Cross-Border Co-operation in Policing and Justice: Discussion with Northern Ireland Minister for Justice

Apologies have been received from Lady Sylvia Hermon, MP, Mr. Mark Durkan, MP, Dr. Alasdair McDonnell, MP, and Mr. Pat Doherty, MP. Members will understand these people were here on Tuesday for our first ever joint meeting with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. They regret they could not return a second time this week and send their apologies.

I remind members and those in the Gallery to ensure their mobile phones and Blackberries are totally switched off for the duration of this meeting because they cause interference with the recording equipment in the committee rooms, even when on silent.

The minutes of the meeting of 9 November 2010 have been circulated. Are any matters arising? No. Are the minutes agreed? Agreed.

Is onóir mhór dom céad míle fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Dlí agus Cirt ó thaobh Thuaidh ár dTíre, an tUasal David Ford, MLA. Is ócáid stairiúil dúinn uilig go bhfuil sé anseo linn. It is a great honour for me and a unique pleasure to welcome Mr. David Ford, MLA, Minister for Justice for Northern Ireland. I have known the Minister, Mr. Ford, since 1993 when we both participated in the initial strand 2 talks in Stormont. When leadership, vision and mutual respect were earnestly needed in the dark and difficult days in Northern Ireland, the Minister, Mr. Ford, displayed those qualities with a calm demeanour which was of major assistance at a crucial time in the peace process. We are deeply honoured and grateful to him and his colleagues in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland for what they have contributed over the years and the balance they brought to Northern Ireland affairs in dark and difficult days.

For the Minister's information, this committee was established in October 2007 as a cross-party committee of both Houses of Parliament, Oireachtas Éireann, to consider issues arising from Ireland's role as a signatory to the Good Friday Agreement and ongoing developments on the implementation of the Agreement. The committee has two complementary interests. First, it considers institutional issues arising out of the implementation of the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements. Second, following from the institutional arrangements we are keen to support areas of practical North-South cross-Border co-operation. On the institutional side, we welcome a key milestone in that regard this year with the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.

We salute the Minister and congratulate him on his appointment to this prestigious and important position on this island, particularly in his own functional area. The Minister stated in his speech in Castle Buildings on 7 June that the devolution of justice and policing provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the justice system in Northern Ireland and, through partnership, build a safer Northern Ireland with lower levels of crime, safe shared communities and justice for all. Members of this committee are keen to hear from the Minister about the role North-South co-operation in policing and justice can play in seizing that opportunity.

I remind everybody present that members are protected by the long-standing parliamentary practice, or long-standing rule of the Chair, to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If anybody is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and you continue to do so you are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise or make charges against any person or persons, or entity, by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Mr. Ford, it is a great pleasure to give you the opportunity now to address this committee. You are warmly welcome among us.

Mr. David Ford, MLA

I thank the Chairman for his very warm welcome, the complimentary remarks he paid to me and my party colleagues, and the assistance the staff of his committee have given in facilitating this visit today. It is a great pleasure for me to be here with my colleagues. I welcome the opportunity to address the committee, as the Chairman said, as the first devolved justice Minister in Northern Ireland for 38 years and, I would add, the first ever elected by the Assembly on a cross-community basis.

Since becoming Minister I have welcomed and been impressed by the level of support, co-operation and goodwill which has come from institutions in this jurisdiction to me and to my colleagues personally from my counterpart, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and corporately from the Department of Justice and Law Reform. In particular, I am happy to see the co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, and the Garda Síochána. Some weeks ago I attended the most recent Garda graduation ceremony at Templemore where I received a warm welcome from Garda families as well as from Garda institutions and senior command.

I have had the opportunity to work with the Minister, Deputy Ahern, bilaterally on a number of occasions and trilaterally along with Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice Minister. We have examined in great detail issues such as PSNI and Garda co-operation on security, cross-Border organised crime and wider crime matters.

Co-operation between the criminal justice agencies on both sides of the Border is critical and I am aware that the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, is committed to working closely with the institutions in Northern Ireland, as I am committed to working closing with institutions in this jurisdiction. I meet the Minister, Deputy Ahern, regularly under the auspices of the intergovernmental agreement on criminal justice co-operation, and one of our scheduled meetings is arranged in Dublin tomorrow. That is an indication of the frequency with which those meetings happen. At that meeting we will be updated on ongoing co-operation between the criminal justice agencies and we will also review progress on a joint work programme which we agreed at our last formal meeting in July.

We are also due to speak tomorrow at a seminar which has been jointly organised by the Probation Board for Northern Ireland and the Probation Service here to showcase examples of innovative interventions with offenders and to share information on what works in that regard. That is another firm example of good cross-Border work being done to maximise the opportunities for both agencies.

