Priority Questions

Gangland Crime

Niall Collins

Question:

1. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality the new measures she plans to introduce to target gangland crime; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10512/16]

As the Deputy is aware, the Taoiseach and I recently met senior Garda management and were briefed on the significant progress being made in investigations into recent gang-related murders in the Dublin region. As these appalling crimes, which we all condemn, are the subject of ongoing Garda investigations, it would not be appropriate for me to make detailed comment on them. However, progress is being made. Every Deputy will agree that there are very real challenges in counteracting those who are determined to perpetuate a cycle of mindless violence and who are intent on a cycle of revenge and retaliation. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that An Garda Síochána has in the past successfully faced down criminal gangs, whether in Limerick or elsewhere, which believed they were above the law. The Government remains committed to providing An Garda Síochána with the resources it needs to deal effectively with the thugs who perpetrate this violence. I met inner-city community representatives yesterday to discuss the supports local communities need from An Garda Síochána and other agencies of the State. There is work to be done to support people who live in these areas and who must face and deal with this. They are worried and frightened by what has happened.

At the request of the Commissioner earlier this year, I announced a special allocation to support concentrated policing measures, including steps to establish a dedicated armed support unit, ASU, in the Dublin area. I am pleased to say that there was a huge number of applications from members of An Garda Síochána to join that armed response unit. It must be clearly understood that, pending the full establishment of the new unit, arrangements have been put in place so that the necessary armed support is being provided on an overtime basis.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I am being kept up to date on this work and can assure the Deputy that the establishment of the unit, including all of the necessary training and preparatory arrangements, is being progressed as a matter of priority. The Garda response includes highly visible policing, the use of armed checkpoints and targeted and intelligence-based operations to disrupt and prevent incidents as well as detecting and prosecuting those involved. Contrary to suggestions made in some quarters, there has been no diminution in these operations in recent weeks. The Garda authorities have assured me the opposite is, in fact, the case.

The Deputy will also be aware that under the new programme for Government, we are pressing forward with an accelerated programme of Garda recruitment with a view to achieving a force of 15,000 members. This is a central element of the Government's anti-crime strategy and we have already made provision for the recruitment of 1,150 new gardaí since we reopened the Garda College in Templemore in September 2014. The programme for Government also commits to ensuring that Garda specialist units, such as the armed units which respond to gang-related violence, are enabled to operate at full strength.

I remain in close contact with the Commissioner and will respond promptly if she feels there are further measures that can be taken to oppose and dismantle these criminal networks and the evil drugs trade which is at the heart of much of their activities.

As the Minister knows, gangland crime is impacting hugely on the city. We discussed it last week in the Dáil. The budget the Minister announced in February was of the order of €5 million. Can the Minister give the House some indiction of how much, if any, of that sum has been drawn down because there are conflicting reports in the media on that matter?

Has the Minister instructed any of the Department's officials to conduct a review of the Criminal Justice Act which, as we mentioned last week, was significantly ramped up by previous Ministers for justice to target the people involved in gangland activity? I have met the communities in question. The Minister stated she had met them recently. They want to know that the legislation in place is fit for purpose.

Will the Minister comment on the proposal contained in Fianna Fáil's election manifesto that a serious and organised crime unit be established? It would be an amalgamation of the Garda national drugs unit and the organised crime unit? It would bring together the skill sets required to deal with the entire landscape of gangland criminality, not just drugs but also human trafficking and counterfeit goods and medicines.

The money made available continues to be used. I have told the Garda Commissioner that, if further money is needed for overtime resources, it will be made available. The Taoiseach and I gave her that reassurance. A budget is available for that purpose.

Contrary to reports, there has been no cutting back of patrols in the Dublin area. The Garda Commissioner continues to make the operational decisions needed to try to prevent attacks in the first instance, to gather the intelligence that allows the Garda's work to be effective and to continue its investigations. Yesterday I met and discussed the matter with Garda senior management.

