I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
We are all conscious of the background against which this Bill is being introduced. The tragic events in Omagh just over two weeks ago, when 28 men, women and children lost their lives and when many more were seriously injured, are a stark reminder of the threat which groups opposed to the British-Irish Agreement continue to pose. They have lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the people who voted overwhelmingly, North and South, in favour of the Agreement in concurrent referenda in May. They now have recourse only to terror and violence to pursue their campaign of opposition to the Agreement. Their actions, culminating in the horror which was Omagh, have had the opposite effect: they have united the Irish people in rejection of their methods and in a determination that they should not be allowed to succeed in undermining the Agreement.
I welcome the fact that the strength of that public reaction has played its part in prompting a re-examination by groups opposed to the Agreement of the options now open to them. The decision by the INLA to call a ceasefire is to be welcomed. The decision by the Real IRA to suspend armed operations while it engages in internal consultations is hopefully a precursor to a similar decision on its part. While those decisions can provide little comfort to the victims of the Omagh tragedy and other attacks, they serve to show the power of the community response in the new situation created by the British-Irish Agreement. Both the so-called Real IRA and the Continuity IRA must be left in no doubt about the consequences of any further vacillation on their part: they will continue to meet a determined response from the Government and the security forces and they will not be allowed to thwart the will of the people.
What is of paramount importance now is that those who seek to oppose the British-Irish Agreement through violence must not be allowed to succeed in putting at nought the clearly expressed will of the people. We cannot allow ourselves to be deflected from our commitment to secure full implementation of the Agreement by the actions of a tiny and unrepresentative minority. We, as public representatives, must not only remain faithful to the mandate we have received but we must renew our commitment to the Agreement's implementation in all its aspects. The best possible answer to those groups remains the Agreement itself, which offers the prospect of the very thing they seek to destroy — the possibility of a new beginning and a peaceful future based on the principles of partnership, equality and mutual respect.
The Government has worked closely with the British Government in determining the overall response which should and must be made to the Omagh tragedy. Both Governments have reconfirmed their commitment to the British-Irish Agreement and are actively engaged on moving forward with implementation of the Agreement in all its aspects. Against that background, I note the significance of yesterday's statement by the Sinn Féin president and the broad welcome it has received. Both Governments are continuing to work closely in determining the appropriate response to the Omagh tragedy. My meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr. Mo Mowlam, in the immediate aftermath of that atrocity was part of that process which is continuing in the form of high level contacts between the Commissioner of the Garda Síochána and the Chief Constable of the RUC. The introduction of this Bill is another element of that response which is mirrored by the introduction of parallel legislation in the British parliament today. The unity of purpose of the people of these islands in the face of the Omagh atrocity is therefore matched by a common and co-ordinated response on the part of their two Governments.
The Government is satisfied that the proposals in the Bill represent a measured and balanced response proportionate to the threat which the activities of groups opposed to the Agreement pose. They are measures which have been identified as offering potential in usefully supplementing the existing provisions of the Offences against the State Acts. The Government is further satisfied on the advice available to it that the measures the Bill contains are consistent with the Constitution and its international human rights obligations. The measures it has decided on are moreover intended to represent a focused response which will have particular relevance in the context of the activities of groups such as the Real IRA. The passage of this legislation will, therefore, be an important step in strengthening the powers available to the Garda for the purpose of countering such groups and those who provide them with support.
The measures in the Bill are directed to four essential purposes. First, the Bill makes changes to the rules of evidence which currently apply to the offence of membership of an unlawful organisation and more generally for the purpose of other offences under the Offences against the State Acts and scheduled offences under those Acts. Second, the Bill will create certain new substantive offences of particular relevance to the activities of unlawful organisations and those who provide support for them. Third, it will strengthen the hands of the courts in respect of those who provide support to the activities of unlawful organisations or engage in offences on their behalf. Fourth, it will extend the maximum period of detention permitted under section 30 of the Offences against the State Act.
Three changes are proposed in regard to evidentiary matters. The principal changes are contained in sections 2 to 5. Section 2 makes specific reference to the offence of membership of an unlawful organisation and is one of the key provisions of the Bill. Its effect will be to provide that where, in any proceedings against a person in regard to that charge, evidence is given that the accused failed to answer or gave false or misleading answers to any question material to the investigation of the offence while being questioned in regard to that offence, the court may draw such inferences from that failure or from the furnishing of a false or misleading reply as appear proper.
