That Dáil Éireann resolves that sections 2 to 4, 6 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 30 June 2010.
This resolution seeks the Dáil's approval to continue in operation for a further 12 months a number of sections of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998. The sections in question, whose purpose I will outline in the course of my speech, will cease to operate after 30 June next. An identical resolution was debated in the Upper House today.
Deputies will recall that the 1998 Act was passed in the wake of the Omagh bombing in August of that year. That atrocity was condemned by all right-thinking people. The memory of the innocent lives lost on that summer's day is still vivid 12 years on. Of course, the impact on the families of those killed and injured in Omagh will never fade. We must always be mindful of the loss suffered by so many families at the hands of hate-filled fanatics.
The bombing in Omagh was a clear and calculated attempt by these people to undermine the progress which had been made in the Northern Ireland peace process. Members of the House will be aware that the peace process was the result of long and difficult negotiations. It was still, in 1998, very much in its infancy and required careful nurturing and continuing commitment on all sides to ensure its survival. Those who carried out the bombing sought not only to stymie the peace process but to destroy it. They sought a return to the bleak sterility of the violence which had characterised so much of the previous quarter-century. However, their greatest weakness was to underestimate the determination of those who wanted to move on and build a better, peaceful society. They also underestimated the determination of the Government to counter their activities.
The response to the bombing showed the resilience of communities of all traditions throughout the island. It showed that their determination for peace, better co-operation and the rule of law would always triumph over hate and destruction. It must be remembered also that the Government of the day and the Oireachtas showed that they were equal to the challenge and would not allow the wreckers to achieve their aims. A strong signal was necessary, and part of that signal was the enactment of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act, whose main provisions included changes in the rules of evidence for the offence of membership of an unlawful organisation and the creation of new substantive offences. These provisions gave the Garda the tools necessary to defeat the bombers of Omagh and those who would follow them.
The threat these people still pose leaves me convinced that these provisions are still necessary today. It is a matter of regret that no-one has been convicted for the Omagh bombing. However, the investigation into this atrocity remains open, and Deputies will share my hope that those responsible may yet be convicted in a criminal court.
The 1998 Act was passed under clearly exceptional circumstances. It was natural, therefore, that the Oireachtas should want to reconsider certain provisions periodically and decide whether they are still necessary.
This mechanism affords Deputies an opportunity to consider whether the prevailing circumstances justify the continued need for those provisions.
Before setting out the reasons I am convinced of the need to retain these sections, I refer Deputies to the report on their use during the past year. The Act requires me to lay before the Oireachtas a report on the operation of the relevant provisions prior to moving the resolutions for renewal. The current report covers the period from 1 June 2009, the end date of the previous report, to 31 May this year. The report was laid before the House on 10 June 2010.
My assessment, as set out in the report, is that the relevant sections of the 1998 Act should remain in force for a further 12 months. I have come to this view after taking into account the current security situation, both domestic and international, the advice of the Garda Commissioner and the information contained in the report. I have also had regard to the reports of the International Monitoring Commission, which clearly articulate the continued threat posed by dissident groups.
The principal threat to the security of the State continues to be posed by individuals and groups associated with so-called dissident republicanism. As many in the House have commented, it is a strange kind of republicanism that pursues its aims through the murder of fellow Irish men and women. For some perverted reason, revealed only to themselves, these groups are determined to destroy the peace that so many have worked so hard to achieve. They wish to drag all of us back into sterile conflict. We know what that entails because of our experience over so many years. The Government is determined they will not succeed. I have no doubt all Members of the House share that determination.
We must be realistic about matters and recognise, despite our determination, that the threat posed is severe. The Independent Monitoring Commission has reported on the increase in activity by these groups, especially the Real IRA, over the past year or so. No one needs reminding of the horrific attacks in Antrim and Craigavon last year when two soldiers and one PSNI officer were killed.
The most recent IMC report made a particular point of praising the efforts of the two police forces to counter dissident activities. This is well-deserved praise that I am certain we all echo. Their actions have, without question, saved lives and we are grateful to them for that. Some very significant interventions have been made, such as the recent successful Garda operation in respect of a facility in Dundalk used to manufacture explosive devices.
North-South co-operation in the area of security is vital and I can give the House the reassurance that it has never been better. Shortly after his appointment I met the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, MP, to discuss the security situation. I have kept in close contact with him and with the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice, David Ford, MLA, who I will meet again in the next few weeks. I know the Garda Commissioner maintains close and frequent contact with Chief Constable Baggott. This is mirrored by contacts between the two forces at every level.
The Commissioner has made it clear that as far as the Garda Síochána is concerned, an attack on the PSNI is an attack on both forces. We have never let up on our efforts to counteract the threat from dissidents. In particular, the resources of the Garda Síochána have always been maintained to deal with that threat and that will be the case as long as that threat exists.