We have strong legislation in place to deal with gangland activities, including the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009. We also have the Special Criminal Court. As the Deputy knows, the second Special Criminal Court began its work approximately two weeks ago. All of the arrangements have been put in place. We will keep the legislation under review if further strengthening is required, but effective legislation was put in place in 2009.

I suggest we review some of the powers available in foreign jurisdictions, for example, the concept of investigating magistrates in Italy where there are serious gangland issues.

On the armed response unit the Minister has announced and for which she has stated there has been a large number of applications, when will it be established? It seems to be on the never-never.

It was announced in February during the general election. The Garda Commissioner was recently quoted as saying it would be up and running next month. When exactly will it be established and what will be its size? May we have information on the number of personnel and level of resourcing that will be available to it?

Quite a lot has happened. It has been advertised within the Garda and there have been hundreds of applications. Interviews must take place and are beginning. It is hoped that, once the extensive interviews and assessments have been completed, the unit will comprise approximately 55 gardaí and three sergeants. I will send the Deputy the details. The unit will operate in the Dublin area as an armed response unit. I expect it to be in place in June or July.

Garda Reports

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

2. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality her plans to implement the recommendations of the O'Higgins report. [10196/16]

Last week I published the report of the O'Higgins commission into certain matters relevant to the Cavan-Monaghan division of An Garda Síochána. It is a report that deserves the most careful consideration in order that we can do everything possible to avoid a repeat of the mistakes and issues outlined in it, particularly from the victims' perspective.

I am sure most Deputies will agree with me that it is disheartening to read about the experiences of victims. We saw an account of Mary Lyons last night on RTE. We noted the horror that had been visited on her and other victims.

I said I believed the report was thoughtful and thorough; I believe it is. It does deal with events in 2007 and 2008. The Deputy's question is on the implementation plans for the recommendations. Obviously, the report will be forwarded to An Garda Síochána for an immediate response from management and also to the Policing Authority which will undoubtedly have a role in overseeing implementation of the recommendations. There has been a series of initiatives since the time in question and since I asked the Garda Inspectorate to examine the Guerin report. In report No. 10 on criminal investigations it made comments on the Guerin report, how it needed to be taken forward and how it linked in with the recommendations it had already made. Therefore, there has been a lot of action on some of the issues identified by the O'Higgins commission, including, in particular, the initiatives concerning how victims are dealt with by An Garda Síochána with the establishment of the new victim offices throughout the country.

With regard to training and supervision, we recently saw the appointment of well over 280 sergeants and inspectors who will have a very particular role in supervision. There is new training in Templemore, but that is not to say there is not a lot more work to be done on the issues raised within the report.

When the Minister published the report, she said she would ask the Garda Commissioner to examine it and indicate what further measures might be taken to prevent this type of difficulty in the future. She said she would seek the Commissioner’s proposals concerning the implementation of the recommendations made. Given the nature of reports in recent days, particularly in the Irish Examiner, on the documentation alleging the Garda Commissioner might have instructed her legal team to claim Sergeant McCabe had been motivated by malice when highlighting malpractice within the force, has the Minister spoken to the Commissioner about this? If not, is she planning to do so? Does she agree with the Garda Commissioner's analysis that she is precluded from clarifying the issue any further than she did last night?

The first point I would make on the Deputy's question is one I made when publishing the report, namely, that we should not lose sight of the central fact that at its heart are the victims who were let down. That was a very key point for all of us to note. Our central focus should be on doing everything possible to make sure what is outlined in the investigations does not happen again.

There are severe constraints on what I can say about claims that have appeared in the media under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 which formed the legal basis for putting the commission in place. I have a duty to respect the law and that duty is not diminished by the fact that some media reports have appeared purporting to set out a small part of what might or might not have been said. I obviously refer to the statement by the Garda Commissioner, Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan, in which she comments on her response to the report, saying she accepts it in full. She states she has put as much information in the public domain as she can, adding that she is legally precluded, under section 11, from saying anything further. I will reiterate what she has said about Sergeant Maurice McCabe's contribution. She has said it is valued and that the service has changed for the better in response to the points raised and issues about which he complained.