There will be huge challenges for the future but it is important on an occasion like this to recognise how far we have moved in Northern Ireland in the past 12 years. Major transformation in the justice and policing systems took place starting with the Patten report and also the criminal justice review in terms of what has now led to the devolution of justice. Most of the institutional changes are now complete and it is a matter for us as to how we build on the new institutions, maximise the high levels of community confidence that already exists and build on the robust accountability mechanisms that have been put in place.

I believe that the opportunities of devolution are significant but they will take time to realise. We have set out in the speech in Castle Buildings, which the Chairman mentioned, and elsewhere an ambitious agenda to reshape the justice system in Northern Ireland to better meet the needs of the people there. I wish to highlight the main components of that agenda. They are access to justice in reforming publicly funded legal services in the legal aid system. On prison reform, we have a major review under way and it is clear there needs to be significant changes as we go forward. I introduced in the Assembly some weeks ago the first justice Bill for over a generation and, if passed, that will be the largest single piece of legislation in the four year term of this Assembly. We also recognise the need for justice to contribute to the building of a shared future, recognising mutual respect and equality, by moving beyond that to a sharing of currently contested space and recognition that to enhance people's quality of life we must move well beyond the boundaries that exist within our community.

The future challenges are clear, and I look forward to addressing them. A key issue in particular is to tackle the small number of people on this island who continue to believe they have the right to use violence against the dispensation which the overwhelming majority of us North and South voted for in 1998 and the overwhelming majority of us North and South continue to support.

We have to find ways of maintaining and improving the delivery of services to our community at a time when resources are reducing, although I suspect that is something on which we will find common interest also. We must also recognise the risk that the economic downturn brings in social and crime terms. I want to build on the progress that has been made in securing greater confidence in the policing and justice system as we move forward and in addressing the difficulties the legacy of conflict has left our community with.

This is the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. It is a measure of how far things have moved forward in 12 years that at the time of the Good Friday Agreement justice was thought to be too difficult an issue to be handled within Northern Ireland. There are many difficulties on the road we are on but that is a sign of how much we have achieved.

I warmly welcome Mr. Peter May, director of policing and community safety in the Northern Ireland Department of Justice, along with Ms Mairaid McMahon, private secretary to the Minister.

I also warmly welcome an official delegation from Kenya: the Hon. Nicolas Gumbo, MP, leader of the delegation; the Hon. Jakoyo Midiwo, MP; the Hon. David Were, MP; and Mr. Clement Nyandiere, delegation secretary. I had the pleasure of meeting this group yesterday with our Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen. You are all very welcome to our committee on an historic day and we hope you enjoy your visit to our country. Thank you for being here. We will open up the debate to members. I call Senator Keaveney.

While it is the first time the Minister has been before the committee in an official capacity, it is not the first time he has met most of us. I wish him well in what is a very difficult role and acknowledge that it was a cross-party decision to put him in the position he now holds, which is a great move forward in the North.

The concept of building community confidence is extremely important. The PSNI is gathering much of that confidence. The fact that it is gaining community confidence and that more Catholics are joining the PSNI has rattled a few cages. That has led, for example, to the attack on Peadar Heffron last January. We must continue to support the move to increased equality in terms of religious and gender balance in the PSNI. Those of us from all backgrounds must stand up and say we support a measure in the Good Friday Agreement, namely, the new policing arrangement and ensure that all the recommendations in the Patten report are implemented. We must ensure we are confident that the community has confidence in the PSNI. We empathise with the families of those who have lost loved ones and with those who have been injured, particularly in the context of a new dispensation where the island of Ireland has voted confidence in the new PSNI.

In terms of other firsts, attending a GAA match in Belfast was something I had not done often but to attend a GAA match involving the PSNI and the Garda and the London Metropolitan Police and the NYPD in the PSNI Headquarters this time last year was something my father would be very confused about if he was still alive but it was great to see that the North can and has moved and that many changes have taken place. It is all the more important, therefore, that those who want to undermine that are continually told that what they are doing is not what the vast majority of the people want.

I welcome also the work done on areas such as the sex offenders register in particular. We have a fluid Border in Donegal. The Dohertys and the McLoughlins might be from Inishowen but there are many of them in Derry. There is a cross-over of people for various reasons - economic, social, family and so on. I refer to the ability to work with those who want to commit offences and also with the victims of such offences. There is co-operation in health and in education but I underscore that it is recognised that is a great deal of co-operation in that area in policy terms as well as in pursuing sex offenders, and not only in terms of putting them on a register. It is important that work continues.

