This House meets, as the Dáil did yesterday, in the shadow of the Omagh atrocity. People throughout this island are only now beginning the long process of coming to terms with the tragedy which Omagh represented. That tragedy will live for the rest of their lives with the families of those who died, the surviving victims and the communities from which they came in Ireland, North and South, and in Spain. Omagh has left no one on this island untouched. I hope the revulsion which we all feel in its aftermath will not be allowed to dim and that it will mean an end to such violence for good.
The people who perpetrated the Omagh atrocity are a tiny and unrepresentative minority who attracted minimal support for their political position on the British-Irish Agreement in the referendums, North and South, in May. They have therefore sought to destroy the British-Irish Agreement through terror both in the attack they launched in Omagh and in earlier attacks. We, as public representatives, must not only remain faithful to the mandate we received in those referendums but renew our commitment to the Agreement. Our response to Omagh must be implementation of the Agreement in full because it is implementation of the Agreement which offers the prospect of the very thing they seek to destroy — the possibility of a new beginning and a peaceful future based on the principles of partnership, equality and mutual respect.
Both Governments remain committed to that objective and have made that a central part of our response to the Omagh tragedy. We will continue to give it the highest priority and I welcome the progress that has been made in recent days in that respect. It is important now more than ever that the momentum produced by the signing of the Agreement, and its endorsement in the referendums in May, is maintained.
The events in Omagh demand a response at other levels as well. This Bill is part of that wider response and is measured, balanced and proportionate to the threat posed by the activities of groups, such as the so-called Real IRA, opposed to the Agreement. The measures it contains are ones which have been identified as offering potential in usefully supplementing the existing provisions of the Offences Against the State Acts. The Government is satisfied by the advice available to it that these measures will provide a focused response which will have particular relevance in the context of the activities of groups such as the so-called Real IRA. The passage of this legislation will therefore be an important step in strengthening the powers available to the Garda for the purpose of countering such groups and those who provide them with support.
Those measures are directed to four essential purposes. First, the Bill makes changes to the rules of evidence which currently apply in relation to both the offence of membership of an unlawful organisation and more generally for the purpose of other offences under the Offences Against the State Acts and scheduled offences under those Acts. Second, the Bill will create certain new substantive offences of particular relevance to the activities of unlawful organisations and those who provide support for them. Third, the Bill will strengthen the hands of the courts in respect of those who provide support to such groups or engage in offences on their behalf. Fourth, the Bill will extend the maximum period of detention permitted under section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act.
A number of changes to the Bill were made yesterday arising from the debate in the Dáil. At this stage I draw the attention of the House to the following matters. Section 2, which deals with inferences that may be drawn in certain circumstances in relation to a charge of membership of an unlawful organisation, has been amended to limit the application of the section to the failure to answer questions or to furnishing false or misleading answers to any question material to an investigation of an offence during questioning in relation to that offence before charge. The definition of the expression "serious offence" which has particular application to section 9, the offence of withholding information, has been amended to exclude from its scope offences of a sexual nature for reasons which I will explain to the House shortly. Section 10, which provides for an extended period of detention under section 30, has been amended to provide that, when an application is being made to a District Court judge to permit the further detention of a person not exceeding 24 hours, the person who is the subject of that application will be produced before the judge concerned and the judge shall hear any submissions made and consider any evidence adduced by or on behalf of that person. Section 14 has been amended to make it clear on the face of the Bill that that provision does not and is not intended to affect or limit any functions or powers of Government or the Director of Public Prosecutions under the 1939 Act in relation to scheduled offences. Section 18 has been amended in three important respects: to bring forward the date on which certain sections of the Bill will lapse to 30 June 2000 unless continued in force by a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas; to provide that any resolution which may be made continuing such sections in force will specify the period for which the section is being continued in operation and, finally, requiring the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to prepare a report on the operation of any section which it is intended to continue and lay it before both Houses in advance of moving any such resolution.
The Bill proposes three changes in regard to evidentiary matters and the principal changes in this regard are contained in sections 2 to 5. Section 2 has specific reference to the offence of membership of an unlawful organisation and is one of the key provisions of the Bill. Its effect will be to provide that where, in any proceedings against a person in relation to that charge, evidence is given that the accused failed to answer or gave false or misleading answers to any question material to the investigation of the offence while being questioned in relation to that offence, the court may draw such inferences from that failure or from the furnishing of a false or misleading reply as appear proper.
The section goes on to provide that references to any question material to the investigation of the offence includes any references to any question requesting the accused to give a full account of his or her movements, actions, activities or associations during any specified period. The section also provides that any such inference may be treated as or as capable of amounting to corroboration of any other evidence relating to the offence of membership of an unlawful organisation.