The statement of clarification last night actually clarifies nothing. There is an issue that needs to be clarified because there are media reports that state the media have seen documentation alleging the Garda Commissioner instructed her legal team to insinuate malice on the part of Sergeant McCabe. If that is the case, it calls into question her credibility. If she is saying one thing in public and another in private to her legal team, there is an issue.

The second scenario is that the documentation is not legitimate. If that is the case, someone, probably a person close to the commission of investigation, has knowingly passed on documentation that is not factual. One can only presume that somebody would do that to undermine the Garda Commissioner. Either way, the matter needs to be clarified because unfortunately it is distracting from the report and its recommendations. Clarity is required given that the Garda Commissioner will be the person responsible for implementing the recommendations.

I stress that it would be highly unusual to ask one party to a legal proceeding to disclose to another party its dealings with its legal representatives. Imagine if such a demand were made of everybody who gave evidence to a commission of investigation. It is important that people have confidence in the commission of investigation structure. More than 97 witnesses were called to the commission of investigation and all of its hearings were held in private. There were no requests for public hearings and all witnesses were heard in private. In this regard, it is worth remembering that Mr. Justice O'Higgins, in his report, states that the confidentiality of the process was respected by everyone. He had unique access and was the only person who heard what everybody had to say on the issues. He did not have partial evidence or receive transcripts without context but heard all the evidence. We should read the report and its recommendations and take them forward.

Commissions of Investigation

Brendan Howlin

Question:

3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality if she is satisfied with the handling of the allegations made by a person (details supplied), the investigation by a person (details supplied), the actions of her predecessor as Minister and the consequences that resulted for her predecessor and the former Garda Commissioner given the findings of the final report of the Commission of Investigation (Certain Matters Relative to the Cavan/Monaghan Division of An Garda Síochána). [10529/16]

This question also relates to the commission of investigation carried out by Mr. Justice Kevin O'Higgins. I thank Mr Justice O'Higgins and his team for the manner in which they fulfilled their mandate. Mr. Seán Guerin, on presenting his report to Cabinet, recommended the establishment of a commission of investigation into all of the matters addressed in his report. The Cabinet accepted Mr. Guerin's recommendations in full and asked Mr. Justice O'Higgins to investigate, as definitively as possible, the facts surrounding the matters he was asked to examine.

Inevitably, Mr. Justice O'Higgins reaches a number of conclusions about the roles played by a number of persons in the events outlined in his report. As I stated at the launch of the report, I hope all those affected can accept, as I do fully, that Mr. Justice O'Higgins looked at the facts fairly and dispassionately and made every effort to do justice to the positions of all. As I have stated previously, the central issue is that the Garda takes steps to ensure the victims of crime and those who report crimes are dealt with properly.

Some of the events investigated by Mr. Justice O’Higgins go back a decade. For my part, it is clear that the system in place until a couple of years ago for dealing with reports of wrongdoing within the Garda did not serve anyone particularly well. Deputy Howlin, in his previous role as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, introduced the Protected Disclosures Act 2014, which allowed gardaí making allegations of wrongdoing in the Garda to go directly to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and enjoy protection under the new legislation. Previously, such allegations had to be dealt with in the Garda but this approach did not work and protected disclosures may now be made to GSOC.

In the past two years, the Policing Authority has also been established and the powers of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission have been strengthened. The Garda Commissioner will also announce a reform programme next week.

We should note what the O'Higgins report has to say about each of the individuals central to the establishment of the commission of investigation and the events it was tasked with investigating.

I accept in full the findings of the report, as does the Government. We need to take measures not to repeat the failures that existed in the past.

I begin by congratulating the Tánaiste on her appointment and wish her well. The Tánaiste mentioned the Protected Disclosures Act. She would be aware that one of the major findings of the process of enacting that legislation was not the challenge of enacting law but of bringing about cultural change, particularly for disciplined bodies whose reaction, not only in this country but elsewhere, is to close rank in the face of a whistleblower rather than investigate the merit or demerit of any allegation of wrongdoing. Is the Tánaiste satisfied that the cultural change we talked about in the enactment of that legislation has taken place in An Garda Síochána, specifically in regard to the treatment of the whistleblower, Garda Maurice McCabe?