I got into a little bit of bother with some people in that I got a number of unsigned letters from people when I suggested there should be co-operation even with a bomb squad. I know that would raise hackles with, say, the British Army arriving into Donegal or something like that. We a bomb squad in Donegal which was transferred to Athlone, but if a dissident attack occurs in one's area, the idea of letting the dissidents wreak havoc for seven hours does not make much sense to me. I do not know if there is a sensitive way of co-operating in this area. Obviously, we would prefer it if there were no incidents to be dealt with but I raise the issue with a view to minimising the effectiveness of their disruption, which is important.

I welcome the recent opening of the Garda station in Buncrana, which represented a major investment by the Government in our own police service. The senior PSNI officers from the Derry region came over to it and that underscored visually the fact that there is a great deal of co-operation. It is important for people like myself from a republican background to acknowledge the co-operation in place to minimise the ability of offenders to abuse citizens by committing crimes. It is important to highlight the visible interaction to maximum the number of offenders who are caught and minimise the disruption caused. Such co-operation is an important element.

I would make the following comment, albeit half in jest, that if the Minister, Mr. Ford, ever talks to the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, about a job creation opportunity for Inishowen, he might consider a prison twinning programme between Magilligan Prison and our prison service for ODCs.

I wish to raise an issue I briefly raised with the Minister, Mr. Ford, in County Down. Many programmes have been shown on bank raids, an activity in which many criminals have got involved to get quick money and then they moved on to drug-related crime as a quick way get money. It seems there has been a move from Asia to European in terms of organised crime involved in sports. A significant amount of money is being made in gambling and exchange betting by those heavily involved in organised crime. This is happening in many sports on the island of Ireland. Sometimes matters have to get to a critical point before anybody realises what is happening. I do not know whether the Minister, Mr. Ford, is aware of this happening in his jurisdiction. If he is not, he might seek to become more aware of those activities. A number of reports of potential and possible match fixing were carried inBelfast Telegraph last year. That appears harmless at one level but on investigation one would learn that hundreds of millions, if not billions, of euros, is involved in such activity worldwide. This has led the Council of Europe to carry out a feasibility study on having a worldwide agency to deal with organised crime in sport, akin to that of the work of WADA, the world agency against drugs. I take this opportunity to make the Minister aware of this issue and to highlight the fact that organised crime knows no borders.

I welcome the Minister, Mr. Ford, and congratulate him on his new position. I also welcome the colleagues accompanying him and his colleagues in the Gallery. It is great to see the "working together" structures that are in place, North and South, at present. Living only a few miles from the Border, I possibly appreciate the situation more than most of my colleagues, although my colleague from Cavan-Monaghan, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, and Deputy Joe McHugh would be familiar with it. We have had a good deal to do with the Border over many years. I have known the Minister, Mr. David Ford, for a long time and respect him as a very straight, open and honest individual. He was the right person for the job in what was a very difficult decision for some people in Northern Ireland. It is was not the last but was one of the last rungs of the ladder as far as the Good Friday Agreement and St. Andrews Agreement are concerned.

I am fully aware of the level of close Border co-operation that exists between the Garda and the PSNI. I appreciate that our Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, is working closely with the Minister, Mr. Ford, because many issues need to be dealt with on a cross-Border basis. The majority of people do not even know where the Border lies. If one lives in the Clones area and were to travel the road from Clones to Cavan, one would cross the Border four or five times and it is difficult to know in which jurisdiction one is in. I wish to mention my satisfaction, and that of other political colleagues in the Clones area, with how closely the Garda and the PSNI have worked there in recent years and especially in recent months. It was the case that such co-operation work had to go through headquarters on both sides, which involved a good deal of delay. Now they are direct links between the local stations, which is a major move forward. Having talked to and met members of both the PSNI and Garda in that area, it has meant that some of the activities that were happening on the main road from Clones to Cavan have ceased or at least have been curtailed. I welcome such co-operation in that area.

I welcome also co-operation in many other areas. Having been directly involved with the Quinn family in south Armagh, I know how closely the PSNI and the Garda have worked together although unfortunately, as of yet we have not had closure on that issue but such co-operation at least has meant that the authorities were able to make house to house visits in their efforts to try to deal with that situation.

Clearly there are still major problems in that there is a small number of dissidents and I do not believe that they are only on the one side. We have to make sure that we continue to work together to ensure they this problem is addressed. I make no apology for maintaining pressure on the Minister, Deputy Ahern, to ensure that there are sufficient forces in the Border area to deal with that dissident group, and we need to continue to address that problem. As Senator Keaveney said earlier, it is nice to see the PSNI and the Garda together at social or church-based activities. That happened recently at the ordination of the new bishop in the Catholic cathedral in Monaghan town. It was lovely to see the representatives of each organisation sitting at the front of the church for that ceremony.

