I thank the committee for taking these resolutions from the Dáil and Seanad. The purpose of the resolutions is to provide for the continuation in operation of section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009 for a period beginning on 23 July 2010 and ending on 30 June 2011.
I brought forward the measures contained in the 2009 Act to take further action to address the increasing levels of violence by gangs involved in organised criminal activity. I wanted, in particular, to target those who direct the activities of criminal gangs. However, given the nature of any organised criminal activity, it was also important to target those who participate in these activities.
The Act came into force on 23 July 2009. It primarily provided for the trial of organised crime offences in the Special Criminal Court unless the DPP directs otherwise; the creation of a new offence of directing or controlling a criminal organisation; an increase in the maximum penalty for the offence of participation or involvement in organised crime; the court, with regard to all organised crime offences, to be able to draw inferences from failure to answer questions, failure to account for movements, actions, activities or associations; and an increase in the penalty for the intimidation of a witness or juror from ten to 15 years imprisonment.
The committee will no doubt be aware that the provisions which I brought in under the 2009 Act, together with the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009, have been invaluable to the Garda Síochána in tackling organised crime. There are a number of cases before the courts at present against persons arrested for the offences of directing the activities of a criminal organisation and for participating in the activities of a criminal organisation.
Section 8 of the 2009 Act is the subject of these resolutions. It is aimed at ensuring that organised criminal gangs cannot interfere with the court process to influence the outcome of cases. This is achieved by providing for the trial of these offences without a jury. For this purpose the section declares that the ordinary courts are inadequate to secure the effective administration of justice and the preservation of public peace and order in relation to certain offences.
Section 8(4) provides that the section shall cease to be in operation 12 months from the passing of the Act, that is, 23 July 2010, unless a resolution has been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas resolving that it should continue in operation for a further period to be decided in the resolutions.
Section 8(6) provides that before a resolution to continue section 8 in operation is passed, the Minister shall prepare a report, which shall be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas, on the operation of the Act in the period under report. I laid such a report before both Houses on 22 June 2010. In addition, and as a courtesy to you, Chairman, and to the party spokespersons, I also forwarded copies of the report to you and to them directly.
The section provides that certain organised crime offences under Part 7 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, as amended, are schedule offences for the purposes of Part V of the Offences against the State Act 1939. This means that the Special Criminal Court will hear prosecutions for the offences in question. However, the Director of Public Prosecutions may still exercise his power to direct that the offences should be tried in the ordinary courts.
In summary, the four offences covered by section 8 are set out in Part 7 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, as amended. They are section 71A — directing the activities of a criminal organisation, section 72 — participating in or contributing to certain activities of a criminal organisation, section 73 — committing a serious offence for a criminal organisation, and section 76 — liability for offences committed by a body corporate.
I will not take up the committee's limited time with a detailed description of the offences — more detail on them is included in the appendix to the report.
Organised crime continues to present a significant problem in the State as there are a number of criminal gangs which continue to engage in serious offences. There is, unfortunately, plenty of evidence of the willingness of these gangs to engage in murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, drug smuggling, counterfeiting and other serious offences.
In passing the 2009 Act, I do not think anyone expected instant results. Given the nature of organised crime, the investigation and prosecution process can be lengthy and difficult, particularly given the power that criminal gangs hold over those who are involved with them. The 2009 Act has been in operation for just under a year at this stage and while there have been arrests under the relevant sections of the Act, no cases have yet come before the Special Criminal Court. This does not, however, invalidate the reason for having such a provision available for use in appropriate circumstances.
The use of the Act to date serves to highlight the considered approach of the Director of Public Prosecutions and vindicates the way in which the provision is constructed, allowing him, and him alone, to exercise his power to direct that cases should be tried in the ordinary courts.
The Garda Commissioner is of the view that this provision is likely to be required for some time to come. I must have the utmost regard to the views of the Garda authorities in matters such as this. It is absolutely essential to ensure that the Garda has at its disposal the best possible range of powers to face up to organised criminal gangs.
In the period under report, from the passing of the Act to 21 June 2010, there has been a total of 69 persons arrested under the provisions of sections 71A, 72 and 73 with a total of two charges being made under section 71A — directing a criminal organisation — and six charges for offences under section 72 — participating in or contributing to a criminal gang.
The arrests made also have resulted in charges being preferred to a range of other serious offences, including firearms offences, drug trafficking, threats to kill, theft, demanding money with menaces and aggravated burglary.
The Garda authorities devote considerable resources, from across the Garda organisation, to their efforts to tackle organised crime and they deserve our praise for the success they have had against a number of those involved in these criminal gangs. I compliment the Garda Síochána on its expeditious response to the most recent tiger kidnapping where it has been successful in recovering a substantial amount of the money taken two days ago. Without going into the details of the case, I understand a number of people have been arrested. The Garda Síochána deserves great credit in this and in other similar circumstances. It brings to mind the necessity for the protocols in place and that they be implemented in order that staff in the banks can be protected and, obviously, the criminal gangs cannot get their hands on money from the banks. The Garda Commissioner has made it clear time and again that there will be no let up in the action taken against these gangs. He has my and the Government's full support in that approach.
Let me be blunt about it — the thugs involved in organised crime are desperate people who will stop at nothing to avoid being brought to account for their crimes. Violence and intimidation are a way of life for these people and we have a duty to make sure that the criminal justice system can hold sway over them. To that end, we must ensure that in the most serious of cases where jury intimidation is a real possibility the law has the means available to bring serious criminals to account.
On balance, I consider that the period for which I propose to renew this section is a proportionate one. The 2009 Act provided for a period of one year for the provision to be in operation before its continuance in operation should be considered. The period now proposed, running from the current expiry date up to 30 June 2011, corresponds closely to that. If it is proposed to continue the provision in operation after that date the Oireachtas will again have to consider the matter.