That Dáil Éireann resolves that sections 2 to 12, 14 and 17 of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 (No. 39 of 1998), shall continue in operation for the period of 12 months beginning on 30th June, 2004.
The resolution before the House seeks approval for the continuance in force of those sections of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 which would otherwise cease to be in operation on 30 June 2004.
In commencing the debate on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, it is worth recalling the circumstances in which the 1998 Act was enacted. In August 1998, the Omagh bomb brutally snuffed out the lives of 29 innocent people and injured more than 200 others. That terrible atrocity has reverberated throughout the island of Ireland ever since, and rightly so.
There was a determination then, as now, that those responsible for that mass murder would not succeed in subverting the democratically expressed will of the people that the Northern conflict should be resolved only by peaceful means and on the basis of consent. To date, one person has been convicted in this jurisdiction on a charge related to the Omagh bomb and another person has recently been charged in Northern Ireland.
On both sides of the Border, the investigation is continuing with excellent co-operation between the Garda authorities and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. It has been stated before but is worth reiterating that the Garda Síochána will never cease in the search for those responsible.
It will also be recalled that in recognition of the circumstances surrounding the enactment of the provisions of the 1998 Act, there was general agreement that it should be regularly revisited by the Oireachtas. The purpose of this recurring Oireachtas scrutiny is to determine if the circumstances prevailing in 1998 justify the continuance in force of the Act's provisions or whether there has been a change in circumstances sufficient to convince the Oireachtas that the provisions are no longer needed.
Accordingly, under section 18 of the Act as amended by section 37 of the Criminal Justice Act 1999 and by virtue of resolutions passed most recently by both Houses of the Oireachtas on 25 and 26 June 2003, sections 2 to 12, inclusive, and 14 and 17, will cease to operate on and from 30 June 2004 unless a further resolution is passed by each House authorising the sections to continue to operate for a period not exceeding 12 months.
In addition, there is a requirement in the 1998 Act for my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to lay a report on the operation of the Act before each House of the Oireachtas prior to any consideration by the Houses of the renewal of the provisions. Such a report was laid before this House yesterday.
The conclusion of that report, which is also the view of the Garda authorities, is that the renewal of the provisions for a further year is necessary. The regrettable reality is that those responsible for the Omagh bomb continue to pursue and plan a campaign of violence and there is no substantive change in the circumstances which led to the enactment of the 1998 Act. In this regard, the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA continue their calculated repudiation of the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Ireland, North and South, for peace in the form of the Good Friday Agreement. These paramilitary groups arrogate to themselves the right to kill and maim in the name of a people and a nation who have repeatedly rejected their path of violence.
Let us not forget that these groups seek to plan and execute terrorist attacks, small and large. The House may recall that in June last year, two enormous improvised explosive devices were intercepted, one by the Garda Síochána in County Louth and the other by the PSNI in Derry. Both had the potential to be two more Omagh bombings and it was only by dint of excellent police work that further tragedy on a massive scale was averted.
Before turning to the individual sections of the Act, I will outline the current position on the report of the committee to review the Offences Against the State Acts 1939 to 1998, which was published in August 2002. The report is extensive and deals with complex issues of law and policy. It involves important considerations concerning the balance to be struck between national and international security on the one hand and civil liberties and individual rights on the other. Those recommendations in the report of direct relevance to the purpose and scope of the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Bill 2002 were considered in the context of the preparation of that legislation. The Bill, which awaits Committee Stage, will accordingly give effect to a limited number of recommendations to that end. A fuller consideration of the recommendations of the committee will be finalised once this Bill has been enacted, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will then bring further proposals to the Government.
I will deal with the sections of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 which the House is being asked to continue in force for a further 12 months. I will briefly outline their purpose and indicate to the House how they have been utilised in the past 12 months. Dealing with those sections of the 1998 Act that were utilised since the end of the last reporting period, from 1 June 2003 to 31 May 2004, the following is the case.
Section 2 was utilised on 29 occasions, with one person charged and convicted in the reporting period. In addition, six persons were convicted during the period under report, having been charged prior to that period in cases where this section was utilised. By way of explanation, section 2 provides that where, in any proceedings against a person for membership of an unlawful organisation, evidence is given that the accused failed to answer or gave false or misleading answers to any question material to the investigation, the court may draw such inferences from that failure or from the furnishing of a false or misleading reply as appear proper. However, a person cannot be convicted of the offence solely on an inference drawn from such a failure.
Section 5 was utilised on 16 occasions. By way of explanation, the section provides for the drawing of adverse inferences in the prosecution of a person for any offence under the Offences Against the State Acts, any offence scheduled under the Acts and any offence arising out of the same set of facts as such an offence, provided that the offence carries a penalty of five years' imprisonment or more. The effect of this section is to allow a court to draw inferences where the accused relies on a fact in his defence that he could reasonably have been expected to mention during questioning or on being charged but did not do so. As with section 2, however, a person carrot be convicted of the offence solely on an inference drawn from such a failure.
Section 7 was utilised on 12 occasions. This section makes it an offence to possess articles in circumstances giving rise to a reasonable suspicion that the article is in possession for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of specified firearms or explosives offences.
