda presence in our towns and cities, we must improve Garda equipment, for their own safety and the safety of the public and we must put aids, such as CCTV, in place in trouble spots in towns and cities.

In a civilised, modern democracy like Ireland people should not be in fear of being attacked when they go out for an evening. I recently spent five days in Manhattan and I found one could walk anywhere in the centre of New York city without fear of being attacked or harrassed at night time. That is because of tough policies introduced by the Mayor of New York in the last five or six years. If they can do it in New York, surely we can do it in cities like Cork, Dublin, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.

The present situation of fear among young people on our streets and among their parents who wait for them to come home from pubs and night clubs is unacceptable. It is time our, so called, zero tolerance Minister did something about it.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who cannot be here this evening, and for the benefit of the House, I am pleased to respond to the matters raised by the Deputy.

Deputies will be aware that since the Government took office there has been an unprecedented decrease in the level of serious crime, as represented in the figures for indictable offences. Indictable crime has fallen by over 23%, a situation which could not have been imagined just a few years ago. While serious and organised crime has been tackled with a large measure of success, the Minister is also concerned that we tackle those offences that are traditionally categorised as less serious, non-indictable offences. These include the type of offences referred to by Deputy Coveney and are, unfortunately, generally associated with young people. The Minister is all too well aware of the real problems they can cause in our towns and cities, especially late at night.

That is why one of his priorities has been a major crackdown on this type of crime. We can have no tolerance for the criminal activities of those who show no respect for other members of the community. Primarily, this has involved increased targeted activities by members of the Garda Síochána. These problems have been addressed by the Minister and the Garda commissioner with a number of initiatives which are designed to prevent crime and to reduce the fear of crime.

A national public order initiative, Operation Oíche, has been in operation by the Garda Síochána since October 2000. This operation focuses on the areas of public disorder, public intoxication, under-age drinking, illicit drug use and under-age alcohol sales. Locations and recurring incidents receive particular Garda attention with the emphasis on high visibility patrolling. Special resource units and unmarked crime task force units are also utilised to the full. Key urban locations have been selected for intensive patrolling, involving the Garda mounted unit, the Garda dog unit and the Garda air support unit.

Up to the beginning of October this year, 50,984 offences, mainly of a non-violent nature, were detected by the Garda Síochána under various provisions of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act, 1998 and the Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1988, as amended. The bulk of this figure comprises 22,382 detections for intoxication in a public place; 15,011 detections for threatening, abusive and insulting behaviour; 6,231 detections for failure to comply with a Garda direction; and 5,594 detections for disorderly conduct.

In considering statistics in relation to public order offences, increased activity by the gardaí has a bearing in relation to the number of offences recorded. The nature of some of these offences, such as intoxication in a public place, is such that they would be unlikely to be recorded unless detected by the gardaí. Thus, the number of detections by the gardaí constitutes a significant success on their part in responding to public concern about personal safety and security through targeted policing measures at specific hot spots of disorder. The Garda authorities consider the operation to have been highly successful to date. Since its introduction there has been a more visible Garda presence on the streets, particularly at the closing times of licensed premises and night clubs. In this regard the Garda Síochána continues to visit licensed premises to impress an even greater awareness on the licensees of their responsibilities.

The Minister is further informed by the Garda authorities that the Garda Commissioner and his senior officers have prioritised implementation of the recommendations of the Garda youth policy advisory group report for inclusion in the Garda policing plans for 2002 and beyond. In addition, the Minister's Department, in conjunction with other State agencies, is considering the recommendations of the report, which contains two recommendations relating specifically to matters within his functional remit, namely, the use of mobile CCTV units and the proof of age scheme. In the former case, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is processing a request, received from the Garda authorities, for the purchase of a mobile CCTV unit.

Garda CCTV schemes are currently operating in central Dublin and Tralee. A system is currently being installed in Cork city and I understand that a number of the cameras are now fully operational. As part of the first tranche of the expansion programme announced last year, CCTV systems are to be installed in a number of towns and cities.

With regard to the other scheme, over 40,000 cards were issued up to the start of October. While the Minister is confident that the age card scheme will assist greatly those operating in the licensed trade and those who run pubs and restaurants, a formal review of the scheme is being conducted. The Intoxicating Liquor Act, 2000, imposes a strict liability on publicans concerning the sale of alcohol to under-age persons, with severe penalties for those who break the law. To date, 49 convictions have been recorded.

Dealing with under-age drinking should not be seen as the province of State agencies alone. Others are also involved. The Minister is determined to tackle this problem and has the full support of the Garda in this regard. Significant actions have been taken and if further measures are required the Minister will not hesitate to take them.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 14 November 2001.