Just as a terrorist bomb in Sackville Place saved the neck of the leadership of the Fine Gael Party on the infamous night of the mongrel foxes in 1972, so too has it taken the deaths of two innocent people, two much-missed partners and parents, two key members of different branches of public life, to galvanise the reluctant parties of this Government into action. In the debate on my party's proposal to limit bail I said in this House in May last:
I do not say that we should entirely remove a person's freedom, not even someone who has been charged with serious crime, but where aprime facie case has been established, where there are reasonable grounds and compelling evidence to show that a person may be guilty of a serious crime, then I feel we not only can, but indeed must, reasonably limit that person's freedom to whatever degree is necessary to protect society.
I should remind the Minister that was a full 14 months ago in which we have heard many pious platitudes, empty promises and a package of measures trumpeted with much ceremony in July last which have seen the light of day merely in print.
The Minister had barely made a dent in her chair when she announced that the Government would hold a referendum on the bail laws, but she had not reckoned with the parties of the left and their handlers who imposed on her the necessity for an embarrassing u-turn almost within hours of her announcement. Now, too late for many good people, they have been made to see the error of their ways and have at last had to concede that we have a real crisis on our hands. Maybe they too saw the searing indictment of their ineptitude, misplaced loyalty and procrastination when the criminal record of a drugs mastermind was shown to the nation on television just a couple of weeks ago. The career of Tony Felloni was aided and abetted by the absence of a coherent bail policy, and countless lives have been put at risk by this Government which failed to live up to its duty and implement the course of action which it must have known was inevitable. The Fine Gael spirit might indeed have been willing, but the Labour flesh was weak. The promises were shadows and, as we know, the substance in the shadows is non-existent.
It would be wrong to lay the full blame for the bail debacle at the feet of the Minister, for when she has to face her colleagues in Cabinet, who not only do not share her views but actively discourage her proposals, she is on a loser before she starts the much-vaunted tradition of a law and order Fine Gael is in tatters.
Today we have in front of us a concrete measure to face up to the godfathers of crime in our cities, towns and wherever they are located. At last the people will not have to gaze helplessly at neighbours who did not work a day in their crooked lives, as they polish their yachts, empty the ashtrays of their new BMWs or move to the lush pastures of Kildare, all without benefit of a visible income or, worse, with the assistance of the Department of Social Welfare.
In maintaining any kind of criminal law system, it must be accepted that where people are accused of serious crimes, life for them will not be that of the ordinary citizen. There will have to be curtailments in their freedoms, and society must accept that. A genuine attempt to speed up the work of the courts would help to limit the time for which the life of the accused is disrupted. In the meantime, if he has to suffer a curtailment of his freedom, that is for the greater good and must be accepted.
Likewise, if he has to survive without access to what are suspected to be illgotten gains, whether cash, bonds or buildings, he must suffer that upset in the current climate. Constitutional freedoms are privileges we enjoy in an ordered and orderly society but which we may have to relinquish in the cause of the common good. We have only recently taken back our flag from the IRA. It is now time to recover our Constitution from the criminals in our society.
I am amazed that while we slavishly copy all that is crass, obnoxious and objectionable in American society, we do not capitalise on its successes and achievements. As far back as the 1930s it realised that people like A1 Capone, the very people for whom the term "godfather" was coined, would not be brought to justice through normal methods for the worst crimes they were suspected to have ordered or committed. The authorities adopted the then novel approach of seeking technical, but no less culpable, offences which were relatively easily proved and which carried substantial jail sentences. We must adopt a similar approach, for there is nothing more dear to the criminal, nothing more valued by the gangster than the property or assets he has accumulated.
There has to be a unified approach by all the agencies of this State to our current problems. There has to be a body of public servants who can and will pursue all legal avenues until a valid conviction is gained for one or more of the crimes with which suspected criminals are charged. If that takes special legislation, let us enact it; if it requires special people, let us recruit them; if it requires additional finance, let us provide it. The time for kid gloves is over. The public are asking for, and are entitled to results, and we in this House are the people to whom they are looking.
