I am very pleased to address the Seanad on the Bill and I thank Senators on the relevant committee for facilitating the passage of this important legislation prior to the summer recess. The Bill will further advance the commitment on the part of the Government to addressing the position of all victims of conflict in Northern Ireland and their families.
Senators will be aware that the 2015 Stormont House Agreement concluded following 11 weeks of talks on 23 December 2014. As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade at the time, I was intimately involved in the negotiations and the agreement between the Irish and UK Governments with the parties in Northern Ireland on a range of measures to support political development there. Most significantly, the Stormont House Agreement establishes a comprehensive framework for dealing with the corrosive legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. The framework includes an oral history archive, a dedicated historical investigations unit which will investigate Troubles-related deaths, and an independent commission on information retrieval to enable victims and survivors to seek and receive information about the death of their loved ones.
The implementation phase to fill out the detail and give effect to the agreement's provisions on legacy has been a complex exercise and is very much an ongoing project.
The Bill will address the legacy issue on two fronts. In particular, it will facilitate further co-operation by An Garda Síochána with coroners' inquests in Northern Ireland. What are in question here are "legacy inquests" that, in the main, take place in Northern Ireland and will examine a number of Troubles-related deaths in which there have not been previous prosecutions or convictions. Some of these inquests will involve the coroners seeking co-operation from the Garda authorities. This will largely be in respect of paramilitaries involved in the incidents. Co-operation with the process of these inquests is self-evidently important in the context of addressing the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This was and is a key issue to be addressed in the context of political development in Northern Ireland. While arrangements have been put in place to ensure that Garda records can be made available to the coroner carrying out the Kingsmill inquest, the coroner has indicated a desire to take testimony from Garda witnesses for the inquests and there is no existing legal mechanism to facilitate this.
The Bill will also create a new section in the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to allow the Garda Commissioner to enter into co-operation agreements with non-police law enforcement bodies with the prior approval of the Government. This is an important element in giving effect to co-operation commitments under the Stormont House Agreement, as it will underpin further co-operation with the historical investigations unit that is to be established in Northern Ireland. This will have certain reporting functions separate from its criminal investigations function. I envisage that it would also support co-operation with the independent commission on information retrieval, an Ireland-UK body to be set up under the Stormont House Agreement that will seek to make information on Troubles-related deaths available to victims' families.
The Garda Síochána Acts currently provide a power for the Commissioner to enter into agreements with other police or law enforcement services. The Bill will essentially expand on that by extending this facility for agreements to encompass non-police bodies that would have functions relevant to the Garda. I am also providing a similar provision that will allow the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, to enter into co-operation agreements with similar police oversight authorities and law enforcement bodies. Currently, GSOC has no such powers. The Bill's provisions will facilitate co-operation agreements with, for example, the historical investigations unit and the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. Such co-operation agreements will also require the prior approval of the Government.
Aside from these provisions, which will deliver on our commitments on the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Bill will make a number of technical amendments to existing legislation relating to international co-operation in the criminal justice area. It has ten sections, and I will briefly outline their provisions.
Section 1 contains the definitions for terms that are used in the Bill. Section 2 provides for the Minister for Justice and Equality to designate a United Kingdom coroner's inquest, subject to conditions, for the purpose of application of the mechanism for the taking of evidence for the purposes of section 3. Section 3 provides for a mechanism whereby the testimony of Garda members can be obtained by coroners in the UK conducting inquests into deaths caused by violence connected to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This section will have automatic application to inquests that are investigating deaths resulting from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. For UK inquests examining deaths that are not Troubles-related but where there may be a substantial connection to the State, the Minister for Justice and Equality may designate those inquests under section 2. Examinations under section 3 shall be conducted by a High Court judge in accordance with the specified rules and will be on the basis of written questions that will be provided in advance by the coroner. Examinations shall take place in the presence of the coroner. The examining judge may direct such provisions that are necessary to protect the safety of witnesses.
Section 4 will make a technical amendment to section 20 of the European Arrest Warrant Act 2003 in order to provide greater consistency in that Act with the relevant corresponding articles of the Council framework decision of 13 June 2002 on the European arrest warrant and the surrender procedures between member states for which the Act provides a legislative basis. This important amendment will address concerns expressed by the European Commission regarding the roles of the central authority and the High Court in arrest warrant proceedings.
Section 5 provides for a new section 28A to be inserted into the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to allow for the Garda Commissioner, on behalf of the Garda Síochána and with the prior consent of the Government, to enter into agreements with non-law enforcement bodies outside of the State. Such agreements may provide for general co-operation between the parties, including the exchange of information.
Section 6 provides for a technical amendment to section 51 of the 2005 Act to remedy a potential defect identified by the Attorney General in respect of amendments made previously to section 51 by sections 91(a) and (b) of the Criminal Justice (Mutual Assistance) Act 2008 and section 35 of the Criminal Justice (Mutual Assistance) (Amendment) Act 2015. The provisions in question concern the assignment for service abroad of Garda members, for example, in joint investigation teams in accordance with the 2002 European Council framework decision on joint investigation teams.
Section 7 provides for a new section 81A to be inserted into the 2005 Act to facilitate GSOC, with the prior consent of the Government, to enter into agreements with police oversight bodies and law enforcement agencies outside the State in order to exchange information consistent with the functions of GSOC under section 67 of that Act. Currently, the provisions of the legislation on GSOC do not enable the commission to exchange information with appropriate bodies outside the State. This provision will address this deficit.
Section 8 provides for an amendment to section 107 of the Criminal Justice (Mutual Assistance) Act 2008. This is a technical amendment arising out of an incorrect reference in section 208 of the Data Protection Act 2018 that provides for an amendment to the 2008 Act. Since the incorrect cross-reference in section 208(d)(i) amends subsections (2) and (3) of section 107 of the 2008 Act, the cross-reference in subsection (3)(b) should be to subsection (2)(b) rather than subsection (5)(b).
Section 9 is a general provision relating to the expenses incurred by the Minister in the administration of this legislation being paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas and sanctioned by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Section 10 is the Bill's Short Title and commencement arrangements.
I am introducing this legislation at short notice, so I am grateful to Senators for taking it now and for sitting on Friday, the last day of the session. In the current political vacuum in Northern Ireland, however, it is essential that we be seen to continue to make progress on these important issues. This legislation is a clear statement of our commitment to address these legacy issues in the interests of reconciliation on the island of Ireland. Accordingly, I am pleased to present the Bill to the House and I hope that it will proceed through the appropriate stages of debate. I commend the Bill to the House.