Priority Questions

Garda Investigations

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

11. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality if she will consider putting in place an independent investigation into allegations made against An Garda Síochána in respect of the death of a person (details supplied) and for an independent investigation into allegations made by another person (details supplied). [27624/16]

The question relates to a request to establish independent investigations into two matters, namely, the death of Shane O'Farrell and the circumstances pertaining to Ms Cynthia Owen and allegations she has made. Both of these cases will be known to the Minister who has communicated with me and the O'Farrell family in respect of the former case. The family is coming near to the end of the road in terms of seeking satisfaction. The case against an accused person was dismissed but outstanding issues of concern to the family remain. In my opinion, these issues merit further investigation.

The background to the two cases referred to in the Deputy's question are truly tragic and both are deserving of our sympathy and understanding. It is worth pointing out that both cases were considered under the independent review mechanism established recently to review certain allegations of Garda misconduct or inadequacies, if any, in the investigation of certain allegations. A panel consisting of two senior and five junior counsel was established for this purpose. The counsel appointed to the panel were nominated by the Attorney General and were all selected on the basis of their experience of the criminal justice system. Very experienced senior and junior counsel examined the cases.

In the first case, the recommendation made by counsel was that I take no further action. A letter setting out the outcome and recommendation, and the reasons for these, was issued to the complainant last December. My predecessor referred aspects of this particular case to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, and that investigation has not concluded. A civil action has also been initiated against the State. I will await the completion of these processes and examine their outcomes. At that point, I will consider whether and what further options, if any, are open to me.

In the second case, the recommendation made by counsel was also that I should take no further action. This has been made known to the complainant. The Deputy will recall that the case was the subject of a review by Mr. Patrick Gageby, senior counsel, who was asked by the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Senator Michael McDowell, to examine the case. Arising from his detailed analysis of the case, Mr. Gageby advised the then Minister and Government against establishing any further inquiry. Following receipt of Mr Gageby's report by the then Minister, the legal representatives of the person concerned were given access to it. Following consultation with them, it was decided not to publish the report. Notwithstanding this, I referred the case to the independent review mechanism, which had access to Mr. Gageby's report. As I stated, the independent review mechanism panel recommended that I take no further action in the case.

In summary, I would like the outstanding processes in respect of the first case, namely, the civil case against the State and me, to be completed. As I outlined, there has already been an inquiry in the second case.

In respect of the Shane O'Farrell case, I am conscious that the Minister has met the O'Farrell family and that her predecessor met the family in April 2014. On foot of the latter meeting, it was agreed that GSOC would carry out an investigation into the matter. While the family welcomed the investigation at the time, two years and five months have passed and there does not seem to be a report from GSOC forthcoming.

The chairperson of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission appeared before the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality last week. While I could not raise specific cases with her, I asked her what was the position in respect of the delay in GSOC investigations. One of the interesting points made at the meeting was that GSOC has very little sanction in terms of trying to compel the Garda to provide answers or information. The O'Farrell family are being told an inquiry is ongoing in GSOC but they have been given no indication as to when it will conclude. It is highly unsatisfactory for the family to be told they are being given an inquiry, only to have the inquiry drag on without any definite end date.

In the second case, I have not had an opportunity to read the report of Mr. Gageby and I do not know whether the allegations made are true and I do not stand over them. However, the respected solicitor acting on behalf of Ms Owen has indicated that this is a matter of ongoing concern and he has raised the matter with me.

The annual report from GSOC for last year demonstrates very clearly that 96% of all requests made to the Garda for information from GSOC were given to it within the 30-day period. There was a small percentage where there was a longer timeframe but we have established protocols and there has been an improved relationship between GSOC and the Garda in terms of compliance. I welcome that and I would add that we expect full compliance in a timely way.

While I understand the Deputy's concern, the GSOC inquiry is underway and there will be a conclusion. I believe the Deputy will understand that, given the civic action against the State and the GSOC inquiry are not concluded, I need to see the outcome of both of those processes and then consider the position. I have said I am willing to do it in the first case the Deputy has raised. Let us see the outcome of both of those examinations and then decide whether there should be further action at that point.

