I am not sure if it is in order for me to join the Acting Chairman in extending a welcome to our visitors. This debate might be of great interest to them and, as legislators, we too might learn significantly from the manner in which crime, organised crime and gun law are dealt with in New York State in very difficult circumstances.
I thank the Minister for his personal comments on my appointment. I trust we will have a constructive relationship in the next few years.
I am pleased we are having this debate on crime and its threat to society but it is no coincidence it takes place in the second week of the Dáil session. It would not be happening if it were not for the dreadful incident in Dublin last week involving the shooting of a garda in the course of his duty, which underlined the serious threat to society we face on a daily basis.
As legislators representing all the citizens of this Republic, we have a solemn constitutional duty to the people of Ireland to take all appropriate steps to end criminality and ensure that people can live and work in safe, crime-free communities. In the complex society which characterises modern Ireland, crimes take place in multiple locations — from housing estates where criminal gangs establish their headquarters to the school gates where drug pushers daily target our children. The criminal justice system, therefore, must no longer be regarded as the sole preserve of the organs of State and tackling crime on our streets can no longer be regarded as a job exclusively for the Garda Síochána. The new and radically changed Ireland needs a new and radically changed approach towards crime and criminality.
The criminal justice system must be seen as embracing a set of shared responsibilities for communities, local authorities, businesses, schools, voluntary groups and parents. The primary duty of the criminal justice system is to enable law-abiding citizens to live in safety. In modern Ireland, a fundamental question has emerged — how can the justice system balance both liberty and security? Occasionally, the balance of these competing interests of security and liberty tilt and change depending on society and its needs and priorities. We urgently need to address this balance at this point.
The unacceptable face of Celtic tiger Ireland reveals a society where our elderly citizens are terrified in their homes, men and women alike are afraid to walk the streets at night, our children can obtain drugs freely in any school yard in the country and we have seen the emergence of drive-by shootings, tiger kidnappings and callous contract killings. Homes and business premises are burgled daily and bags are snatched in broad daylight to feed the drug habits of the thousands of heroin abusers who shoot up in public places with careless abandon. Last week, the media reported that one of the country's largest drug dealers had made death threats to a 16 year old schoolgirl after she was caught with €50,000 worth of rock heroin she had been storing for him in the wardrobe of her bedroom. The gang boss in question, who is currently is Spain, has threatened to murder the schoolgirl unless he receives €50,000. This is one of the sad realities of crime today.
In modern Ireland our sophisticated criminals travel abroad for practice and training in the most sophisticated firearms known to the world. The head of the Criminal Assets Bureau, Superintendent John O'Mahony, is on record as stating recently that it is only a matter of time before the ruthless foreign national groups begin operating here. Foreign criminal gangs may have already established a foothold in this city and jurisdiction.
On an all too regular basis, guns and drugs are being smuggled hand in hand into the State along the coastline. Among the weapons of choice favoured by the criminal fraternity are sawn-off shotguns and AK47s, a number of which were recently seized in Dublin, Limerick and on a halting site in Ballyfermot. The prevalence of guns has sent the murder rate soaring. Some victims have been specifically targeted while others, including Donna Cleary and Anthony Campbell, have been innocents, victimised by criminals and failed by the State. Their killings were greeted with the same pathetic refrain that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In modern Ireland crime takes place at many levels. It is not just criminal gangs wielding sawn-off shotguns. A proliferation of public order offences means that decent people are also threatened by countless petty criminals, drunken yobs, juvenile delinquents and mindless vandals who stalk the streets day and night with no regard for order or the rule of law. These petty criminals are a menace to society. Alcohol-fuelled thuggery is a major problem which requires action of an urgent nature. It is well past time that the Government faced up to the reality of criminality.
While I accept that the current Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has not been in the job very long, the Government has, for too long, buried its head in the sand, accusing the Opposition of scare-mongering when legitimate concerns were raised about spiralling crime and the breakdown of civic order. The infamous words, in response to a specific crime, that it constituted the last sting of a dying wasp were said by the Minister's predecessor more than two years ago. Far from the criminal gangs being eradicated during the past ten years of Fianna Fáil-led Governments, we have reached the point at which a garda, attempting to stop a stolen vehicle in broad daylight in the capital city, was shot in cold blood. I hope this heinous crime will be the catalyst to shake the Government out of its slumber and force it to face the facts.
Last year was the bloodiest and most violent in the history of the State. The most recent figures indicate that 66 homicides — one death every five days — took place in 2006. Serious assaults have increased to ten violent attacks every single day. Since the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats parties took office in 2002, well in excess of 500,000 serious crimes have been committed. Armed robbery has increased by 70% and gun related crime by more than 50%. Of the €400 million worth of property stolen, a mere 5% has been recovered.
The solution does not lie in the creation and maintenance of a repressive police state or "Big Brother" society or in restricting freedom. The law must, however, protect law-abiding citizens rather than criminals. While criminal gangs thrive, law-abiding citizens are threatened. In the debate on liberty and security, the balance between the two must be struck in the best interest of society and the overall public good.