It is time these thugs stopped opposing the democratic will of the Irish people and gave up their guns. They have little or no support in their communities. In fact they are reviled by the vast majority of the people on both sides of the Border. They need to get that message and cease their hate-filled ideology. I can assure them that until they do, we will never let up in our pursuit of them, in our efforts to prevent their murderous attacks and in our determination to see them apprehended and put in prison.
While countering the threat posed by dissident groups is very important, it is necessary not to lose sight of the threat from international terrorism. The 1998 Act grew out of domestic troubles. However, its provisions form an essential element of the State's response to the threat of terrorism from any source. We cannot ignore the growth in recent years of the international terrorist threat. Deputies will be aware of the arrests earlier this year in Cork and Waterford in connection with an alleged international terrorist plot. In co-operation with our EU partners, we must continue to counteract any threat from such sources. The 1998 Act forms part of the response to that threat also. It is the firm view of the Garda Síochána that the Act continues to be a most important tool in its ongoing efforts in the fight against terrorism. The Garda authorities have stated that the provisions of the Act are used regularly. Furthermore, given the considerable threat posed by some dissident groups it is essential the Act's provisions should continue in force to support the ongoing investigation and disruption of terrorist activity. The perpetrators of the Omagh bombing and other dissident groups continue to pose a substantial threat. They still aspire to commit serious acts of terrorism, including murder, and to pursue other criminal aims.
I refer to the provisions of the 1998 Act that are the subject of the resolution. I have laid before the House a report on the operation of the relevant sections between the relevant dates. The report demonstrates the value of the relevant sections to the Garda Síochána and the necessity for their continued availability in tackling the terrorist threat.
Section 2 allows a court, in proceedings for membership of an unlawful organization, to draw appropriate inferences where an accused person fails to answer or gives false or misleading answers to questions. However, a person cannot be convicted of the offence solely on the basis of such an inference. There must be some other evidence that points towards a person's guilt. The section was used on 23 occasions in the period covered by the report.
Section 3 requires an accused, in proceedings for membership of an unlawful organisation, to give notification of an intention to call a person to give evidence on his behalf. This section was used on four occasions. Section 4 provides that evidence of membership of an unlawful organization can be inferred from certain conduct, including matters such as "movements, actions, activities, or associations on the part of the accused". This section was not used in the period covered by the report.
Section 6 creates the offence of directing the activities of an organisation in respect of which a suppression order has been made under the Offences against the State Act 1939. This section was not used in the period covered by the report. Section 7 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. It was used on 30 occasions. Section 8 makes it an offence to collect, record or possess information likely to be useful to members of an unlawful organisation in the commission of serious offences. It was not used in the period covered by the report.
Section 9 makes it an offence to withhold certain information that might be of material assistance in preventing the commission of a serious offence or securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of a person for such an offence. It was used on 117 occasions. Section 10 extends the maximum period of detention permitted under section 30 of the Offences against the State Act from 48 hours to 72 hours but only on the express authorisation of a judge of the District Court following an application by a garda of at least superintendent rank. Furthermore, the person being detained is entitled to be present in court during the application and to make, or to have made, submissions on his behalf. The section was used on 25 occasions and an extension was granted in 25 cases. Section 11 allows a judge of the District Court 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 Act but released without charge. This further period must not exceed 24 hours and can only be authorised 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. It was used on 16 occasions.
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. It was not used in the period covered by the report. Section 14 is, in effect, a procedural section that makes the offences created under sections 6 to 9 and section 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 may be arrested under Section 30 of the 1939 Act.
Section 17 builds on the provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 1994 providing for the forfeiture of property. Where a person is convicted of offences relating to the possession of firearms or explosives, and where there is property liable to forfeiture under the 1994 Act the court is required to order the forfeiture of such property unless it is satisfied that there would be a serious risk of injustice if it made such an order. The section was not used in the period covered by the report.
We have made tremendous progress and significant advances in the peace process on this island since the Good Friday Agreement. It is a matter of genuine regret that provisions such as those contained in the 1998 Act are still required. So-called dissident groups remain a threat to that progress. They are opposed to the benefits that have flowed from the peace process and are determined to undermine it. Let there be no mistake about the Government's equal determination to prevent them achieving their objectives. The State must retain in its laws the capacity to defeat them. Effective police action, supported by strong legislation, is essential to counter those aims. In this regard, I commend the work of the Garda, in co-operation with the PSNI, in facing up to these criminal groups.
On that basis, on the information set out in the report and the advice of the Garda authorities, I consider the relevant provisions of the 1998 Act should remain in operation for a further 12 months. I commend the resolution to the House.