The section further provides that references to any question material to the investigation of the offence includes any references to any question requesting the accused to give a full account of his or her movements, actions, activities or associations during any specified period. It also provides that any such inference may be treated as or as capable of amounting to corroboration of any other evidence relating to the offence of membership of an unlawful organisation. The section contains two important safeguards. It provides that it will not have effect unless the accused was told in ordinary language what the effect of a failure to answer or a false or misleading answer might be and provides that a person shall not be convicted solely on an inference drawn from a failure to answer a question or from the furnishing of a false or misleading reply.
The section will also only have effect in terms of the failure to answer a question or the furnishing of a false or misleading response in reply to a question after the coming into effect of the Act. Two related changes to the Offences against the State Acts are made by sections 4 and 13.
Section 4, which amends section 3 of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act, 1972, makes a related and consequential change. The effect of the existing section 3 of the 1972 Act — which provides that any statement or conduct by an accused implying or leading to a reasonable inference that he was at a material time a member of an unlawful organisation shall, when proceeded against for membership, be evidence that he was then such a member — was also to define the expression "conduct" as including an omission by an accused person to deny published reports that he was a member of an unlawful organisation. The change being made by section 4 will be to align the definition of conduct with the expression used in section 2 of the Bill; that is, conduct is being defined to include movements, actions, activities or associations in addition to the failure to deny such a report.
A further related change is being made by section 13 which provides that section 52 of the 1939 Act — which provides for an offence of failing to give specified information to the gardaí — will not have effect unless, immediately before a demand for information is made of a person under that section, the person is informed in ordinary language of the fact that the demand is being made under that section and what the consequences are of failing to give an answer or furnishing information which is false or misleading.
Section 3 of the Bill, which makes the second important change in the area of evidence, also has specific reference to the offence of membership of an unlawful organisation. It provides that in proceedings for such an offence the accused shall not, without leave of the court, call any other person to give evidence on his or her behalf unless notice has been given of his or her intention to do so. The procedures to be followed in this regard are set out in subsections (2) to (7) of the section which are closely modelled on the existing provisions of our criminal law in relation to the requirement to give notice of an alibi an accused intends to rely on for the purpose of his trial. The section also provides that the requirement in relation to the giving of notice will not apply to a witness whose evidence is solely in relation to the matter of sentence. I might add, for the information of the House, that the question of introducing a general provision along these lines into our criminal law in the case of serious offences is the subject of a recommendation in a report I have recently received from an expert group I set up earlier this year to consider changes in the criminal law arising out of recommendations made in the report of the steering group on the efficiency and effectiveness of the Garda Síochána.
The third change in the area of evidence is being made by section 5. This section is not restricted to the offence of membership but will, provided that the offence carries a penalty of five years' imprisonment or more, have application to any offence under the Offences against the State Acts, scheduled offences for the purpose of the 1939 Act and offences arising out of the same set of facts as an offence under the Acts or a scheduled offence. The effect of this section, which is closely based on a similar provision in the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act, 1996, will be to allow a court to draw inferences where the accused relies on a fact in his or her defence that he or she could reasonably have been expected to mention during questioning or on being charged but did not do so. This section, as with section 2, incorporates important safeguards whereby it will not have effect unless the accused was told in ordinary language what the effect of a failure to mention such a fact might be and provides that a person shall not be convicted solely on an inference drawn from such a failure. Similarly, the section will only have effect in relation to a failure to mention such a fact if the failure occurred after the coming into effect of the Act.
I think it important to point out at this stage there is not and could not be in the changes we are proposing any interference with the court's responsibility under our criminal law to convict an accused only where it is satisfied beyond reasonable doubt of the accused's guilt of the offence charged.
The Bill also creates certain new substantive offences. There are five such offences: directing an unlawful organisation; possession of articles for purposes connected with certain offences; unlawful collection of information; withholding information; and training persons in the making or use of firearms, etc.
Section 6 establishes the offence of directing, at any level of the organisation's structure, the activities of an organisation in respect of which a suppression order has been made under the Offences against the State Act, 1939. That offence will attract a penalty of up to life imprisonment.
Section 7 will make it an offence to possess articles in circumstances giving rise to a reasonable suspicion that the article in his or her possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of specified firearms or explosives offences. The section also provides that it will be a defence to prove that the materials were not in the person's possession for such purposes. This offence will attract a penalty of a fine or imprisonment up to ten years or both.