The Protected Disclosures Act was important legislation. Many organisations face challenges and need cultural change in order to deal and work effectively with whistleblowers. I believe the legislative framework we now have in place supports this and is helpful in terms of how whistleblowers within An Garda Síochána are dealt with. I have discussed this subject on a number of occasions with Garda management and it is operating fully in line with the legislation. There is no question but that it needs ongoing monitoring of the issue and to be vigilant to ensure that whistleblowers are dealt with properly.

In the case of Sergeant Maurice McCabe, the commission finding is that he did the State some service. He did An Garda Síochána a service by raising the issues he did, as the Garda Commissioner said yesterday in her statement. The Garda put in place a range of initiatives and supports to ensure Sergeant McCabe felt supported. I am satisfied there is an understanding currently within An Garda Síochána of the need to support whistleblowers and that in terms of welfare and support for whistleblowers in the context of investigation of issues, there is confidentiality in dealings with them.

It takes time to change a culture and I do not expect it will change overnight. However, I believe that at management level, there is an understanding of the need to comply fully with the legislation to achieve the kind of cultural change the Deputy mentioned.

I asked the Tánaiste specifically about the case of Garda Sergeant McCabe and whether she is satisfied that how he has been, and is being, treated indicate that the cultural change required has happened. Also, has she any concerns about the reputational harm or career damage done to former Minister, Alan Shatter, and former Garda Commissioner, Mr. Callinan? In her view, can the reputations and careers of what might be called "establishment figures" be adversely affected without let or hindrance while other people's reputation, careers or well-being must be protected?

On cultural change, I obviously rely on the answers given to questions I ask and the reports I get from An Garda Síochána. Looking back at the controversy in regard to penalty points, the Garda involved Sergeant McCabe in that process. Also, based on the information I have on the position in regard to Sergeant McCabe, I believe the cultural change Deputy Howlin mentioned is in place. I feel that every effort is being made by An Garda Síochána to ensure that cultural change is in place for Sergeant McCabe and other whistleblowers.

On the question of my predecessor, I was pleased to see in the report that my Department had acted properly at all times in handling the issues that came before it. It was precisely in order to establish those facts that the commission was set up. We had a preliminary report from Seán Guerin, which was a scoping report and not one in which there were findings of fact. If the recommendations from that report had not been acted upon as he envisaged we would not have the outcome we have now.

What redress does the former Deputy, Alan Shatter, have?

The Tánaiste must conclude as time is up.

We now have the report, which shows very clearly that the former Minister, Alan Shatter, operated properly and that there is no question of any corruption relating to the Commissioner. There will be a debate in the House. The former Deputy has written to the Taoiseach and there will be a detailed response.

We cannot get into these matters. The Tánaiste will have to conclude.

Garda Strength

Niall Collins

Question:

4. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality the measures she will take to ensure Garda Síochána numbers rise to 15,000 over five years; and when she will request the Policing Authority to oversee a review with regard to the dispersement of Garda Síochána stations in rural areas. [10513/16]

Deputy Niall Collins asks about the visibility of police throughout the country. Key to achieving that goal is the commitment in the programme for partnership Government to continue the ongoing accelerated garda recruitment programme. Templemore had been closed but the last Government made a decision to open Templemore and begin a process of continuous and ongoing recruitment. There is agreement in the programme for Government on accelerating the recruitment programme to bring the numbers up to 15,000. A total of 700 garda recruits have already gone through Templemore and a further 440 have been planned for this year. We will need to accelerate that later in the year but this will depend on the capacity of Templemore and that is being examined with the authorities in the college. We would like to begin to increase the numbers as far as we can but this will depend on resources there.