After the tragic murder of Veronica Guerin in 1996, the State declared war on criminal gangs and established the Criminal Assets Bureau which quickly achieved many successes. The time has come for a similar new departure by the State. What is needed at national level is joined-up thinking across State agencies and Departments and a significant investment in resources, particularly in terms of manpower and state-of-the-art technology for the Garda Síochána. While the force continues to struggle with outdated radios, a lack of real-time information and a shortage of bullet proof vests, our sophisticated and well-resourced criminals will continue to have an advantage.
A recent article in the Garda Review will, I am sure, have been brought to the Minister’s attention. I do not have time to cite it at length but it offers a shocking indictment. It notes, for instance, that whether a garda is equipped with a digital radio in the centre of Dublin depends on which side of the River Liffey he or she is standing because communications between the north and south sides of the city are not possible. I will, at the earliest opportunity, revert to issues such as gardaí using their personal mobile telephones and cars for business purposes.
On the matter of Garda resources, I very much welcome the presence in this State of Kathleen O'Toole, Chief Inspector of the Garda Inspectorate, and acknowledge the significant contribution she has already made in the form of the recommendations made in her first three published reports. As chief inspector, Ms O'Toole offers us her unique experience as a former Boston Police chief. She also brings with her an objective, expert view on how to address matters. When she speaks or highlights how a scandalous lack of up-to-date resources is putting gardaí at a significant disadvantage in their efforts to tackle criminality in communities, the Government must sit up and listen.
While the main focus of the debate on the Garda in recent years has been on numbers, particular focus must be placed on resources and modern equipment for those currently serving in the force. In Ireland, as in the rest of the world, a small number of repeat offenders commit the vast majority of serious crimes. For this reason, gardaí need to have access to technologies which would allow them to identify, monitor and track these career criminals.
I give a commitment from the Fine Gael benches that my party will co-operate with and give every possible support to the Minister in efforts to tackle crime and make our streets safe. Measures must include resourcing and legal reform, from the housing estate to the prison cell. In offering the support of Fine Gael to the Government, I ask in return that the Minister set himself specific targets and report to the House on a quarterly basis on progress on the many initiatives needed to bring about a change for the better.
We must consider a radical extension of summary powers of the Garda Síochána to tackle the criminals head on. A more visible Garda presence is needed in our towns, villages and urban centres. The recently established local authority police committees should be expanded nationwide. I welcome the Minister's comments in this regard and hope his initiative will bear fruit in early 2008. Juvenile liaison schemes have been useful and successful and must be beefed up and expanded. We must also take greater preventative measures by assigning greater resources to youth work initiatives and early intervention programmes for young people at risk in crime-ridden communities. In this context, money seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau must be ring-fenced and ploughed back into vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.
The introduction of a national scheme of identity cards using biometric technology needs to be assessed and progressed. This and initiatives such as the creation of a DNA database must be considered in the context of the balance between liberty and security to which I referred.
Mandatory sentencing in the criminal justice system must mean exactly that, particularly in the area of drug crime and firearms offences. All too often, this has not been the approach adopted in the courts. While I accept that section 33 of the Criminal Justice Act 2007 may help, its application needs to be closely monitored. I fail to understand the reason mandatory sentences are not imposed regularly when this House has enacted legislation requiring the courts to apply mandatory sentences.
Tackling criminality should use a multi-stakeholder approach involving communities, local authorities, the business sector, schools, parents and voluntary groups. A revamped witness protection programme is urgently needed and must be placed on a statutory footing at the earliest opportunity. We need mandatory sentencing for a wider range of drug offences. Anyone handling a gun illegally should be given a minimum five-year sentence.
We need to examine the matter of legally held firearms in the State, recently extended in respect of airport authorities. There must be a clear onus on the licenceholder to act responsibly at all times and to understand the circumstances under which the licensing has taken place, to whom and for what reasons the licences have been issued and what checks will be made by the Garda Síochána to ensure the safe and careful use of the firearms. Stolen shotguns play a significant part in criminal activity. They are being stolen on a regular basis and I hope we will exercise more care in the manner in which dealer licences are issued.
Automatic releases and early remission of prison sentences should be curtailed. Anyone seeking remission should earn it through circumstances laid out clearly at the earliest opportunity after sentencing. Drugs in prison must be eradicated. The notion that crime bosses continue to operate criminal gangs from their prison cells with mobile telephones and modern communication systems is an affront to the concept of law and order in society. Where I live in Portlaoise is 150 m from two of the busiest and largest prisons in the State. I urge the Minister to visit both prisons to see at first hand the difficulties experienced in running modern prisons in Irish society.
Deputies must do all we can to ensure consistency and transparency in sentencing and the Judiciary must play its part. I hope that the setting aside of time to discuss the urgent need to tackle criminality represents a crossroads in terms of the Government's willingness to take on the growing crisis facing the State. Criminals are more sophisticated than ever and criminality has permeated every level of society. The State must respond in an equally sophisticated and multifaceted manner. Fine Gael is willing to support the Minister should he mount a widescale counteroffensive to tackle criminality and restore our civic society to one in which criminals fear the law rather than one in which the citizenry fears the criminal fraternity.