Section 8 will make it an offence to collect, record or possess information which is of such a nature that it is likely to be useful to members of an unlawful organisation in the commission of serious offences. A serious offence is defined for the purpose of the section as an offence punishable by imprisonment for a term of five years or more involving loss of human life, serious personal injury, false imprisonment or serious loss or damage to property or a serious risk of any such loss, injury, imprisonment or damage and includes an act or omission done or made outside the State which would be such an offence if done within the State. The section also provides that it will be a defence to prove that the information in question was not being collected etc. for the purpose of being used in the commission of a serious offence. The offence of unlawful collection of information will attract a penalty or a fine or imprisonment for up to ten years or both.
Section 9 will make it an offence to withhold information which a person knows or believes might be of material assistance in preventing the commission by any other person of a serious offence or securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of any other person for such an offence and who fails without reasonable excuse to disclose such information to a member of the Garda Síochána. A serious offence is defined for this purpose in the same terms as for section 8. An amendment, which I will bring forward on Committee Stage, will further clarify the position in this regard. The penalty which will attach to the offence is a fine or imprisonment of up to five years or both.
Section 12 will make it an offence for a person to instruct or train another person in the making or use of firearms or explosives or to receive such training without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. This offence will attract a penalty of a fine or imprisonment up to ten years or both.
These offences are of a type that are likely to be committed by members of unlawful organisations arising from the activities of such groups. They are therefore targeted at specific activities, such as the collection of information which would be of assistance in planning terrorist attacks or the possession of material which can be used in the making of improvised explosive devices, in which members or supporters of such groups can and do engage. They will therefore have limited application. Likewise the offence of directing an unlawful organisation will call for evidence over and above that of membership of such an organisation. It seems nevertheless right to provide for such an offence which will be capable of attracting the higher penalty of life imprisonment to deal with circumstances where such evidence may exist. The offence of withholding information has a wider potential application, but the message it is intended to underscore is that it is the duty of persons who have knowledge of planned offences involving death, serious injury or destruction or information which would lead to the conviction of those responsible for such offences to make that information available to the Garda. The effect of section 14 will be to make these new offences scheduled offences for the purposes of Part V of the 1939 Act. That will mean that persons suspected of committing such offences will be liable to arrest under section 30 of the 1939 Act and may be charged before the Special Criminal Court in respect of such offences on the direction of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The effect of the amendment to the Schedule to the Bail Act, 1997, which is being made by section 16 will be to enable these offences to be regarded as serious offences for the purposes of that Act when bail applications are being considered. The Bill is also intended to strengthen the powers of the courts in respect of those who provide support to the activities of unlawful organisations or engage in offences on their behalf. It contains two measures to this end.
The first of these is the provision in section 15 which specifies that the court may impose unlimited fines in relation to the four principal offences dealing with possession of firearms and explosives. The offences concerned are possession of a firearm or ammunition with intent to endanger life or cause serious injury to property contrary to section 15 of the Firearms Act, 1925; possession of a firearm or ammunition in suspicious circumstances contrary to section 27A of the Firearms Act 1964; possession of explosive substances contrary to section 3; and making or possessing explosives in suspicious circumstances contrary to section 4 of the Explosive Substances Act, 1883.
The second such measure is the provision in section 17 to amend section 61 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1994, which deals with the forfeiture of property used for the purpose of committing or facilitating the commission of an offence or intended to be used for that purpose in circumstances where a person has been convicted of an offence. The effect of the change being made by section 17 is to provide that, in the case of persons convicted of specified offences relating to the possession of firearms or explosives, a court will be required to order the forfeiture of such property unless it is satisfied that there would be a serious risk of injustice if it made such an order. The provisions of section 61 apply to both real and personal property and will therefore permit the seizure of lands on which arms are stored, should such a course be warranted.
The fourth essential purpose of the Bill is to extend the maximum period of detention permitted under section 30 of the Offences against the State Act — which is 48 hours at present — in two separate circumstances. First, section 10 will allow a District Court judge to authorise the detention of a person for a further period not exceeding 24 hours, on the application of an officer of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of superintendent, provided that the District Court judge is satisfied that the further detention is necessary for the proper investigation of the offence concerned and that the investigation is being conducted diligently and expeditiously. I intend to introduce an amendment on Committee Stage to make it clear that the person being detained is entitled to be present in court during the application and to make submissions or to have submissions made on his behalf. Secondly, section 11 will also allow a District Court judge to permit the re-arrest and detention of a person, in respect of an offence for which he or she was previously detained but released without charge, for a further period which again is not to exceed 24 hours in circumstances where the District Court judge is satisfied, on information supplied on oath by a member of the Garda Síochána, that further information has come to the knowledge of the Garda Síochána about that person's suspected participation in the offence about which they wish to question the suspect.