The section contains two important safeguards. It provides that the section itself will not have effect unless the accused was told in ordinary language what the effect of a failure or of a false or misleading answer might be and provides that a person shall not be convicted solely on an inference drawn from a failure to answer a question or from the furnishing of a false or misleading reply. The section will also only have effect in relation to the failure to answer a question or the furnishing of a false or misleading response in reply to a question after the coming into effect of the Act and only in relation to questioning in advance of charge as a result of an amendment I moved to the Bill in the Dáil yesterday.
Two related changes to the Offences Against the State Acts are being made by sections 4 and 13. Section 4 will amend section 3 of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act, 1972, to align the definition of conduct with the expression used in section 2, that is, conduct is being defined to include movements, actions, activities or associations in addition to the failure to deny such a report. A further related change is being made by section 13 which provides that section 52 of the 1939 Act which provides for an offence of failing to give specified information to the Garda will not have effect unless immediately before a demand for information is made of a person under that section, the person is informed in ordinary language of the fact the demand is being made under that section and what the consequences are of failing to give an answer or furnishing information which is false or misleading.
Section 3 of the Bill which makes the second important change in the area of evidence also has specific reference to the offence of membership of an unlawful organisation. It provides that in proceedings for such an offence the accused shall not, without leave of the court, call any other person to give evidence on his or her behalf unless notice has been given of his or her intention to do so. The procedures to be followed in this regard are set out in subsections (2) to (7) of the section which are closely modelled on the existing provisions of our criminal law in relation to the requirements to give notice of an alibi an accused intends to rely on for the purpose of his or her trial. The section also provides that the requirement in relation to the giving of notice will not apply to a witness whose evidence is solely in relation to the matter of sentence.
The third change in the area of evidence is being made by section 5. This section is not restricted to the offence of membership but will, provided that the offence carries a penalty of five years imprisonment or more, have application to any offence under the Offences against the State Acts, scheduled offences for the purpose of the 1939 Act and offences arising out of the same set of facts as an offence under the Acts or a scheduled offence. The effect of this section, which is closely based on a similar provision in the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act, 1996, will be to allow a court to draw inferences where the accused relies on a fact in his or her defence that he or she could reasonably have been expected to mention during questioning or on being charged but did not do so.
It is important to point out that there is not and could not be in the changes which we are proposing any interference with the court's responsibility under our criminal law to convict an accused only where it is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt of the accused's guilt of the offence charged.
The Bill also creates certain new substantive offences. Section 6 establishes the offence of directing, at any level of the organisation's structure, the activities of an organisation in respect of which a suppression order has been made under the Offences Against the State Act, 1939. That offence will attract a penalty of up to life imprisonment.
Section 7 will make it an offence to possess articles in circumstances giving rise to a reasonable suspicion that the article is in his or her possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of specified firearms or explosives offences. The section also provides that it will be a defence to prove that the materials were not in the person's possession for such purposes. This offence will attract a penalty of a fine or imprisonment for up to ten years or both.
Section 8 will make it an offence to collect, record or possess information which is of such a nature that it is likely to be useful to members of an unlawful organisation in the commission of serious offences. The section also provides that it will be a defence to prove that the information in question was not being collected, etc. for the purpose of being used in the commission of a serious offence. The offence of unlawful collection of information will attract a penalty of a fine or imprisonment for up to ten years or both. A serious offence is defined for the purpose of the section as an offence punishable by imprisonment for a term of five years or more involving loss of human life, serious personal injury, false imprisonment or serious loss or damage to property or a serious risk of any such loss, injury, imprisonment or damage and includes an act or omission done or made outside the State which would be such an offence if done within the State. An amendment to the definition of serious offence which I moved yesterday arose in the context of this provision and was in response to concerns which had been expressed that it could, in the context of the following section dealing with the withholding of information, inadvertently lead to the inclusion of mandatory reporting in sex abuse cases. The amendment therefore excluded from its scope sexual offences. It would not be appropriate to deal with the complex issue of mandatory reporting in an Offences Against the State Bill.
Section 9 will make it an offence to withhold information which a person knows or believes might be of material assistance in preventing the commission by any other person of a serious offence or securing the apprehension, prosecution, or conviction of any other person for such an offence and who fails without reasonable cause to disclose such information to a member of the Garda Síochána. A serious offence is defined for this purpose in the same terms as for section 8. The penalty which will attach to the offence of withholding information is a fine or imprisonment for up to five years or both.
Section 12 will make it an offence for a person to instruct or train another person in the making or use of firearms or explosives or to receive such training without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. This offence will attract a penalty of a fine or imprisonment for up to ten years or both.
