The most recent crime statistics released by the CSO, in respect of 2008, show a number of encouraging trends. There was a decrease of 42.9% in the number of homicide offences, which includes a decrease of 36.4% in murder and of 57.1% in manslaughter. Aggravated sexual assault decreased by 33.3% and assault causing harm by 2.2%. Nevertheless the number of violent crimes committed remains a matter of concern.
The Garda Policing Plan for 2009, which reflects the priorities set for the Force by me as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, contains a series of measures aimed at reducing the impact of crime and criminal behaviour. These goals are backed up by strategic actions which include a commitment to continue and intensify intelligence-led operations against groups and individuals engaged in criminality. An Garda Síochána, in accordance with the priorities I have set out, is committed to targeting violent crime and those who engage or facilitate persons involved in such activity.
Operation Anvil commenced in the Dublin Metropolitan Region in 2005 to deal with serious crime, including murder and other violent crime, and was extended nationwide in 2006. The primary focus of the Operation is the targeting of active criminals and their associates involved in serious crime by preventing and disrupting their criminal activity through extensive additional overt patrolling and static checkpoints by uniform, mobile and foot patrols, supported by armed plain clothes patrols.
Under Operation Anvil, up to 8 February, 2009, 1,239 firearms have been recovered in Dublin and 1,092 in the rest of the country. There have also been over 7,000 arrests for serious crimes such as murder, serious assault, robbery and burglary and 70,000 searches for weapons, drugs and stolen goods. In this way, the Gardaí will continue to address the issue of illegal guns relentlessly. Though legislation on the use of knives and similar weapons is already very strong and heavy penalties are already in place, I am moving to strengthen the law in this area. In that context, I sought and received proposals from the Garda Commissioner on strengthening the law on knife crime. These include:
increasing the penalties for possessing a knife in a public place;
creating an extended power of search without warrant in certain circumstances; and
the introduction of a prohibition in relation to swords.
I have accepted these proposals, and they will be included in the forthcoming Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Drafting of the Bill is now almost completed, and the Government have agreed to treat it as a priority measure for this Dáil session.
On 5 February, the Garda Commissioner and I launched a Knife Awareness Campaign by An Garda Síochána with the objective of informing and educating young people on the dangers of carrying knives and with the aim of reducing the number of incidents of knife crime. In addition to these measures, I have directed the drafting of a new Firearms and Offensive Weapons Order which will deal with the issue of swords. In particular I will be banning the sale of samurai swords.
Since my appointment as Minister, I have expressed concern at the number of handguns which have been licensed here in recent years. Some time ago, I directed my Department and An Garda Síochána to carry out an urgent and intensive review of the firearms law. Following that review, I have brought forward proposals which include no new licenses being issued for handguns, subject to limited exceptions in relation to Olympic sports. Existing licenses will not be renewed unless applicants fully meet the requirements of a radically tightened licensing procedure where the safety of the community will be paramount. While a de facto ban on new handgun licences is already in place, my proposals will also be given legislative form in the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. That Bill will also tackle comprehensively the issue of airsoft guns, including making their possession in public a serious offence.
On 26 January, the Garda Commissioner and I launched a new National Model of Community Policing. The Model builds on the success of existing good community policing practice within Ireland and aims to foster collaborative partnerships between An Garda Síochána and community members. Alongside the specialist operations such as Operation Anvil, a comprehensive model of community policing ensures that enforcement will not only be employed to reduce crime but also to reduce the fear of crime and ensure a better quality of community life for all.
At a time when the public finances are under pressure, I am determined that top priority will continue to be given to frontline policing. Funding for Operation Anvil will increase in 2009 from €20 million to €21 million to enable it to continue with targeted disruption of serious and organised criminal activity. Other key operations will be maintained through 2009, and any savings that have to be made will not be allowed to diminish frontline policing.