We do not want to reduce the quality of training as that is very important. When large numbers were going through Templemore, as was captured in the O'Higgins report, the training of recruits and, particularly, the supervision of young gardaí leaving Templemore, were lacking so we want to ensure that when recruits leave Templemore they have access to supervision in the training stations around the country. An accelerated programme of recruitment of trainee gardaí is essential to ensure a visible policing presence. We have commitments to double the Garda Reserve, an issue which the Deputy has raised with me a number of times, so that they can act in a supportive local role as well.

My party welcomes the fact that the Government has accepted that we need to bring the personnel of the Garda Síochána back up to 15,000, having said it could not be done. I have a concern that the target may not be reached. Some 700 trainees have gone through Templemore and a further 440 will do so this year but approximately 1,500 are eligible to retire and when one factors those numbers into the manpower level of the force at the moment, which is approximately 12,000, we will be a long time reaching the figure of 15,000. What detailed plans does the Minister have to increase recruitment and has she looked at stretching out the retirement age?

The second part of the question related to the review of Garda stations by the Policing Authority. Who will set the terms of reference for that? On page 98 of the programme for Government, it states, "As part of the review [of Garda stations by the independent Policing Authority] we will launch a pilot scheme to reopen six Garda stations". Can the Minister tell us which six Garda stations will be reopened and what criteria were used to make the decision? It was clearly a political decision within the programme for Government to reopen six stations. What were the criteria and who will set the terms of reference for the independent Policing Authority to review the rest of them?

With the numbers of trainee gardaí who are to be attested this year, the force will come to approximately 13,000. I agree with the Deputy that, in order to reach 15,000 in a timely way, we will need to accelerate the intake. Obviously, I will be having discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in that regard. Perhaps by September we will be in a position to announce an increased intake and I hope that can continue in the course of next year. This will lead to the acceleration to which the Deputy is referring and which will be very helpful all round.

To reply to the second part of the question, we are committed to launching a pilot scheme to reopen six Garda stations, both urban and rural, to determine the possible positive effects such reopenings would have on the level of criminal activity, with special emphasis on burglaries, theft and public order offences. The scheme will be initiated within two months. I intend to consult the Garda Commissioner and the Policing Authority which has been charged with the responsibility of overseeing it to agree the process through which the Commissioner will identify the six stations to be reopened under the pilot scheme. My officials will shortly be in contact with a view to putting in place the arrangements for the review, although it will obviously be a decision of the Commissioner as it is an operational issue.

There is a critical point. Being independent, the Policing Authority is being asked to undertake a review of the stations which were closed, with a view to some of them potentially being reopened. Nonetheless, we do not know what the process is going to be. It is important there be a clear and transparent process regarding which six stations will be opened initially and also, for example, whether local communities will be allowed to make a submission. The Minister might comment on this.

With regard to garda numbers, will the Minister comment on what is stated in the most recent report of the Garda Inspectorate that a couple of hundred gardaí are effectively engaged in clerical or administrative duties - desk work - when they should be available for front-line policing services? What progress has been made on that recommendation?

I agree with the Deputy on the need for transparency in the criteria to be used in the reopening of stations and that certainly will be the case. It is an operational matter, but, clearly, I expect the Policing Authority to oversee this work and there to be discussions between the authority and the Garda Commissioner. Nonetheless, it is an operational decision that will depend on needs and crime trends within a particular area. It is not a political decision; it is a decision that will be taken by the Policing Authority and the Garda Commissioner based on the needs of different areas and the services available in a particular area at a particular time.

What was the Deputy's second question?

It concerned taking gardaí from desk duties.

That is part of the civilianisation project. The last Garda Inspectorate report suggested a large number of gardaí were undertaking duties that could be performed by civilians. Progress has been made in that regard, for example, at the airport and in a number of other areas. Nonetheless, I have to say the figure involved is questioned by Garda management; it is, therefore, a very important issue to be determined. I hope to see progress on it in the next couple of months through the freeing up of further gardaí.