There are still many incidents occurring. Only last night I received a telephone call from my nephew who works in Belfast. The van he was driving to make deliveries was robbed. It was one of two vans belonging to the same company from which cigarettes were stolen yesterday. I have no doubt about the purpose for which the funds from that will be used. It is a serious ongoing situation. However, the important point the Minister made was about jobs. It is vital for the Six Counties and the Border counties that we concentrate on that issue. I was working on that at different UK structures. We must ensure that funds are provided to make jobs available. If people are working, there is less possibility of them getting involved in activities in which they might otherwise get involved.

I am delighted the Minister is present and I wish him well in his term of office. I know he will justify the trust that has been put in him to set up the new structures in Northern Ireland, structures that will work closely with similar structures south of the Border.

I call Deputy Ó Caoláin.

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, agus cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I join the Chairman and other speakers in extending a warm welcome to the Minister for Justice for Northern Ireland, Mr. David Ford. I had the pleasure of meeting him at previous engagements over the years and I sincerely wish him well with his responsibilities.

Unquestionably, the decision arrived at on 5 February this year was momentous, not only with regard to matters pertaining to policing and justice in the North of Ireland but also for the island of Ireland. It signalled, and in real terms has given rise to, significantly improved co-operation in addressing the various challenges that elements within society will present. This is evident across a number of areas, for example, forensic science, the register of sex offenders, which has already been mentioned, public protection and victim support. There are others.

Sinn Féin wishes to see the deficiencies in policing and justice addressed not only on a Six Counties basis but also on an all-Ireland basis. Our proposals for reform and development do not stop at the Border; we take an all-island view. We are cognisant of the challenges the PSNI faces with regard to the key principles of accountability, transparency and human rights compliance. These are principles that apply at all levels within the PSNI, from probationer to the Chief Constable. They are certainly challenges for the PSNI and there is evidence it is facing and addressing them. That must be encouraged. We also must recognise, and we are not in any way dilatory in this respect, our responsibilities as a party in terms of showing leadership in this process, which is very important. I hope that can equally be acknowledged. It is evident not only with regard to delivery of the progress to date but we are also committed to promoting further developments in line with our vision for policing and justice, and all-island co-operation in addressing these.

There are a number of points worthy of consideration. I do not know if particular questions are being put to the Minister but in our approach we have commended proposals, which I draw to the Minister's attention should he wish to make a response, which include the development and funding of a comprehensive evidence-based all-Ireland crime prevention strategy. We believe it should be under the auspices of the all-Ireland Ministerial Council. Such a strategy would be welcomed. We also propose the establishment of an inter-disciplinary Irish crime council. Such a body would be similar to the former National Crime Council in the Twenty-six Counties. Among its roles and responsibilities would be the provision of ongoing independent expertise, research and advice to stakeholders and both Governments on an all-island basis. The critical focus would be to ensure monitoring and synthesis of international best practice evidence regarding crime prevention would be available to hand.

Finally, in a more straightforward and less challenging proposal, we suggest the compilation and collation of crime statistics on a 32 county basis, not only in terms of divisional responses but across the island of Ireland on a cross-Border basis, reflecting the reality of local district and regional patterns as well as patterns across the island. We believe it would be very beneficial, informative and would provide meaningful data for determining where resources would best be deployed. The Minister, Mr. Ford, might have already heard these suggestions articulated by colleagues during his time to date in office.

Mr. Ford's appointment is further evidence of the continued commitment of all parties to the outworking of the promises contained in the Good Friday Agreement, which the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement is committed to seeing fully realised. I wish Mr. Ford well.

I join the congratulations to the Minister, Mr. Ford, on his appointment to the Ministry. The all-party nature of his appointment is highly significant. Bringing the justice and policing remit into the Government of Northern Ireland and making it Mr. Ford's remit was a huge evolution and development of the Good Friday Agreement. It represents an extraordinarily significant milestone. It is a huge element of the journey towards the achievement of all the objectives of the Good Friday Agreement. It was an area that posed much difficulty for a long time so it is highly significant that this has been achieved, that the Minister is in place and that we are having this dialogue today.

A very big element is building cross-community confidence in the PSNI. I labour at a slight disadvantage because I was a few minutes late due to a call, for which I apologise to the Chairman and the Minister. The Minister will have addressed this issue at the beginning of his presentation; I was only here for the latter part. I am interested to hear the statistics on the current position in terms of the stated religious mix of the PSNI, the gender mix and even the degree to which there is a non-national element in the force. It is critical for both police forces to reflect the multi-ethnic aspects of their respective jurisdictions. It is a vital point so I would be interested to see the relevant statistics in that regard. What is the Minister's take on how community confidence is being built? What barometers does he have in that respect? To what degree is he using the community policing model to reach local communities?