An inquiry into the Shane O'Farrell matter should not be an inquiry that would last two and a half years. From having spoken to the family, I know there are many broad issues they refer to, which is understandable. However, when we get to the core of the allegation that is being made, it rests primarily on two points. First, on the day that young Shane was killed, the car was stopped by a member of An Garda Síochána and was allowed to go on, despite the fact there was no tax on the vehicle and it was not roadworthy. The second and more serious allegation is that the accused, who was subsequently acquitted of serious charges but who did plead guilty to failing to stop at the scene of an accident, was previously on bail in respect of offences and it appears this was not adequately recorded by the Garda on the Pulse system. This may have had an impact in a subsequent court case where the accused was before the court but the judge was not apprised of this relevant information.

I know the Minister is concerned and I appreciate her comments in this respect. If the GSOC report comes back, I will be holding her to what I believe should be an agreement that the family deserves an inquiry if the GSOC report indicates there are further matters that merit investigation.

With regard to the timeframe, the Department received an update from GSOC in July 2016. In that latest update, GSOC stated that the investigation was at an advanced stage and arrangements were being put in place to meet with some gardaí who have yet to be interviewed. I very much hope, as Deputy O'Callaghan does, that this work can be concluded very soon. I have met the family, who have been through terrible trauma with the loss of their son in the circumstances the Deputy has outlined. They will have access to the GSOC report and recommendations as soon as possible.

Sentencing Policy

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

12. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality her plans for updating and strengthening the sentences that can be imposed on persons convicted of possession of firearms with intent to injure and-or kill; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27625/16]

The reason I put down this question about firearms is that, a number of months ago, Deputy Declan Breathnach introduced me to a postmistress from a post office in County Louth who had been through an extremely harrowing experience when she was subjected to a raid on the post office, not once, but twice. I am sure the Minister will agree that offences which are committed with the use of firearms are astonishingly serious. They are distinguished from other criminal offences where individuals on the spur of the moment may not involve themselves in a premeditated act, although they involve themselves in criminality nonetheless. We need to have greater codification and increased sentences in respect of the possession of firearms.

There are very severe penalties in place for firearm offences under the Firearms Acts 1925 to 2009. A person possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life is liable to a minimum of ten years imprisonment and up to a maximum of life imprisonment and a fine at the discretion of the court. The court has some discretion in applying these minimum sentences in the case of a first offence, depending on the circumstances concerned, but not in the case of a second or subsequent offence. This and other mandatory minimum sentences for firearms offences were introduced on foot of concerns regarding the impact this type of offence had on society, on individuals and on communities.

I want to put on record that much progress has made in tackling gun crime in Ireland and the statistics are as follows. The number of offences relating to the possession and discharge of a firearm fell by 52%, from 745 in 2005 to 356 in 2015, while incidents of assault, burglary, robbery and murder involving a firearm are down 28%, from 455 to 329. Of course, if one is the person being assaulted in this way, one case is one too many, which I accept. However, the sentencing regime is quite tough and I am not sure there is scope for any further strengthening, although I am happy to consider any specific suggestions the Deputy may have.

Gun crime must be tackled aggressively by An Garda Síochána and this is being done through a range of targeted and intelligence-based operations, which often disrupt incidents and ensure we detect and prosecute those involved.

The Minister is correct to state there are certain offences associated with firearms which carry very serious sentences, such as the ones she has identified. However, there are other offences which do not carry the same sentence, such as reckless discharge of a firearm or possession of a firearm or ammunition in suspicious circumstances. We need to have a codified and consistent approach to offences with the use of firearms.

As I mentioned at the outset, when somebody gets involved with possession of a firearm for the purpose of illegal activity, there is no doubt but that the person is going to be involved in predetermined criminal activity. We need to send out a message that the use of firearms in criminal activity is an offence which carries very special and serious penalties. It is for that reason we should look again at this issue. It is not just the Minister's responsibility to introduce new laws, which is something any member of the House can do. However, I believe the other offences in association with the use of a firearm need to be strengthened so, for example, persons who are holding onto a firearm or minding a firearm, or using a firearm for activities which they may not think are going to result in the death of an individual, are aware there are very serious criminal sanctions. It is simply unacceptable for people in this society to have firearms for illegal activity. We do not want to find ourselves in a situation where it becomes acceptable over time. We need to stamp down on it promptly.