National Drugs Strategy

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

5. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality if taking a harm-reduction approach to drug law reform has a role in tackling organised crime. [10197/16]

The problem of drug misuse remains one of the most complex social problems we face, causing a huge amount of harm to individuals, families and communities. The Government's response to the problem was set out in the national drugs strategy which ran from 2009 to 2016. As the Deputy is aware, the strategy is comprehensive and based on the five pillars of drug supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research.

The Department of Health has a lead role in co-ordinating and reporting on the implementation of the strategy and it also has responsibility for the primary legislation governing the control of substances, which is the Misuse of Drugs Act. We must work across all of these pillars to deal with the issue. The criminal justice agencies are an important part of the response but not the only part of it. I recognise the value of work across all of the different pillars, including the supply reduction target and the law enforcement targeting of those who seek to profit from drug-trafficking and the illegal trade in controlled substances. They have no regard for the damage they do.

Government policy emphasises the importance of providing opportunities for people to move on from illicit drug use through drug treatment and rehabilitation to a drug-free life, where it is achievable. I agree the provision of harm-reduction measures is very important. These include needle and syringe programmes, methadone maintenance treatment and reducing drug-related harm. All of these can facilitate recovery by providing a pathway into the services. To answer the question, it must be a multifaceted approach and we will work on a new drugs strategy from 2016 onwards. No doubt the experiences of local drug taskforces will be an important input into the new strategy.

I agree we must have an holistic and multifaceted approach but the one constant which has remained for the past 30 or 40 years, as far back as the 1970s, is the criminalisation of the addicts themselves. This policy has completely failed. We now have a situation where more people are addicted to drugs and we have more drug-related deaths than ever before. This policy is counter-productive and is failing. The previous Minister of State with responsibility for drugs, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, initiated legislation on supervised injection centres. I note the programme for Government states there will be a health-led rather than a criminal justice-led approach to harm reduction. Given the commitment in the programme for Government, where is the legislation on the supervised injection centres?

Significant national and international debates are taking place on the question of decriminalisation and I have no doubt these will form part of preparing the new drugs strategy. The Taoiseach will shortly meet all of the Ministers to identify priorities in the legislative programme and the programme for Government and produce the lists. In the context of Dáil reform, this will be different from how it has been done until now because we are in a different situation. Legislation from throughout the House will form part of the priority work of the Dáil. At present, I do not have information on when the legislation will be brought forward but it is in the programme for Government. I can certainly liaise with the Deputy on the exact timescale when it is known. It will be presented to the House by the Taoiseach in the coming weeks.

Does the Minister agree there needs to be a change in the legal status of drugs if the Government is to bring about medically supervised injection centres? If there is to be a health-led approach to harm reduction, it indicates the legal status of some drugs needs to be examined. The national drugs strategy is a five pillar strategy but some of these pillars are falling down. Rehabilitation in the State receives only a very small part of the resources. The city I represent does not have transition beds for people coming out of rehab who have been on heroin or prescription drugs for a long time and who may have lost vital social skills. We do not have this step-down facility in the second largest city in the State. If we are serious about harm reduction, then it is not just about rehabilitating people but ensuring services are there so when people come out, they can stay clean.

I can only agree with the Deputy on the importance of rehabilitation facilities and their being available at the point at which the addict is ready to make use of them. It is very problematic when there are waiting lists in this regard. We need to continue to invest in drug rehabilitation services. Of that there is no doubt.

Regarding the Deputy's question about the legal approach to drug use, I am sure he is familiar with the Oireachtas joint committee's report and what it stated about the position in Ireland. The committee considered the situation in Portugal and made some very interesting recommendations. No doubt they will be considered when the legislation on centres is brought before the House. The report did, however, recommend that in the future, while calling for the possession of drugs for personal use to continue to be considered prohibited behaviour, it be dealt with in an alternative manner by way of a civil-administrative response rather than being managed via the criminal justice route. I note the report which was both very comprehensive and very good and I know that it was being considered by the former Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. No doubt when the legislation is brought before the House, it will form part of the discussion.