We are all concerned about the dissident threat and I presume Minister Ford addressed that in his speech. Without commenting specifically on operational matters, can he spell out in broad terms how he thinks the PSNI is coping with that situation?

I take his point that jobs constitute a major element in addressing this matter. Social and economic strategies are the best antidote. Good inter-educational structures, together with jobs and community-based activities, allow for positive policing. I support what Deputy Crawford said about employment. It is incumbent on both Governments to co-operate in this respect.

Yesterday, we attended a conference on green energy organised by the Spirit of Ireland. The island of Ireland's capacity to export green energy is enormous as is the job potential involved. Immediate co-operation is required in this area because the more jobs we create the less risk there is of crime. It will also mean that Minister Ford has less work on his desk.

It is great to know that North-South co-operation is continuing in a hands-on manner. Can Minister Ford comment on areas of co-operation where he thinks there is a potential for improvement? It is important for us to be aware of that. The existing co-operation is commendable but it would be even better if there were areas for possible improvement. I am glad to hear that there is low-level co-operation between police stations across the Border, which is where it is necessary.

I do not wish to repeat points that have been made by other speakers, but we are all excited to have arrived at this point. We want to ensure that co-operation is maximised. We are also concerned that the PSNI should gain complete cross-community membership and support. In addition, we need to know that we have the capacity to deal successfully with the dissident threat. We should be working towards an all-Ireland jobs strategy and in this regard there is tremendous potential in tourism. Socio-economic deprivation gives rise to crime and therein lies the solution. More specifically, however, we are addressing the policing dimensions today.

I welcome Minister Ford and his delegation to the committee. The devolution of powers earlier this year came about as a result of hard work. It is a welcome and historic day for the Oireachtas given that the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice is attending this committee alongside our own Minister for Justice and Law Reform.

As other members have said, it is great to see the ongoing co-operation between police forces of both jurisdictions. They are co-operating on a North-South basis and the level of co-operation is probably at an all-time high. It is wonderful to see that and long may it continue.

I wish to ask the Minister about the proposed human rights Bill, which is one of the outstanding issues under the Good Friday Agreement. I would like to hear his general views on it. Does he see it as something that would strengthen his hand as a Minister and that of his Department, as well as policing services on the ground? Does he have any advice regarding a timeframe for the Bill?

I apologise for not being here while Minister Ford was speaking. I welcome him warmly to the committee on this historic day. I am particularly impressed by the successful establishment of the PSNI, having regard to the legacy which was there before on both sides. I read the Patten report very carefully when it was published. Of the 170 or so recommendations, only a small number were specific to Northern Ireland. The rest comprised perhaps the most up-to-date consultancy report on a modern policing force anywhere in the world. After the next election, it is the intention of the future Labour Party-Fine Gael Government to implement many of the recommendations of the Patten report. They include, in particular, the role of the police authority and the interaction of citizens with policing personnel. If the Minister can do so, I would be interested to hear his experience of what role the authority and local policing boards have played in consolidating and building public confidence.

It is a pleasure to welcome our own Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern. I wish to thank him sincerely for making a great effort to attend the committee. I know he had an annual commitment at Garda headquarters this morning, so we appreciate his attendance here.

I thank the Chairman and wish to welcome Minister Ford and his officials. I also thank the committee for inviting us both to address it. I have just come from the annual religious ceremony for deceased members of the Garda Síochána. As always, there were prayers for fallen members of the PSNI, the RUC and the RIC. That is another manifestation of the mutual respect between members of the security services in both jurisdictions.

Hardly a week goes by without Minister Ford and myself meeting. We have had a good relationship going back many years. On occasions such as this one, it is important to thank Minister Ford for the sound, sensible and calm input he had into the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Over the years there were not too many voices of reason, but Minister Ford's was one. We should all appreciate that fact and acknowledge it publicly here. Since David Ford became Minister for Justice he has hit the ground running. We meet regularly and, in fact, he was at Templemore recently to attend a Garda graduation ceremony. That mirrored the previous attendance of our own President at a PSNI graduation ceremony.

Minister Ford and I will meet again tomorrow to review co-operation in the criminal justice area. We are also participating in a cross-Border event concerning the probation service.

