I congratulate the Cathaoirleach and I wish him well in his new role. I offer my warmest congratulations to all Senators, especially those who are taking up their seats for the first time. I wish them all well.
I acknowledge the huge honour that it is for me to serve the State as Minister for Justice. It is a somewhat daunting task but it is one I am looking forward to and I hope to make a difference in an interesting Department of State. With the volume of legislation in my Department, it seems I am likely to be a frequent visitor to this distinguished House. I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, Deputy Flanagan, who served the State with devotion and capability for the past six years, first as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade - the Department I have just come from - and most recently as Minister for Justice and Equality.
As one of my first duties in this role, I propose the renewal of these vital provisions. The House is aware of the importance of these measures and I offer my thanks to it for facilitating this session this evening. Senators will be aware that we face the extraordinary situation whereby these provisions will fall in the coming hours if the motions are not passed. The Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 was enacted in the wake of the barbaric murder by the Real IRA of 29 innocent people in Omagh in August 1998. The awful carnage and grief of that event will never be forgotten by any of us. In the intervening years, the State has been relentless in its efforts to ensure that we have no more Omaghs. I pay tribute to the excellent work of An Garda Síochána and the PSNI in countering the threat posed by those engaged in terrorism. I look forward to working closely with the Garda Commissioner and I assure him of my full support.
I also express my deepest sympathy to the family and colleagues of the late Detective Garda Colm Horkan, who was so senselessly killed just ten days ago. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis. As legislators, we have a duty to ensure that those like Detective Garda Horkan who serve on the front line, tasked with protecting us from this threat and who frequently risk their lives in doing so, have at their disposal appropriate measures to meet it.
Section 18 of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 provides that certain sections of the Act must be renewed by the Oireachtas if they are to remain in force. Prior to moving any motion for renewal, the Act requires that a report on the operation of the relevant provisions is laid before the Oireachtas. This report was laid before the House by my predecessor, Deputy Flanagan, on 19 June 2020. I will not take up the limited time available to us this evening by going through each of the relevant sections of the Act in detail. The report that has been provided to the House gives great detail on the various sections, the offences and the other arrangements provided for. While I have no doubt that every one of us in this House looks forward to a time when these provisions will no longer be required, the reality of the current situation must be taken into account. When these motions were taken in the Dáil last week, my predecessor gave a commitment that these provisions will form part of an independent review of the State’s security legislation.
As many Senators will be aware, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland recommended a review of all our security legislation, and I believe it would be sensible to include these provisions within the scope of that review. Such a review is timely to ensure that our legislation in this area is up to date, and fully meets the needs of the criminal justice system. It will be an independent review and my Department is currently undertaking work to define its scope, which will inform the timescale.
In terms of the provisions before the House today, the Garda assessment is that there remains a real and persistent threat from republican paramilitary groups on this island. The threat level from these groups in Northern Ireland, in particular, is regarded as severe. We know these groups oppose peace and democracy; and regrettably they remain committed to violence and criminality. In the past year, there has been an increase in paramilitary shootings and attacks in Northern Ireland. The continuing attempts to murder and maim, such as the attempt earlier this year to smuggle a bomb on a Belfast passenger ferry to coincide with Brexit, demonstrate a scant regard for human life. The cowardly attempts to intimidate journalists and politicians demonstrate a contempt for an open and free democracy. The State will continue to confront those who act in opposition to the democratic wishes of the people on this island.
The report before the Houses provides data that these provisions have been utilised in excess of 70 times in the period under review. The total number of people arrested under the provisions of the Offences against the State Act 1939 is 146, with 40 people detained for offences contrary to the provisions of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998. There have been seven successful convictions in the courts in the reporting period and a further 34 persons are currently awaiting trial.
It is the view of the Garda Commissioner that there is a clear need for the continuation of these provisions. We see the use of these provisions culminating in the most serious cases being brought before the Special Criminal Court, including cases of the gravest nature such as directing an unlawful organisation, and murder, with significant convictions for directing terrorism as recently as 2017.
These are significant cases, involving those involved at the most senior level in these organisations. In addition, in recent years there have been important convictions for membership of an unlawful organisation, where the court has been able to draw inferences using these provisions.
Many provisions of the Offences against the State Acts could have application to the international terrorist threat. We are thankful that Ireland has not suffered the kinds of attacks seen in other European countries, targeting innocent people going about their daily lives but the reality is that, as an open democracy, Ireland is not immune from this threat. Our security services continue to monitor the potential threat we face and continue to work very closely with their international counterparts in identifying and responding to that threat. It is the clear view of the Garda Síochána that the Act continues to be a most important tool in its ongoing efforts in the fight against terrorism. The report demonstrates that the provisions of the Act are used regularly. The State must retain in its laws the capacity to suppress terrorist groups, and we have a duty, as legislators, to ensure that is so.
On the basis of the information set out in the report and on the advice of the Garda authorities, I propose that the House should approve the continued operation of the relevant provisions of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 to remain in operation for a further 12 months, commencing tomorrow, 30 June 2020.
I turn now to section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009, which is also the subject of a motion before the House. It refers to four serious, organised crime offences that are set out in Part 7 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006. Section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009 makes these offences scheduled offences for the purposes of Part V of the Offences against the State Act 1939 – that is to say, trials for these offences are to be heard in the Special Criminal Court subject to the power of the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, to direct that the offences be tried in the ordinary courts. This discretion for the DPP maintains an essential balance in deciding what cases are appropriate to be tried in the Special Criminal Court.
There is stark evidence of the willingness of organised groups to engage in murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, drug smuggling, counterfeiting and other serious offences. As public representatives, we have witnessed its devastating impacts on our communities. It is clear these groups have no respect for the laws of this land nor the safety of its citizens. By their behaviour, they demonstrate a callous disregard for everything that a stable and democratic society stands for. It is clear that if these people are prepared to take human life in pursuit of their aims, they will have no hesitation in subverting the system of justice. Accordingly, the State requires legislation that can combat those who would seek to subvert the system through the intimidation of citizens.
The ongoing gang-related feuds in Dublin and next to my constituency in Drogheda have brought into focus the depravity with which they operate. These feuds have resulted in appalling and barbaric murders that have shocked the country. Substantial Garda resources have been deployed to these areas and this has resulted in significant convictions and ongoing seizures of drugs, firearms and ammunition. Most important, Garda special operations - Operation Hybrid and Operation Stratus - which were established to target feud-related violence in these areas, have had some success in targeting these groups and in preventing murders since their commencement.
We are also aware that the activities of these groups are not limited to this State, nor are the efforts of An Garda Síochána, which has excellent relationships with its international counterparts. Of real concern is the evidence that there are links between organised crime and those engaged in paramilitary activity.
In all the circumstances, I consider it necessary to continue section 8 in operation for a further period of 12 months beginning on 30 June 2020. None of us wants to ignore the real threat posed to the State by these individuals, terrorist groups and organised criminal groups. Therefore, we must take appropriate and proportionate measures to meet the threat they pose. It is my view that the provisions should be renewed and, accordingly, I commend these motions to the House.