The House might be interested to know that a High Court judgment of 9 May 2016, with which I am sure the Deputy is familiar, upheld the constitutionality of the mandatory minimum sentence provisions for repeat firearm offences. Mr. Justice Twomey adjudicated it is within the rights of the Oireachtas to make such provisions, having regard to public safety and the protection of citizens. He also made reference to the fact the Garda Síochána is a unarmed force and that strong legal provision for firearms offences acts as a deterrent. Indeed, in regard to some of the particular issues the Deputy has raised, section 27A of the Firearms Act 1964 provides for mandatory minimum sentences of at least five years, with the possibility of up to 14 years for those convicted of possession of a firearm in suspicious circumstances. Under section 27B of the 1964 Act, it is also an offence to carry a firearm with criminal intent, and that also attracts a minimum sentence of five years, with a possible maximum sentence of 14 years.

Therefore, if some codification is needed, or if there are any issues the Deputy would like to forward to me in this regard, I will certainly ask the Department to examine them. However, I am satisfied there are strong sentencing deterrents available for people who would carry firearms in this jurisdiction. The reduction in offences shows that people are getting that message but it is an ongoing issue.

Crime Data

Ruth Coppinger

Question:

13. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality if she will support the commissioning of another report so that there is an accurate picture of the current position of sexual abuse and violence and domestic violence given it has been more than 14 years since the Sexual Assault and Violence in Ireland, SAVI, report; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27436/16]

My question relates to the commissioning of another SAVI, Sexual Assault and Violence in Ireland, report. It is 14 years since the previous one was done. It was considered landmark research at the time and was carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the Rape Crisis Centre in conjunction with two Departments. We now need to update the position and find out if there has been any change in the prevalence of sexual abuse and violence and domestic violence.

We have not had a second SAVI report but the overall cost of a second report has been investigated. I held meetings with the researchers who were involved in the original SAVI report. The cost would be approximately €1 million, although that would be subject to tender. The previous SAVI report cost more than €600,000. It is a question of whether we can find the funding of €1 million for the project. We continue to investigate the feasibility of doing it from a financial point of view, taking into account the resource implications and a funding stream that might be able to support such work. As a Minister, I am very keen on research-based interventions. However, we must strike a balance between funding front-line services which so badly require funding and providing money for research.

A number of other research streams are available to us. For example, in March 2014 the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights launched the results of the largest ever violence against women survey in the EU. That contained details of the prevalence of various types of domestic violence by a partner experienced by those women surveyed who were resident in Ireland. I am sure Deputy Coppinger is familiar with the report. The numbers of citizens who are exposed to either domestic or sexual violence is disturbing. It is very important to know the prevalence of such violence. In the crime categories the CSO published today, sexual offences have increased by 13%, from 2,162 to 2,442, an increase of 280 in that category.

We also have information coming from the rape crisis centres in their annual reports. It is a question of identifying the data that are most useful and needed. Cosc is an organisation that deals with abuse and violence and its data committee is actively working with a variety of criminal justice agencies to try to agree on a gold standard approach.

I already saw a reply the Minister made to another Deputy which referred to the cost of €1 million for such a report. I am amazed that the lack of €1 million is considered a deterrent and barrier to carrying out vital research over three years. It is not just to see if things have changed. It is also to see what has been the experience of women and others who have suffered domestic violence in the courts and with the Garda. We know there is significant under-reporting of the issue.

In terms of the argument concerning research versus front-line delivery, how can we tackle a problem if we do not know the extent of it? Moreover, I believe we need to advertise the fact throughout society that violence against women in any shape or form is unacceptable. That is not the current culture in society. In light of the recent murder-suicide case, which is the ultimate act of domestic violence and is not perhaps recognised as such by the media and society, it is all the more important that the issue would be investigated by the Department.