The dissident threat has been mentioned. As someone who has recently been appointed, Minister Ford was surprised by the depth of co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána. He was more than happy to see that. We are both working to ensure that there are no further obstacles to the PSNI and Garda Síochána working hand in glove. This is down to practical matters such as the compatibility of the telecommunications network between the Garda Síochána and the PSNI, whereby the sophisticated telecommunications systems on either side allow members on both sides of the Border, not only at a high level but at a local level, to be able communicate with each other rather than having to go, as used be the case, through a higher command to contact each other. As the committee probably will be aware, we in the Republic have a sophisticated TETRA digital telecommunications system at an annual cost of €48 million which is the latest of technology in telecommunications. It is compatible, but its final pulling together will take place in the near future. Equally, the Garda Síochána and the PSNI are moving on a significant programme in the case of ICT.

On issues of Garda Síochána and PSNI involvement in what is called lateral entry, that is, members of the Garda Síochána going North and participating in the PSNI work andvice versa, these are issues which were touched on and various commitments were made in the Good Friday Agreement and in the St. Andrews Agreement. Significant progress has been made in that respect. They are difficult issues, mainly because of terms and conditions and pensions and so on. However, I am delighted to inform the committee that currently there is a Garda superintendent who is on three years secondment working with the PSNI and there has been a substantial number of exchanges whereby gardaí have gone northwards on a more short-term basis. We are looking forward to the day when a senior member of the PSNI will mirror what has happened in the case of the Garda superintendent. New regulations are nearly drafted to allow senior members of the PSNI to apply for some of the senior positions that may become available in the Garda Síochána in the future.

To touch on the issue of the dissidents and the paramilitary threat which continues unfortunately on this island, we and the Garda Commissioner have stated on many occasions that an attack on the PSNI is an attack on the Garda Síochána. The Chief Constable, Mr. Matt Baggott, and Sir Hugh Orde have stated previously that only for the work of the Garda Síochána, members of the PSNI would be deceased today. We are happy here in the Republic with the level of success that the Garda Síochána has had in jailing significant numbers of the dissidents. More than 50 persons have been arrested this year and 22 are before the courts. Significant players have been removed and there has been a significant dent in the efforts of the dissidents which emanate from the Republic, and that will continue. Both Mr. Ford and I are committed to ensure that the resources are available to the PSNI and the Garda Síochána in that respect.

There is much other work being done in the criminal justice area generally. I note that speakers mentioned the sex offenders issue. Even before devolution, when I was Minister of Foreign Affairs, I and the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Rt. Hon Peter Hain MP, launched co-operation in the area of sex offenders because both of us were extremely worried about the way in which the Border could be used by sex offenders to evade justice. That is one of the issues being looked at in the context of formal co-operation. A considerable amount of work has been done on that. As the committee will be aware, we have a working group comprised of members of the Department of Justice of Northern Ireland and Department of Justice and Law Reform and various other officials in the probation service and youth service agencies. The issues that we look at are: forensic science, registered sex offenders, public protection, victim support, forensic science, criminal justice and social diversity. One can see that there is a broad range of issues on which we are working to boost co-operation between us, both at a practical level in the case of the police and in other issues in the criminal justice area.

Recently Mr. Ford and I - he may have mentioned this - participated in the annual cross-Border seminar on organised crime. It is a significant gathering of the top 150 personnel in the PSNI, the Garda, CAB, SOCA and the revenue authorities on both sides of the Border. Quite apart from it being a social occasion which is important, much good work is done there on many significant issues, for instance, human trafficking. Human trafficking is a relatively new phenomenon and is also a matter in respect of which the Border can create difficulty. Just like on the issue of sex offenders, we are working hand in glove at a policing level and at a departmental level, to ensure that the crime of human trafficking is dealt with severely.

I must leave fairly promptly because I have another appointment, but I thank the committee, and particularly Mr. Ford and his officials, for coming down.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, for that reassuring speech. I ask the Minister for Justice of Northern Ireland, Mr. Ford, to respond to the debate.

Mr. David Ford, MLA

I sometimes think I should come to this committee rather than to the Committee for Justice at Stormont given the rate at which compliments were flowing this morning. Rather than referring to everybody individually, I thank the members generally for that.

I will try to respond to some of the points raised. Since there was a certain amount of overlap between individuals and I have not got a good winding-up speech prepared, I should probably trip over some of the matters.

One of the key issues was that of the role of the PSNI and building confidence in the police services, which started off with Senator Keaveney and which nearly every other speaker mentioned. It is no coincidence that the most serious attack on any PSNI officer, apart from the murder which occurred in Lurgan of a constable from Banbridge just before I took office, was the attack on Peadar Heffron. He symbolised everything which some people are opposed to. He is from a background that did not make it easy to get involved with the PSNI and he was involved in the PSNI. He had taken a high profile in the work to bring the GAA and the PSNI closer together. I suppose the fact that he was a constituent of mine makes it even more obvious to me what we must do.