These are offences of a type which are in the main likely to be committed by members of unlawful organisations arising from the activities of such groups. They are, therefore, targeted at specific activities. The effect of section 14 will be to make these new offences scheduled offences for the purposes of Part V of the 1939 Act. That means that persons suspected of committing such offences will be liable to arrest under section 30 of the 1939 Act and may be charged before the Special Criminal Court in respect of such offences on the direction of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The effect of the amendment to the Schedule to the Bail Act, 1997, made by section 16 will be to enable these offences to be regarded as serious offences for the purposes of that Act when bail applications are considered.
The Bill is also intended to strengthen the powers of the courts in respect of those who provide support to the activities of unlawful organisations or engage in offences on their behalf. It contains two measures to this end. First is the provision in section 15 which specifies that the court may impose unlimited fines in relation to the four principal offences dealing with possession of firearms and explosives. Second is the provision in section 17 to amend section 61 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1994, which deals with the forfeiture of property used for the purpose of committing or facilitating the commission of an offence, or intended to be used for that purpose, in circumstances where a person has been convicted of an offence. The effect of the change being made by section 17 is to provide that, in the case of persons convicted of specified offences relating to the possession of firearms or explosives, a court will be required to order the forfeiture of such property unless it is satisfied that there would be a serious risk of injustice if it made such an order.
The fourth essential purpose of the Bill is to extend the maximum period of detention permitted under section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act — 48 hours at present — in two separate circumstances. First, section 10 will allow a District Court judge to authorise the detention of a person for a further period not exceeding 24 hours on the application of an officer of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of superintendent, provided that the district judge is satisfied that the further detention is necessary for the proper investigation of the offence concerned and that the investigation is being conducted diligently and expeditiously. This section was amended in the Dáil yesterday to provide that, when an application is made to a District Court judge to permit further detention of a person, the person who is the subject of that application will be produced before the judge concerned and that the judge will hear any submissions made and consider any evidence adduced by or on behalf of that person.
Section 11 allows a District Court judge to permit the rearrest and detention of a person in respect of an offence for which he or she was previously detained but released without charge for a further period, which again is not to exceed 24 hours, in circumstances where the district judge is satisfied, on information supplied on oath by a member of the Garda Síochána, that further information has come to the knowledge of the Garda about that person's suspected participation in the offence and about which they wish to question the suspect.
The Bill contains a review mechanism. Section 18 provides that the provisions of the Bill, other than sections 1, 13, 15, 16, 18 and 19, will cease to be in operation on 30 June 2000 unless continued in force by a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas, and that any resolution made continuing such sections in force will specify the period for which the section is being continued in operation. It also requires the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to prepare a report on the operation of any section which it is intended to continue and to lay it before both Houses in advance of moving any such resolution. In this regard, the British-Irish Agreement includes a commitment on the part of the Government, which it will be honouring, to carry out a wide ranging review of the Offences Against the State Acts generally. I will be establishing such a review mechanism shortly by the establishment of a special committee under independent chairmanship and with the participation of both Governments and outside experts.
The remaining sections of the Bill are in standard form and contain the necessary definitions in section 1 and provision for the Bill's Short Title, construction and collective citation in section 19. It would be wrong to pretend that any legislation or security measure can provide a cast iron guarantee that terrorist activity will cease or that terrorist attempts will not succeed. There are no simple solutions to the problem of terrorism — if there were they would have been tried and would have succeeded many years ago. Therefore, we will continue to depend heavily on the professionalism of the Garda Síochána which has had considerable success in countering the activities of the Real IRA and preventing attacks in Northern Ireland and Britain.
Nevertheless, the passage of this Bill will strengthen our laws for the purpose of tackling groups, such as the Real IRA, who have yet to declare a complete ending of their campaigns of violence. The Bill is only one element of a package of measures on the security and legislative fronts designed to counter the activities of those who engage in violence and the combined effect of the enactment of this Bill and other measures will significantly enhance the capacity of the State to tackle such groups.
In the aftermath of the Omagh atrocity the decision by the Real IRA to suspend armed operations while it engages in internal consultations is of little comfort to its victims. A suspension of such actions is not enough. Now is the time for those groups which have yet to declare a definitive ceasefire to renounce such violence and to prove in word and deed that they mean what they say. The Government has made clear that it will not allow any group to destabilise the British-Irish Agreement or subvert the will of the Irish people. The Government will closely monitor the efficacy of these measures and will not hesitate to take further action should these prove necessary to curb their activities.
Much depends on the decisions taken by those groups which have not yet renounced violence. Ultimately, only they can create the conditions whereby it will be possible to dispense with many of the powers which this Bill and the Offences Against the State Acts more generally provide.