Section 9 was utilised on 30 occasions. This section makes it an offence to withhold information which a person believes might be of material assistance in preventing the commission by another person of a serious offence or securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of another person for such an offence.
Section 10 was utilised on one occasion. This section extends the maximum period of detention permitted under section 30 of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act from 48 hours to 72 hours, but only on the express authorisation of a judge of the District Court. In this regard, the judge must be satisfied, on the application of a Garda officer not below the rank of superintendent, that the further detention is necessary for the proper investigation of the offence concerned and that the investigation is being conducted diligently and expeditiously. The person being detained is entitled to be present in court during the application and to make or to have made submissions on his or her behalf. In the reporting period in question, while no charges resulted in the granting of the one extension order, a file was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Section 11 was utilised on four occasions. This section allows a judge of the District Count to permit the re-arrest and detention of a person in respect of an offence for which he was previously detained under section 30 of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act but released without charge. This further period must not exceed 24 hours and can only be authorised in circumstances where the judge is satisfied, on information supplied on oath by a member of the Garda Síochána, that further information has come to the knowledge of the Garda Síochána about that person's suspected participation in the offence.
Section 14 was utilised on 76 occasions. The effect of this section was to make the new offences created under sections 6 to 9, inclusive, and 12 of the 1998 Act, scheduled offences for the purposes of Part V of the 1939 Act. This means that persons suspected of committing these offences are liable to arrest under section 30 of the 1939 Act.
I will now deal with those sections of the 1998 Act that were not utilised in the period under report, namely, sections 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, and 17. Section 3 of the Act provides that in proceedings for an offence of membership of an unlawful organisation the accused must give notification of an intention to call a person to give evidence on his behalf, unless the court permits otherwise. Section 4 amends section 3 of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1972. The effect of the 1972 provision is that any statement or conduct by a person accused of membership of an unlawful organisation implying or leading to a reasonable inference that he was a member of such an organisation shall be evidence that he was then such a member. It originally defined the expression 'conduct' as including an omission by an accused person to deny published reports that he was a member of an unlawful organisation. The change made by section 4 of the 1998 Act is to expand the definition of 'conduct' to include 'movements, actions, activities or associations'. This simply aligns the definition of conduct in the 1972 Act with the reference to movements, actions. activities or associations used in section 2 of the 1998 Act.
Section 6 establishes the offence of directing, at any level of the organisation's structure, the activities of an organisation in respect of which a suppression order has been made under the Offences against the State Act 1939. Although this section was not utilised in terns of criminal charging during the period under report, one senior member of a dissident republican group was found guilty of this offence last August and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment, to run concurrently with a sentence of six years' imprisonment for the offence of membership of an unlawful organisation. This constituted the first time any person was found guilty of the new offence of directing an unlawful organisation and represents a significant victory for the maintenance of the rule of law in this jurisdiction.
Section 8 makes it an offence to collect, record or possess information which is of such a nature that it is likely to be useful to members of an unlawful organisation in the commission of serious offences. Section 12 makes it an offence for a person to instruct or train another person in the making or use of firearms or explosives or to receive such training without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. Although this section was not used in the reporting period, one person arrested for membership of an unlawful organisation was subsequently charged with receiving training in the use of firearms. Section 17 builds on the provision in the Criminal Justice Act 1994, providing for the forfeiture of property.
Much has been achieved in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and although the current pace of progress leaves much to be desired, it is, as is said, the only show in town. As I have already mentioned, however, there are those who would do everything in their power to subvert the peace process through violence. One need only examine the recently published first report of the Independent Monitoring Commission to see just how much of a threat these dissident republican groups pose.
In the IMC report the Real IRA is described as having access to a significant quantity of arms and equipment and as being potentially a very dangerous terrorist group. Since the Omagh bombing, attacks attributed to the Real IRA include the bombing of Shackleton barracks in February 2000, a sporadic but high profile campaign in Great Britain, including a rocket propelled grenade attack on the Security Intelligence Service headquarters. There have also been some recent attacks on the British military, as well as against people involved in the Policing Board and district policing partnerships.
The IMC report goes on to state that the primary focus of Real IRA attacks remains on security force bases and personnel in Northern Ireland and those involved in the new policing arrangements but that a wide range of targets cannot be ruled out, including targets in Britain.
The IMC characterises the Continuity IRA in a similar vein. Although it is described as a limited organisation with a relatively small membership, the IMC considers that it can, by operating through small units, mount effective, if sporadic, attacks.
The IMC's pen pictures of these two dissident republican groups paint a frightening portrait of individuals and organisations to whom violence is the be all and end all of matters. The Garda authorities view is that the current terrorist threat, in the form of both the Real IRA and Continuity IRA, demands that the relevant provisions of the 1998 Act be extended for a further 12 months. As I have described, the provisions of this Act are regularly used in the ongoing fight against crime. The 1998 Act is part of the legitimate democratic response to that very real threat and I ask the House to continue in force the relevant provisions of the Act for a further 12 months. I commend the resolution to the House.