The only piece of research on murder-suicide cases shows there have been 19 such incidents in the period from 2000 to 2013. According to CSO figures, during that period there were 6,033 deaths recorded as suicide.

In response to the point Deputy Coppinger made about communicating with the wider public, we have just launched a €6 million investment programme over six years, the first three years of which will focus on domestic violence and the second three years on sexual violence. The target is to ensure that people are aware of the kind of actions they can take to interrupt both domestic and sexual violence. The information campaign will start in November. I fully agree with Deputy Coppinger that we need to ensure the entire community works to interrupt acts of domestic and sexual violence and takes action.

In the previous SAVI report, there were some findings that bear out a need for further research. A total of 42% of women and 28% of men reported some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime. A third of women had some level of sexual abuse in childhood. A total of 23% of perpetrators of abuse against women were partners and ex-partners whereas the figure for male victims is 1%. We have a serious issue with violence against women in this society and culture. Unfortunately, it seems there is still serious underfunding. We are told we are in a recovery situation. The Government has just turned down the possibility of billions of euro in tax collection from one of the largest multinationals on the planet and it beggars belief to turn around and say €1 million cannot be found to do the report.

The Minister is aware of the Women's Aid report as she attended its launch. Two issues must be addressed by the Department, namely, stalking, which is experienced by a significant number of women when they break up a relationship, and now we know about the online dangers of same and, second, quite incredibly, the fact one cannot get an emergency barring order outside of office hours or a barring order if one is not in a cohabiting relationship involving a child. It is incredible that we still do not cater for women who have an unmarried relationship but do not have a child. That is something Women's Aid has raised as a pressing issue.

Following the launch of the Women's Aid report, I attended a meeting between the Courts Service and Women's Aid, which I organised in order to discuss the range of issues raised in the report about the state of the family court services and the need to improve them but, equally, there were other issues. Some of the issues Deputy Coppinger raised will be addressed in the sexual offences Bill, which will be debated in the Dáil next week. The Law Reform Commission has addressed some of the other points the Deputy made. We will examine the Law Reform Commission report as a matter of urgency because there are offences relating to online harassment and stalking and we need to update the legislation in regard to them.

I have an open mind on the commissioning of a second SAVI report. If the money can be found, I will ensure it is done. I appreciate the value of all-island reports looking at the prevalence of issues such as this as they can guide interventions. I will work hard to ensure the money can be found.

Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission

Mick Wallace

Question:

14. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality the steps she proposes to take in view of the call from the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, for urgent legislative change to enable it to carry out functions appropriately; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27626/16]

Last week at the justice committee, Judge Mary Ellen Ring expressed her frustration at GSOC's lack of power to hold An Garda Síochána to account. We warned the Minister about that when we debated the legislation. The minimal changes introduced ensured that GSOC as a body was designed to fail, which is the current situation. Gardaí are not co-operating. They are withholding information and documents when it suits them. What is the Minister going to do about it?

I do not agree with the Deputy's analysis of GSOC. The GSOC report from 2015 indicated that it had received full responses to 93.6% of requests within the time limit of 30 days, with only 6.4% unfulfilled at 30 days. That represents a significant improvement in compliance with the protocols over 2013 and 2014. The average time taken to receive a compliant response was 22 days in 2015. There has been a huge improvement in the provision of data that need to be given by the Garda Síochána to GSOC. I can only encourage the Garda to improve on the 22 day timeline and to encourage and request the Garda Síochána to make sure there is 100% compliance.

Having said that, the Government appointed Judge Mary Ellen Ring just one year ago.

She is an excellent chairperson of GSOC. As the Deputy said, she spoke in front of the justice committee last week. I will certainly take what she had to say into account. I will meet her to discuss the details of further changes to the legislation that she has said she feels would be worth considering.