Senator O'Reilly sought statistics on how representative the PSNI is. At present, the perceived religious balance - I tend to use the word "perceived" all of the time because I am not sure it means terribly much in Ireland, North or South, in the 21st century - within the PSNI is 29.3% Catholic. When one considers that at the time of the Patton reforms it was approximately 8% Catholic, that is a significant change around. The target set within those terms was that it should be 30%. It is a matter which is reserved to the Westminster Government, but I understand the Secretary of State today has announced that since that 30% figure will be reached, the power to keep 50:50 will lapse in March of next year.

Is Mr. Ford happy with that?

Mr. David Ford, MLA

As a liberal, I believe that is appropriate because people should be appointed on merit, not on the basis of fitting into a pigeon hole. The key figure for me is that we ensure a continuing affirmative action programme to encourage recruitment from right across the community. The fact that in recent applications, roughly 37% of the pool of applicants has been of a perceived Catholic background, shows recruitment of Catholics is not far short of the proportion in the population as a whole, despite all that some people are doing to discourage Catholic applicants. That is a measure of how much is being done. With regard to female officers - if I am wrong on this, I will get back to Senator O'Reilly on it - we currently have approximately 24% of female officers. We have an issue, which is being addressed by the PSNI, of a relatively small number of police officers from diverse ethnic backgrounds. When I visited Templemore two weeks ago, one of the three medals awarded was won by a Polish Garda recruit. Also, when I attended the opening of Omagh police station recently, I met a Polish PSNI officer. We can see some developments, but this is an area the PSNI needs to continue to address. Part of the problem has been the fixation on the religious composition of the PSNI, which has meant issues such as gender and ethnic disparity have not been as well addressed as they might have been.

On the Patten report in general, I understand that 160 out of 175 recommendations in the Patten report have been completed and the remaining 15 are regarded as substantially complete. These include issues such the new police college or, as it has become known, the new proposed emergency services college, including police, present service and fire and rescue service. We are all aware of the problems with regard to capital development currently. Other than that, the Patten report recommendations are as near totally implemented as they could be.

The Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has dealt with issues such as sex offenders and human trafficking and I will not go into that area. I am not sure that as a devolved Minister, I should interfere in the Ministry of Defence's responsibilities with regard to the bomb squad. However, the fact that Senator Keaveney suggests that as a serious issue is a huge measure of how far this island, North and South, has moved forward in the past few years. It would have been impossible to have even made the suggestion previously.

It is still not a very safe topic to raise.

Mr. David Ford, MLA

I shall leave it to Senator Keaveney to lobby the Secretary of State for Defence in London on that, since I have no responsibility for that area.

We would be happy with the Irish Army up North.

Mr. David Ford, MLA

The Senator spoke of the opening of Buncrana Garda station and of meeting senior PSNI officers from Derry district. When I was in Omagh, I also met senior Garda officers from Donegal. Deputy Ahern highlighted issues such as telecommunications. I believe the next step forward will be to ensure car to car communications in Border areas. This would move things further forward.

Deputy Crawford highlighted the issues that arise around community policing, in Clones in particular. Having relations who live in south Fermanagh and having a private secretary whose roots are in south Fermanagh and having visited Lisnaskea station on official duties, I am fully aware of the difficulties. I am also aware, from visiting places like Lisnaskea of the work which is being done on community engagement by PSNI officers. In Antrim, a police officer may go out to a community meeting on his own. However, if he goes out from Lisnaskea or from Bessbrook to do community policing, he probably requires the support of a tactical support group. This is the reality of what they live with, but PSNI officers are engaging with the community in every part of Northern Ireland on a daily basis. The work being done by those neighbourhood constables in the vital front line work of engaging with the community is something almost beyond tribute.

I should probably not go into the social and economic issues around jobs. That point has been well made by a number of contributors. Deputy Ó Caoláin was encouraging me to go a little further than some of my Northern colleagues would want on an all-island crime prevention strategy. We are keen to promote co-operation as best we can in any of the areas the Deputy mentioned. I would like to take up the issue he raised of crime statistics. We have problems with regard to compiling comparative crime statistics, because criminal offences are not identical. We have a difficulty in comparing Northern Ireland with Scotland and with the Republic of Ireland. The only easy comparisons we can make tend to be with England and Wales, because our criminal justice system is much more closely aligned with theirs. Last night I was a reading a paper from the Department which looked at work being done to advance comparability of statistics. The paper drew my attention to the fact that some current crude European statistics on corruption suggest that Germany is the most corrupt country in Europe and that Albania is the least corrupt. Therefore, we need to ensure the validity of statistics before we use them. However, it is an issue on which we should work.

