Thursday, 3 October 2019

Questions (5)

Jim O'Callaghan


5. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if consideration has been given to the establishment of a statutory cross-Border multidisciplinary agency to tackle crime in the Border regions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39986/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Justice)

The recent savage attack on Mr. Kevin Lunney shocked everyone in the country. Unfortunately, it did not come as a complete surprise to the people of the Border region because the company for which the man works, including its executives, has been subjected to a campaign of violence and harassment for years. I regret to say that in the Border region, it seems a certain degree of lawlessness is being accepted. What will the Minister say in response to the Fianna Fáil proposal, put forward by Deputy Micheál Martin and me, that a statutory multidisciplinary agency on both sides of the Border should be established to tackle crime in the region?

I join the Deputy in condemning unequivocally the horrific attack on Mr. Lunney in recent times. It is my hope, as I am sure it is of every Deputy, that those responsible will be brought to justice. Policing in the Border region has always presented particular challenges that necessitate a collaborative approach to policing between law enforcement agencies North and South of the Border. There is close ongoing co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI.

As I outlined in the Seanad yesterday, while I have no objection in principle to the establishment of a statutory cross-Border agency, the existing multi-agency co-operation in place to tackle cross-Border crime is quite structured and successful. The Deputy will be aware that in November 2015, the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive agreed a series of measures in the Fresh Start agreement, as part of a concerted and enhanced effort to tackle organised and cross-jurisdictional crime. The measures included the creation of the joint agency task force, which is led by senior officers from An Garda Síochána, the PSNI, the Revenue Commissioners and the UK's HM Revenue and Customs. A number of other relevant bodies, including the National Crime Agency and the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, are also closely involved.

The objective of the task force is to build on existing law enforcement frameworks and increase the collective effectiveness of operational actions. In this format, the senior management levels of the two police services provide strong strategic direction and oversight to front-line operational activities. The task force has had some notable success in tackling cross-Border criminal activity in a range of crime areas. These include not just traditional smuggling activities but also rural and farm crimes, organised burglary and drug crime. The regrettable absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland means that the work of the task force is less visible than it might otherwise be. It was designed to report to justice ministers North and South and it is my hope that the restoration of power sharing in Northern Ireland will allow the task force to reach its full potential.

It is fair to say that wherever there is a border between two separate jurisdictions, there will be increased levels of criminal activity. That has been the case historically on this island since the placement of the Border there in the 1920s. Fortunately, as a result of our membership of the European Union and customs union, and in recent years the Single Market, we have been able to overcome many of the disadvantages of having two jurisdictions on the island. I am sure the Minister will be concerned about any proposal that we would put back some form of customs infrastructure on the island, which would simply add to the problem of lawlessness faced in that part of the island.

We need to recognise that greater co-operation is needed between CAB and the National Crime Agency. All crime is fuelled by one primary issue, namely, the desire to accumulate money. Most crimes are driven by that. In the case of the criminal activity on the Border region, there is no doubt it is fuelled by that desire. Perhaps in this part of the jurisdiction we have been too sympathetic to allowing certain entities along the Border to operate as they did previously but we need to be much more forceful in that regard. What is the Minister's view on establishing a joint statutory agency here and in the UK, involving the co-operation of the British authorities? Perhaps he should raise the idea with the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

While I am not opposed in principle to the establishment of a CAB-style cross-Border agency, I am satisfied the existing co-operative arrangements are effective. Advancing any new proposal would require detailed negotiation and, as the Deputy noted, engagement with the British Government, which has responsibility for some of the agencies involved and would have to be a party to conclude any new international agreement on the issues. Furthermore, the creation of a new multi-agency body would also require the support of the political institutions in Northern Ireland to succeed. In this regard, the Fresh Start agreement was agreed by the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive in 2015. It goes without saying any proposal would need to be discussed in detail with the Garda Commissioner and his counterparts in Northern Ireland and Great Britain and given careful consideration in the context of the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

I am sure the Deputy will join me in welcoming the Garda Commissioner's decision to establish an additional armed support unit, ASU, in County Cavan, which became operational this week. The ASU will complement the work of those based in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, and Dundalk, County Louth, in the northern region.

I welcome that. Previously, when there have been issues in places such as County Longford or Drogheda, there has been a concentration of policing attention in the areas. Much of that has to do with the fact there is a great deal of media attention on the difficulties the areas experience. My concern is there is a lot of action in respect of the savage attack on Mr. Lunney, to which the State is responding. We have known for more than two years, however, that such aggression and intimidation against Quinn executives was taking place. We need to ensure that this type of policing continues in the region and that the Garda is fully resourced in order that individuals can be brought to justice. We also need to change the mindset of people living in the Border region in order that they will be aware the type of intimidation to which Mr. Lunney and other company executives have been exposed is unacceptable and that to stamp it out the public will need to co-operate with members of An Garda Síochána.

Nevertheless, there will have to be a statutory, legislative response. I mentioned CAB and the National Crime Agency, but perhaps the Government needs to consider the legislation that was brought forward a number of years ago by Deputy Brendan Smith to deal with issues such as fuel smuggling on the Border. We have tolerated such activity for too long but it now needs to be tackled seriously.

I spent a day on the Border last week in Counties Fermanagh and Cavan. I acknowledge the advice and public contributions of Members such as Deputies Brendan Smith and Niamh Smyth, and my colleague, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, as well as the challenge of Border policing. I reiterate the excellent level of ongoing co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the PSNI, the importance of which has been emphasised in recent weeks following the abhorrent attack on Mr. Lunney, to which the Deputy referred. As all Deputies will be aware, a joint investigation is ongoing, the object of which is to bring those responsible to justice. This is a classic case that will require collaboration. A businessman was abducted in County Fermanagh and abandoned in County Cavan. The joint investigation involves the sharing of information and evidence, which is ongoing between An Garda Síochána and the PSNI and I was pleased to have a first-hand opportunity to observe that at the Garda station in County Cavan under the direction of Chief Superintendent John O'Reilly.

More generally, the two police services work closely together on a broad range of policing responsibilities, such as the joint cross-Border policing strategy operating between the two services. Irrespective of the political outcome of Brexit, the excellent ongoing co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the PSNI must and will continue.