Thursday, 26 February 2004

Questions (3)

Ciarán Cuffe

Question:

3 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform his views on the plans of the Garda Síochána in relation to the use of non-lethal technology; and if he will make a statement on whether such technology has been studied for employment here. [6396/04]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

The Government noted, on 19 November 2002, my proposal to authorise the introduction of the following "less lethal" weapons for use by the Garda emergency response unit where this is necessary to avoid the use of firearms: bean bag shot, which is effectively a bag filled with shot fired from a shotgun so that it does not penetrate the body but delivers a blow with the intention of temporarily incapacitating the person — it is in effect a flying purse of lead shot; pepper spray device, a special aerosol projector designed to deliver a directional pepper spray to a distance of 25 to 30 feet — it could possibly be useful in this House; and ferret pepper spray shot, a shotgun cartridge device that is intended to penetrate a door or window and deliver pepper spray inside.

Before approval was sought for the introduction of these devices, the internal procedure within the Garda Síochána involved a report being compiled by a working party consisting of members of the Garda Síochána. To fully assess the requirements for the force the working party needed to consult other police forces in a confidential manner on the operation and use of such "less lethal" weapons. Confidential consultation was also required with suppliers and manufacturers. The Garda Commissioner consequently established an implementation team which is now finalising the acquisition of these items with the training syllabus to be undertaken by selected members of the Garda Síochána.

I am obviously aware that there is a need for changing and modernising the weapons used by the Garda Síochána. I hope there will be consultation with other interested groups, such as civil liberties organisations, which have a wide range of international experience. Does the Minister intend to have wider consultation with the public or with NGOs such as civil liberties organisations? I would like to know if this array of weaponry includes the kind of equipment that could be used in a hostage situation. There are other solutions that could be used to subdue or overcome aggressors in such cases. I wonder if the Garda Síochána would be able to expand the range of instruments available to it so that it could have effective tools to defuse matters in a hostage situation.

A number of the points raised by the Deputy are the subject of consideration on the terms of reference on the Barr tribunal. I emphasise that the three types of less lethal weapons to which I referred are to be given to the Garda emergency response unit in substitution for firearms. From a civil liberties and individual rights point of view, we are talking of giving the Garda alternatives to using firearms. I appreciate that some of these less lethal weapons can be dangerous, but there is nothing as dangerous as the use of firearms in terms of the armoury available to the Garda Síochána. What we want to do, and what the Garda Commissioner is anxious to do, is to provide equipment less lethal than firearms for the Garda to use in appropriate circumstances. Obviously, the best solution involves persuasion by means of megaphones and so on, and psychology and counselling, when dealing with the difficult situations to which the Deputy refers.

Some people, and indeed some police forces, have criticised these less lethal weapons, saying that they can be dangerous if improperly used or used in circumstances where the outcome is not as clear as that intended by the user. I accept that, but some of the criticism of these items has come from police forces which use the plastic bullet. They say that those bullets also involve problems. Since we do not use the plastic bullet in this jurisdiction, the Garda is making a fair judgment in saying that this less lethal technology is preferable to plastic bullets and to firearms in general.

The Minister might just clarify the consultation issue. Has the Garda been given permission to use these weapons or will there be consultation with the general public?

It is open to any civil liberties group to express views on these matters, and I will pay close attention to any such views. A formalised consultation process has not been put in place. If we are replacing firearms with this sort of technology, we are talking about cases where lives are at issue, so lengthy consultation with civil liberties groups is not entirely necessary since these weapons are confined to the emergency response unit and are intended as a substitute for firearms. I do not think any civil liberties group would urge the use of firearms in preference to less lethal weapons.

I welcome that, but there are concerns in the United States about these items being bad technology.

I have no doubt that there are. Any technology of this kind cannot be entirely devoid of risk.