The Bill finally contains a review mechanism. Section 18 provides that the provisions of the Bill other than sections 1, 13, 15, 16, 18 itself and 19 will cease to be in operation on 31 December 2000 unless a resolution has been passed by each House of the Oireachtas resolving that the section should continue to be in operation. The remaining sections of the Bill are in standard form and contain the necessary definitions in section 1 and provision for the Bill's short title, construction and collective citation in section 19.
Passage of this Bill will further strengthen our law for the purpose of tackling those groups, such as the Real IRA, who have yet to declare a complete ending of their campaigns of violence. The Bill itself is only one element of a package of measures on the security and legislative fronts designed to counter the activities of those who engage in violence. The other measures which are being taken include the ongoing examination of means of further enhancing police operational capacity on both sides of the Border being undertaken by the Garda Commissioner and the Chief Constable of the RUC who will report back to me and the Secretary of State on the matter shortly; the allocation of additional resources to the Garda Síochána for the purpose of countering the threat which dissident groups continue to pose, and my decision to bring the provisions of the Bail Act, 1997, into force in respect of persons charged before the Special Criminal Court to allow the courts to take into account the possibility of the commission of offences if the person was granted bail in parallel with the passage of this Bill.
It would be wrong to pretend that particular legislation or indeed any other security measure can provide a cast iron guarantee that terrorist activity will cease or that terrorist attempts will not succeed. There are no simple solutions to the problem of terrorism. If there were, they would have been tried and have succeeded many years ago. We will continue to depend heavily on the professionalism of the Garda Síochána who have had considerable success in countering the activities of the Real IRA and preventing attacks in Northern Ireland and Britain.
A question which has been raised is why this legislation was not introduced when the threat posed by the Real IRA began to manifest itself. The same question could reasonably have been addressed to both Governments over the past 30 years when the level of threat posed by terrorist activity was much higher than it has been since the latest IRA and Loyalist ceasefires began.
Timing the introduction of particularly tough criminal law measures such as those before the House is very much a matter of judgment and successive Governments have tried conscientiously to respond with legislative and other measures in a way that was reasonable and proportionate.
Rather than appear to blame successive Governments for not introducing measures of this nature before now, we should acknowledge that they are definitely needed now and represent an appropriate and proportionate response in circumstances where a terrorist grouping has shown its willingness, against the clearly expressed will of the people, to commit carnage on a scale never witnessed before. We should keep the focus not on what might or might not have been done by Governments over the years, but on the absolute need to do all in our power to thwart those who are capable of atrocities like Omagh.
It is my hope that the combined effect of the enactment of the Bill and the measures to which I referred will be to significantly enhance the capacity of the State as a whole to tackle such groups. More than that, I hope these measures will provide a rallying point for those, the vast majority, who want to see an end to such violence for good and that the revulsion which we all feel in the aftermath of the Omagh atrocity should not be allowed to dim with the passage of time.
Now is the time for those groups which have yet to declare a definitive ceasefire to renounce such violence and to prove in word and deed that they mean what they say. The British-Irish Agreement offers a unique opportunity for both traditions on this island to live together in stability and equality. It offers a means whereby the different relationships which bind us together can be acknowledged and developed. The two Governments are determined to press ahead with the implementation of the Agreement and the commitments contained in it.
I take this opportunity to put those who would still have recourse to violence on notice. The Government will not allow any group to destabilise the British-Irish Agreement or subvert the will of the people. The Government will closely monitor the efficacy of the measures to which I referred and will not shirk from taking other measures should they prove necessary to curb their activities.
I described the measures in the Bill as harsh on its publication. It gives me no pleasure to be the Minister who introduces such a Bill. I referred to the review mechanism the Bill contains which will enable the House to consider the continuing necessity for the measures for which the Bill provides no later than 31 December 2000. That date was fixed by reference to the commitment contained in the British-Irish Agreement to carry out a wide-ranging review of the Offences against the State Acts generally. The Government intends to honour that commitment and I will establish such a review mechanism shortly by way of the establishment of a special committee under independent chairmanship and with the participation of both Governments and outside experts. To underline that commitment, I propose to bring forward the date by which the Bill will fall to be reviewed to 30 June 2000. I hope that, by the time the date provided for in the Bill has been reached, violence for political ends will have ended completely and that it will be possible to reform the Offences against the State Acts and dispense with those elements no longer required, both generally and by reference to the provisions of this Bill. Much will depend on the decisions which those groups which have not yet renounced violence take. Only they can create the conditions whereby it will be possible to dispense with many of the powers which the Offences against the State Acts provide.