Thursday, 26 February 2004

Questions (7)

Joe Costello


7 Mr. Costello asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the measures he intends to bring forward to deal with the activities of criminal gangs in regard to his address to the Oireachtas committee on justice on 9 December 2003; when he expects that the legislation will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6224/04]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

When I appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights on 9 December 2003, I addressed in some detail, with reference to the activities of criminal gangs, the measures I intended to bring forward to enhance the investigation and prosecution of criminal offences. My address in this respect is available on the website of the Houses of the Oireachtas but I will be happy to make a copy available to the Deputy.

I intend to provide for those measures that require legislative provision in the criminal justice Bill, which I expect to publish during the current session. The measures, the heads of which I have already outlined to the joint Oireachtas committee, will include: a statutory power to preserve a crime scene; a general power in relation to the issue of search warrants; increased detention powers of up to 24 hours for arrestable offences; some amendments to the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence) Act 1990, in particular to reclassify saliva as a non-intimate sample; extending the power of the prosecution to appeal in limited circumstances, in particular concerning points of law; and general provisions, mostly of a technical nature, to improve efficiency in the prosecution of offences.

I informed the joint committee that I am considering a number of further proposals for inclusion in the Bill. These include a provision making it an offence to possess an article in circumstances where a reasonable suspicion may be drawn that the possession is for the purpose of committing a serious offence, and a provision on the admissibility of statements made by witnesses who subsequently refuse to testify or retract their original statements.

I also informed the joint committee that while I see serious practical evidential difficulties in creating an offence of membership of a criminal gang, I am examining the issue in conjunction with the European Union's instrument entitled Joint Action on Participation in a Criminal Organisation, adopted in December 1998, and the 2000 UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime, in the context of giving effect to these instruments in Irish law. Each of these instruments contains provisions on contributing to or participating in the activities of a criminal organisation. I am also examining relevant legislative provisions in other jurisdictions aimed at the activities of criminal gangs. I will bring to Government any proposals I may have in this matter with a view to including them in the forthcoming criminal justice Bill.

It will not be a simple task, however, because I note that in Canada the provisions which were held up to me as models which I should follow, are the subject of considerable controversy as to whether they are effective at all. As Deputies have said, simply introducing sections in Bills to deal with the problem is not the real issue. Consequently, I want to make the law effective in order to counter the problem. I am enthusiastic to get on with that process.

The issues surrounding the establishment of a DNA databank are currently under consideration by the Law Reform Commission, following the referral of the matter to the commission by the Attorney General as a matter of urgent public interest. As soon as I receive the Law Reform Commission's report I will act upon it, if I am in agreement with its findings. I may be in a position to include a related matter in the Bill.

I understand that the joint Oireachtas committee is expected to publish its report on the administration of justice in the near future. I look forward to examining that report and will be prepared to take whatever action may be appropriate on foot of it, including bringing forward further proposals for legislative reform, if the report so recommends.

The thrust of my question concerns not so much the general measures the Minister is proposing to introduce in the criminal justice Bill, but the specific measures relating to criminal gangs. The Minister has indicated that he will introduce a new offence to deal with criminal organisations. I want to know whether or not that proposal is a runner because we have not heard about it since. It has not been included in the criminal justice Bill and I want to know if the Minister is serious about it. He has indicated that there are some problems concerning the Canadian model and, therefore, he may not be able to follow it.

Two more gangland killings have occurred in the past 24 hours. There were 21 last year but only a small number of prosecutions were brought and no conviction was secured. Gangland activity centred on drugs, firearms and assassinations is increasing. This must be addressed through effective legislation. The Minister promised the committee he would introduce an offence related to organised crime. There are certain no-go areas in Dublin and Limerick cities. Has progress been made on the recruitment of the 2,000 gardaí promised in the Government's manifesto?

I will reply to a question later on the Garda recruitment issue. I will update the House on my plans in this regard.

Will we get to the question?

I refer to gangs and organised crime. My Department is working hard on this subject and all the issues are being examined. It is easier to state in an international instrument that an activity should be criminalised but it is difficult to introduce a workable law that has an evidential underpinning, which will lead to convictions, and the Department is focusing its attention on that in a positive way. It is my intention to introduce an offence of this kind under the criminal justice Bill. The amendments to which I referred earlier are the subject of a memorandum that I have prepared for Government, which will be considered in the near future. The criminal organisation provisions will be the subject of a further memorandum to Government also in the near future.

There is not a lack of enthusiasm on my part. It is easy to provide that it shall be an offence to be a member of a criminal organisation and define it but there are questions relating to how that can be proved, how gardaí will arrest people for such an offence, what evidence will constitute proof beyond reasonable doubt and what presumptions and inferences and the like must be provided. That is the crucial and slightly more difficult aspect of this issue.

I endorse Deputy Costello's comments completely. Gangs are not always the same as criminal organisations because, for international purposes, criminal organisations must be structured. However, at least 17 ruthless gangs are operating in the Dublin area. They are centred on the drug trade. Dealing in death inures their consciences so fundamentally that they then move to debt collection, patch protection and score settling by killing. We have seen in the past 24 hours how cruel, vicious and wrong is such activity.

I have always said nobody is above the law. The great and the good are not above the law, and the same applies even if people are engaged in some form of criminality. Their lives are protected by our Constitution and nobody, therefore, is below the law. There is not a class of outlaws to which the State is indifferent or in respect of whose deaths or serious injuries it turns a blind eye. I assure the House the Garda investigates all these cases as strongly as it can because it is aware of the implications of not doing so. The Garda investigated the great majority of what can be loosely termed "gangland offences" committed in 2003 and identified the persons against whom it sought to accumulate evidence.

Only four were charged.

The Garda was completely stymied in a tiny number of cases, with no clues as to how to bring the investigation forward. It is one thing to know who has done something, it is a different thing to provide evidence that proves he or she did it. As a result, the Garda has a constant battle on its hands in regard to those who engage in the drug trade and the use of guns.

I presume the documents found across the Border had nothing to do with criminal gangs.

I do not know what the score is in that regard. An investigation is ongoing and I have no idea what is the explanation for that.