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 beginning on 30th June, 2016 and ending on 29th June, 2017.”
The House will recall that the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 was enacted following the Omagh bombing in which 29 innocent people lost their lives at the hands of terrorists. That appalling act of inhumanity lives in all our memories and our sympathies remain with the victims and their families.
The 1998 Act was a robust response by the Oireachtas that made a series of amendments to the Offences against the State Acts to enhance the fight against terrorism. Principally, the Act provided for: changes in the rules of evidence for certain offences under the Acts, including the drawing of inferences in certain circumstances; the creation of new offences, such as directing an unlawful organisation, the possession of certain articles and collecting information; and extending to 72 hours the maximum period of detention permitted under section 30 of the Offences against the State Act 1939. That atrocity demanded a clear and resolute response from the State in defence of the desire of the vast majority of law-abiding people on this island to live their lives in peace.
Section 18 of the 1998 Act, as amended by section 37 of the Criminal Justice Act 1999, provides that sections 2 to 4, 6 to 12, 14 and 17 must be renewed by the Oireachtas at specified intervals if they are to remain in force. By virtue of resolutions passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas in June 2015, these sections were continued in force for a period of 12 months.
Prior to moving any motion for renewal, the Act requires that I lay before the Oireachtas a report on the operation of the relevant provisions. The present report covers the period from 1 June 2015 to 31 May 2016 and was laid before the House on 10 June 2016.
The report, based on information provided by the Garda authorities, sets out the numbers of instances in which the various sections in question have been used over the period. The report also includes a table showing comparative usage for each of the years since the Act came into operation. The report indicates that two sections, namely, sections 6 and 12, were not used during the reporting period in question. However, it should not be inferred from this that these provisions are in some way redundant or unnecessary as the usage of the different sections varies from year to year.
It is the clear view of the Garda Commissioner that the Act continues to be a most important tool in ongoing efforts in the fight against terrorism. The Garda authorities have stated that the provisions of the Act are used regularly, which is evident from the report I have laid before the House. They are, in short, a necessary legislative support in the fight against terrorism.
The fact remains that there is a real and lethal threat on this island from so-called dissident paramilitary groups that are fundamentally opposed to peace. There has been and there will be no let-up in actions to tackle these groups. My decision to bring the second Special Criminal Court into operation was made in response to this threat. The court is now up and running. This underlines my determination and that of the Government to deal with serious crime affecting the security of the State.
The threat level in Northern Ireland is severe. The appalling murder of a Northern Ireland prison officer, Adrian Ismay, earlier this year highlights the morally vacant and nihilistic path followed by these groups in direct opposition to the democratic wishes and efforts of the majority on this island. The Garda authorities work tirelessly and in co-operation with their counterparts in the PSNI to counter the activities of these paramilitary organisations. They deserve credit for their ongoing work. A key priority for me is to combat the security threat. The additional funding I have secured for the Garda Vote this year will be partly used to support measures against terrorism. The Government and I are determined that these groups will not prevail. I know we have the support of right-thinking people in this House. It would be a happy day if legislative provisions such as these were no longer needed. The sad truth is that such a day has not yet arrived.
The second motion before the House proposes the continuation in force for another year of section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009. Section 8 provides for a limited number of serious organised crime offences to be tried in the Special Criminal Court, thereby removing the possibility of jury-tampering or the intimidation of jurors or potential jurors. The offences in question are set out in Part 7 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006. Section 71A of the 2006 Act relates to directing the activities of a criminal organisation, section 72 relates to participating in or contributing to certain activities of a criminal organisation, section 73 relates to committing a serious offence for a criminal organisation and section 76 relates to liability for these offences committed by a body corporate. The 2009 Act deems that these offences are scheduled offences for the purposes of Part V of the Offences Against the State Act 1939. While this means the Special Criminal Court will hear trials for these offences, the Director of Public Prosecutions retains the power to direct that they should be tried in the ordinary courts.
As I said in my remarks on the previous motion, section 8(6) of the 2009 Act provides that in order to assist the Oireachtas in its consideration of these matters, I must prepare and lay before both Houses a report on the operation of the section in question. A report covering the period from 1 June 2015 to 31 May 2016 was laid before the House on 10 June last. Section 8 was not used during the period in question. It has not been used since 2009, but this neither invalidates the reasoning for having such a provision available to us for use in the appropriate circumstances nor diminishes its potential value in bringing organised criminals to justice. In fact, the operation of this provision to date highlights the considered approach of the DPP in using her discretion to direct that cases should be tried in the ordinary courts where it is possible to do so. Its critics might do well to bear in mind that this is positive proof of the balance that has been struck with this provision as a robust but proportionate power. In the period under report, there were 17 arrests under two of the four offences covered by section 8, comprising seven arrests under section 72 and ten arrests under section 73. Sections 71A and 76 were not used in the reporting period in question. Of course, a variety of other provisions of the criminal law have been and are used against gangs. My Department is examining whether other changes to the law might be made to tackle these gangs. I will bring forward changes to the law shortly to strengthen the powers of the Criminal Assets Bureau to seize the proceeds of crime.
None of us can be under any illusions about the dangers to society from organised crime. Recent gang-related murders in Dublin and the Dublin region have placed in stark relief the utter disregard of organised criminals for human life and the rule of law. Counteracting this danger presents very real challenges for the State. I assure the House that the Government is fully committed to giving An Garda Síochána the necessary resources to confront these criminal thugs and bring them to justice. As I have said, to this end I have secured substantial additional funding of €55 million for An Garda Síochána for the remainder of 2016. These funds will, among other things, be used to support the necessary activities to target gang-related crime. The Garda Commissioner has made clear to me her view that this provision will be required for some time to come. As Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, I must have the utmost regard for her analysis. Trial by jury is the standard for our system. It should be preserved to the greatest extent possible. However, none of us can afford to ignore the threat to the rule of law from violent organised criminals who will stop at nothing to protect themselves and their profits. We are duty-bound as legislators to ensure we respond robustly but proportionately to that threat. I commend these motions to the House.