I referred to the Minister's announcement of a package of measures last July which would, in her own words, "wage an all-out fight against the drugs scourge", which she described at the time as a threat to the fabric of our society. Frankly, the follow through on that much-heralded initiative has been less than laudable and, until the Minister's sleeping partners woke up from their slumbers over the weekend, there was not likely to be any progress on that initiative.
As I read the Minister's press release of 19 July last, I was angered at the poverty of the attempts since to put into effect all that was promised there. Talk of drug strategy teams, the extension of drug tretment centres, substance abuse programmes is all still "pie-in-a-Rain-bow-coloured-sky".
The proposals before us today are realistic and hard-hitting, designed to hit the criminal where it hurts most, in the pocket. This is a measure designed to target assets, not people, but which will effectively curtail the activities of evil men. It will have the effect of stopping the known and convicted criminals from thumbing their noses at society. By that I mean the person in the street who pays his taxes will not see those people who make a career of crime, walking the streets in defiance of any and all authority. At any time when most people are put to the pin of their collars to survive, carrying an unfair burden of tax, it is the last straw to see known criminals defy the law, elude taxes and, perhaps, draw social welfare benefit as well.
The airwaves have been inundated for the last week with presenters reading letters from people who had been asked by the Revenue Commissioners to prove where they got relatively small amounts of money. I have no difficulty with that, if that is the law. However, it must be the law for everyone without exception, derogation, or special consideration. In the words of the Taoiseach, no one can be seen to be above the law; no one can be seen to be untouchable, and no one can have the inside track when it comes to evasion. I just hope he continues to practise that, and that he can get his partners in Government to do likewise.
These are hard-hitting measures, designed to be effective, to achieve a particular goal and to uphold the primacy of the courts and other institutions of the State. I have no doubt we will be accused of chipping away at constitutional rights and of harming our democracy, but more damage was done to our democratic institutions in this House two weeks ago when a Minister railroaded through a transport Bill after it was defeated and in flagrant breach of democratic parliamentary principles.
There is adequate precedent for the acceptance in evidence of the opinion of a chief superintendent that assets are the proceeds of organised criminal activity. The Offences Against the State Acts were brought in originally, and subsequently amended, to combat a very real threat to the existence of this State, and there is little enough evidence of its misuse in the past 60 years.
This measure is designed to counter a threat which is no less real, no less substantial, no less dangerous in its own way, as the threat from the IRA. Let us act now, swiftly and decisively, to restore the confidence of the people in those institutions of State we seek to protect and uphold.
There are adequate safeguards built into the Bill to prevent a miscarriage of justice. The proposals, in the short-term, are for the freezing of assets only, and adequate time and opportunity is given to the person to prove they have been legitimately acquired. If there is an application for their confiscation, the onus of proof is on the applicant and not the respondent.
As Deputy O'Donoghue said in his statement on this Bill, those involved in organised criminal activities have escaped justice and continued to enjoy lavish lifestyles because of the inability of the authorities, within the parameters of existing legislation and legal precedent, to prove their guilt. This will level the playing pitch a fraction. It will tilt the balance from the criminal just a little, and reassure honest people that there is still one law for everybody. Nobody should be seen to be untouchable.
If the law is not adequate to the needs of society, it must be changed and strengthened. We are in crisis and must respond accordingly. I suggested in this House a few weeks ago that we take other decisive steps to deal with another aspect of serious crime detection. I suggested that the time was right to avail of modern technology to solve serious violent crime by the more extensive use of DNA testing, more commonly described as genetic fingerprinting. The public would not only approve of such a measure but would welcome it with open arms.
The people are very angry and it is a righteous anger born of frustration and fear. This is a legitimate attempt to assuage that anger. The people are frightened. That fear is no longer confined to elderly widows who fear night time attack but it is experienced on the streets of our capital in broad daylight. We must bring back respect for the law. If there are those who abuse it seriously and continually we must require them to confirm in the only way we know.
This measure provides for the first time a realistic set of proposals to come to terms with the problems of organised crimes and those who mastermind them. The present situation brings our system of justice into disrepute and we need to reassure the public and take realistic steps to improve it. This is a genuine attempt to face the problem and I commend the Minister for taking our proposals on board. They are long overdue. The public expect them and the citizens who walk our streets have a right to see them enacted.