Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. I congratulate you and wish you well in your role. I also congratulate the new Leas-Chathaoirleach. I also wish the new Leader of the House and the other Members of the Seanad well in their deliberations.
I am in the House on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality to discuss the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998. The House will recall that the Act was passed following the callous Omagh bombing, a terrorist atrocity in which 29 innocent people lost their lives. That appalling act lives in all our memories and our sympathy remains with the families of the victims.
The 1998 Act made a series of amendments to the Offences Against the State Acts. It principally provides for changes in the rules of evidence for certain offences under the Acts, including the drawing of inferences in certain circumstances; the creation of new offences such as directing an unlawful organisation, the possession of certain articles and collecting information; and extending to 72 hours the maximum period of detention permitted under section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act 1939. The Omagh atrocity demanded a clear and resolute response from the State in defence of the desire of the vast majority of law abiding people on the island to live their lives in peace.
Section 18 of the Act, as amended by section 37 of the Criminal Justice Act 1999, provides that sections 2 to 4, inclusive, 6 to 12, inclusive, 14 and 17 must be renewed by the Oireachtas at specified intervals if they are to remain in force. By virtue of resolutions passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas in June 2015, these sections were continued in force for a period of 12 months. Prior to moving a motion for renewal, the Act requires that the Minister lays before the Oireachtas a report on the operation of the relevant provisions. The current report covers the period from 1 June 2015 to 31 May 2016 and was laid before the House on 10 June.
Given the time available, I will not go through all of the relevant sections in detail. The report, based on information provided by the Garda authorities, sets out the detail of usage of the various sections in the period. It also includes a table of comparative usage for each of the years since the Act came into operation. It indicates that two sections, sections 6 and 12, were not used during the reporting period in question. However, it should not be inferred that these provisions are in some way redundant as the usage of the different sections can vary from year to year. It is the clear view of the Garda Commissioner that the Act continues to be a most important tool in ongoing efforts in the fight against terrorism. The Garda authorities have stated the provisions of the Act are used regularly, which is evident from the report. They are, in short, a necessary legislative support in the fight against terrorism.
There remains on the island a persistent threat from republican paramilitary groups that are, simply, opposed to peace. They have no support; they have no reason to remain in being and should go away for good. The Tánaiste's decision to bring the second Special Criminal Court into operation is in response to this threat. It is now up and running and underlines the Government's determination to deal with serious crime affecting the security of the State. The threat level in Northern Ireland is severe. The appalling murder of the Northern Ireland prison officer, Adrian Ismay, earlier this year highlighted the lethal nihilism of these groups that act in direct opposition to the democratic wishes of the majority on the island.
The Garda authorities work tirelessly and in co-operation with their counterparts in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, in countering the activities of these paramilitary organisations and deserve credit for their ongoing work. Combating the security threat is a key priority for the Government and the additional funding the Tánaiste has secured for the Garda Vote this year will go in part towards support for measures against terrorism. The Government is determined that these groups will never prevail and that there will be no let-up in actions to tackle them. It would be a happy day if provisions in the law such as those we are discussing were no longer needed because the threat they target was no longer in place. The sad truth, however, is that they are still needed because that threat persists.
I will now refer to the second motion to be discussed on section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009. It proposes the continuation in force for another year of section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009, which section provides for a limited number of serious, organised crime offences to be tried in the Special Criminal Court, thus removing the possibility of jury tampering or the intimidation of jurors or potential jurors. The offences in question are set out in Part 7 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006. They are, in section 71A, directing the activities of a criminal organisation; in section 72, participating in or contributing to certain activities of a criminal organisation; in section 73, committing a serious offence for a criminal organisation; and in section 76, liability for these offences committed by a body corporate.
The 2009 Act makes these scheduled offences for the purposes of Part V of the Offences Against the State Act 1939. While this means that the Special Criminal Court will hear trials for these offences, the Director of Public Prosecutions retains the power to direct that the offences be tried in the ordinary courts.
In order to assist Senators in their consideration, section 8(6) provides that the Minister must prepare a report which shall be laid before both Houses on the operation of the section. That report, covering the period from 1 June 2015 to 31 May 2016, was laid before the House on 10 June. Section 8 was not used during the period in question. It has not been used since 2009. This does not invalidate the reasoning for having such a provision available for use if it is needed, nor does it diminish its potential value in bringing organised criminals to justice. The operation of the provision to date highlights the considered approach of the Director of Public Prosecutions in using her discretion to direct that cases be tried in the ordinary courts where it is possible to do so. This is proof positive of the balance that has been struck with this provision. It is a robust but nonetheless proportionate power.
In the period under report there were a total of 17 arrests under two of the four offences covered by section 8 - seven arrests under section 72 and a further ten under section 73. Sections 71A and 76 were not used in the reporting period in question. Of course, there is a variety of other provisions of the criminal law that have been and are being used against organised criminals. My Department is examining whether there are other changes to the law that might be made to tackle these gangs. The Minister will shortly be bringing forward changes to the law to strengthen the powers of the Criminal Assets Bureau in seizing the proceeds of crime.
None of us can be under any illusion about the danger to society from organised crime. Recent gang related murders in the Dublin region put into stark relief the utter disregard of these criminals for human life and the rule of law. Counteracting this danger presents very real challenges for the State. However, the State has faced down such gangs in the past and will do so again. The Government is fully committed to providing An Garda Síochána with the necessary resources to confront these criminal thugs and bring them to justice. To this end, as I have said, the Minister secured substantial additional funding of €55 million for An Garda Síochána for the remainder of 2016 that will, among other things, support the necessary activities to target gang-related crime.
The Garda Commissioner has made clear her view that this provision will be required for some time to come and we must have the utmost regard for her analysis. Trial by jury is the standard for our system and should be preserved to the greatest extent possible. However, none of us can afford to ignore the threat to the rule of law from violent, organised criminals who will stop at literally nothing to protect themselves and their profits. We have a duty as legislators to ensure we respond robustly but proportionately to that threat. I commend the motions to the House.