GSOC is getting on with a lot of work in the meantime, dealing with many complaints, managing them well and dealing with victims who have come forward. Its work is extremely important. As I said, An Garda Síochána has made considerable improvements in the rate of compliance and with regard to the timeframe. That is what is important. In general, the chairperson of GSOC called for changes to Part 4 of the Garda Síochána Act, which deals with the investigation of complaints, and referred to minor service issues that she felt should be managed by Garda line management, and I certainly agree with her about that. Those issues should be dealt with from a management perspective, as opposed to the disciplinary procedures by which they are dealt at present. I have had several discussions about changing that because it would make the procedures far more efficient if we got to that point.

The chairperson did not paint the same rosy picture that the Minister has painted. Sadly, by way of a couple of examples, GSOC has waited two years on documents from the whistleblowers, Nicky Kehoe and Keith Harrison, after asking for them. The documents in respect of one of them have eventually arrived. The Garda Commissioner says in public that she supports whistleblowers. I ask the Minister what has the Garda Comissioner done to demonstrate her support for whistleblowers. Has she telephoned them? Has she written to them? Has she met them? They do not feel her support. They do not think that she has any appetite for what they have to say. We all must agree at this stage that whistleblowers are the key. If it were not for Maurice McCabe and John Wilson, we probably still would not even have a Policing Authority, even if it is not as independent as we would like it to be. We would not even be here without whistleblowers and still they are not getting the respect they are due.

As I have said in the House previously, robust procedures are increasingly being put in place within An Garda Síochána to make sure that the concerns raised by Garda whistleblowers are dealt with appropriately and the Deputy has heard the Garda Commissioner herself talk about them. We have passed the Protected Disclosures Act, which is a very robust statutory framework within which workers, including members of An Garda Síochána, can raise concerns regarding potential wrongdoing. I believe that GSOC has the necessary independence and powers to carry out any investigation that is needed or that arises but the legislation does provide a comprehensive suite of employment and other protections to whistleblowers who are penalised by their employer or suffer a detriment from a third party on account of raising concerns. We know the change in the culture of any organisation takes time, but there is clearly an obligation to put in place the best supports for whistleblowers so that people feel confident about coming forward, that there are procedures in place and that they will not feel further penalised because of the action that they have taken. The Deputy knows that An Garda Síochána is also working with Transparency Ireland to look at various procedures and that it has clearer mechanisms in place now to support whistleblowers than were there previously.

Judge Mary Ellen Ring also made the point that the protected disclosures system is not working as well as she would like it to work. The Minister should take a look at what she said. I am not making it up. She talked about GSOC not having the teeth to do what it would like to do. We said the same about the Policing Authority. Today Josephine Feehily was before the justice committee. Given that the Policing Authority has been considering the O'Higgins report, one of its earlier jobs, which raised serious concerns about the role the Garda Commissioner played in her efforts to undermine the credibility of Maurice McCabe, I asked Ms Feehily what she was doing about it. If Maurice McCabe had not taped that meeting in Mullingar, he would have been thrown under the bus. Does the Minister know what Ms Feehily said? She said it was outside of her remit and that it was up to the Minister. If the Minister fails to hold the Garda Commissioner to account, there is a great fear that the Minister could go the same way as a former Minister for Justice and Equality, because she cannot ignore what is in the O'Higgins report. Sadly, the Policing Authority, which we knew did not have enough teeth, does not have the authority to hold the Commissioner to account, but the Minister does. Will she do so?

What this Government and the last Government have done is put in place a new Policing Authority with an important role in this country to hold the police to account in a public way. It has started that work, as the country knows, and it is getting on with it. It is examining a whole range of issues regarding the management of the Garda Síochána and having ongoing private and public discussions with the Garda on a range of important issues. That is the biggest reform to the Garda Síochána that this country has seen, so I do not accept the Deputy's description once again. We see major change regarding the role of GSOC, the Garda Inspectorate and the Policing Authority. Implementing the various recommendations is what is important, as well as making sure that the many recommendations - I think there are more than 1,000 at this stage - from the various reports that have been carried out into An Garda Síochána are continued. We are making sure that An Garda Síochána has the resources and that that is what it is doing from a management perspective.

Question No. 15 replied to with Written Answers.