With regard to how the police service is coping with the threat from those whom I described earlier as being opposed to the peace process in which the people of this island are engaged - I prefer not to give them the title they crave - there is no doubt it is under significant pressure, because the number of police officers is significantly reduced from what it was some years ago. On the other hand, the service is coping extremely well. Officers are being transferred from desk jobs to front line response and community policing and are engaging with the community in ways which would have been completely unexpected some years ago. We are seeing good work in maintaining confidence and in ensuring they can deal with the problems that are there. In crude statistics, there has been an approximately 70% increase this calendar year so far, compared to last year's total, in the number of terrorist actions, but four times as many people have been charged. This is a measure of extremely good policing and, as the Minister, Deputy Ahern, highlighted, much of that is the result of good cross-Border co-operation. Now that he is present, I restate our gratitude for what is being done by the Garda Síochána in supporting the PSNI in that context.

Deputy Blaney asked about a Bill of rights. Much work has been done by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in recent years, but there is no political consensus as to what the Bill of rights, which is described within the Good Friday Agreement, should amount to. There are those who are looking for what we might describe as a maximalist approach and there are others who are looking for nothing more than the provisions that already exist in UK law. The most recent exercise of the Human Rights Commission was bound to fail because it went too far from what might have been a potential compromise line in the maximalist direction. The Bill of rights is something my party fully supports, but we need to be very careful - just as is the case on issues such as the North-South parliamentary arrangements on which some of us were engaged a few weeks ago to ensure - if we want to ensure co-operation from Unionists - that we do not go too far ahead of where Unionism is willing to go. There are issues which still need to be addressed, but as this is a matter which is formally reserved to Westminster, I can make no statement as a Minister on it. What I have said is only my personal opinion.

Deputy Quinn asked about the operation of the policing board and the district policing partnerships, DPPs, which have been one of our successes. There are currently some difficulties with regard to the operation of the policing board and members may have seen reports of a critical report following its ten-year review. However, what we have seen is a body which has received a critical report from an external consultant, but which has shown - at a meeting last week - that it is prepared to recognise that some of its early successes have slowed down somewhat and that its members need to continue working together. The district policing partnerships have been a considerable success in engaging local communities in each of the 26 district councils with the PSNI. We are making changes in the Justice Bill in the Northern Ireland Assembly at the moment, which will bring together the work of community safety with the DPPs. In many cases up to now, it has been much the same people discussing much the same issues at two different meetings. However, we will preserve the DPP role in liaising with the police commander, while trying to ensure that other bodies are brought into the wider issues of community safety in a way in which some of them have not always fully participated.

Deputy Ahern has answered almost all the other questions and I thank him for coming in to save me having to answer quite as many questions as I would otherwise have had to answer. I hope I have answered most of the points members have raised.

You have certainly answered the questions and we are very grateful. I acknowledge the presence of Mr. Niall Burgess, the director of the Anglo Irish division of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Andrew Staunton from the British Embassy, Mr. Andreas Grueneberg from the German Embassy, Mr, Chris McNabb, the press officer from the Office of the Minister for Justice in Northern Ireland, Mr. Ralph Victory from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Mr. Patrick Forsyth from the Department of Justice and Law Reform, who are very welcome.

On behalf of the committee I thank both Ministers for their presence, the addresses they made and the responses they gave to the eight speakers who asked questions and made comments. In particular, I wish to thank the Minister for Justice, Mr. David Ford MLA, for his clear and informative presentation. I also thank his team. We are of the strong view that if the devolved policing and justice institutions in Northern Ireland can be successful in winning, maintaining and deepening the confidence of all communities they will act as a greater catalyst for a shared, peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland than any other single determinant. I commend the Minister, Mr. Ford, MLA, for the distinguished leadership he has showed to date, as alluded to by the Minister, Deputy Ahern. I endorse everything the Minister, Deputy Ahern, said about the political career of his counterpart over the years. I thank the Minister, Mr. Ford, MLA, for his distinguished leadership and for undertaking this enormous task. He has always inspired great confidence in me and in all our colleagues and did the same today in an assured and confident way.

We are confident that North-South co-operation in justice and policing is a signal success and an example of how sound leadership and vision can improve and is improving the lives and welfare of all our people on both sides of the Border. We sincerely thank both Ministers and their officials.

The joint committee went into private session at 1 p.m. and adjourned at 1.05 p.m. sine die.