That Dáil Éireann resolves that sections 2 to 4, 6 to 12, 14 and 17 of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 (No. 39 of 1998) shall continue in operation for the period beginning on the 30th June 2019 and ending on the 29th June 2020.
The House will be aware that the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 was enacted in the wake of the barbaric murder by the Real IRA of 29 innocent people at Omagh in August 1998. That atrocity demanded this response from the State as a necessary and wholly proportionate measure to defend the desire of the vast majority on this island to live in peace. Section 18 of the 1998 Act provides that sections 2 to 4, inclusive, 6 to 12, inclusive, 14 and 17 must be renewed by the Oireachtas at least annually if they are to remain in force. These robust provisions of the criminal law play an important part in enabling the Garda authorities to face down the threat from terrorism.
Prior to moving any motion for renewal, the Act requires that I lay before the House a report on the operation of the provisions. The report covers the period from 1 June 2018 to 31 May 2019 and was laid before the House on 10 June 2019. It includes information provided by the Garda Commissioner on the use of the provisions in question over the past 12 months and a table setting out reported usage figures for each of the years since the Act came into operation.
I will not take up the limited time available by going through in detail each of the relevant sections of the Act. The report I have provided to the House gives details of the various sections and the offences and other arrangements provided for. However, I bring to the attention of the House that in May of this year the Supreme Court upheld an appeal by the State on the constitutionality of section 9(1)(b) of the Act. This subsection provides for an offence of withholding information which might be of material assistance in securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of another person for a serious offence. The Supreme Court’s finding with regard to the constitutionality of the provision is welcomed.
The report I laid before the House sets out a brief assessment of the security situation. However, there are clear constraints on the detail of what is and can be reported to ensure there is no danger of prejudice to the investigation or prosecution of crime or the security of the State.
A number of the provisions - sections 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 12 and 17 - have not been utilised during the reporting period. That a provision is not used in a particular year does not mean it is redundant. We need to take a balanced approach to this. The Garda assessment is that there remains a real and persistent threat from republican paramilitary groups on this island, the so-called dissidents. We know these groups vehemently oppose peace and democracy, and regrettably they remain wedded to brutality and criminality. These groups have spent 20 years trying to destroy the Good Friday Agreement and all it stands for. Their callous disregard for democracy, the rule of law and human life is all too clearly demonstrated with their continuing attempts to murder and maim PSNI officers, most recently in the vicious placing of a device under a PSNI officer’s car. Of course, we can never forget the callous and appalling murder of Lyra McKee in Derry last April. These people are ruthless, reckless and cowardly. Their actions will only strengthen our resolve to redouble our efforts to build a truly peaceful future for the people of Northern Ireland. I am determined that they will not succeed. I am sure everyone in this House shares my determination.
Of course, many provisions of the Offences against the State Acts could have application to the international terrorist threat. While, thankfully, Ireland has been spared the kinds of jihadist-type attacks we have seen in other European countries, targeting innocent people going about their daily lives, such attacks are a stark reminder of the vulnerability of all open democracies to this ongoing threat. Ireland is not immune. Our security authorities are alive to the potential threat we face and continue to work closely with their international counterparts in identifying and responding to that threat. I would also point out it is a small number of people in Ireland whose religious extremism and activities give a cause for concern. They are not characteristic of our Muslim community, who are peaceful and law abiding.
I pay a particular tribute to the women and men of An Garda Síochána who continue to work tirelessly to preserve life and to counter all threats from terrorism. I pay a tribute also to the men and women of the police and security services in Northern Ireland. I acknowledge the work over many years of the chief constable of the PSNI, George Hamilton, and I wish him well in his forthcoming retirement. I thank him for his service. I acknowledge the work of everyone in the PSNI with whom the Garda works closely every day to enhance the safety of all communities on this island.
The report notes the clear view of the Garda authorities that the Act continues to be an important tool in ongoing efforts in the fight against terrorism. The Garda authorities have stated that the provisions of the Act are used regularly and this is evident from the report laid before the House.
I appreciate that some Members of the House are concerned about the role of the Special Criminal Court in the criminal justice system. One of the most important traits of a democratic society is a justice system that operates free from interference by anyone seeking wrongfully to influence outcomes. Our criminal justice system depends not only on judges and lawyers but also on the participation of citizens, whether as witnesses or jurors. This latter role is central to our idea of a trial by a jury of one’s peers. We all agree that trial by jury must be preserved to the greatest extent possible. However, none of us can be blind to the threat posed to the criminal justice process by individuals, terrorist groups and organised criminal groups who seek to subvert the system through the intimidation of citizens. We cannot allow that to happen. We are obliged to make the hard decision that sometimes, in certain limited circumstances, a trial by jury is simply not possible.
To those who assert that the Special Criminal Court is contrary to fundamental rights, I respectfully disagree. The court operates without a jury for sound reason, but trials there involve not one but three judges. Anyone tried in that court has the full range of procedural protections available to him or her, including the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. We all look forward to the day when the Special Criminal Court is no longer needed, but regrettably we are not there yet. In the circumstances, I must conclude that these provisions continue to be required and that they should remain in operation for a further 12 months.
I turn to section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009. It refers to four serious, organised crime offences that are set out in Part 7 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006. Section 8 of the 2009 Act makes these offences scheduled offences for the purposes of Part V of the Offences against the State Act 1939, that is, trials for these offences are to be heard in the Special Criminal Court subject to the power of the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, to direct that the offences be tried in the ordinary courts. Of course, we greatly value trial by jury and we must protect it, but we cannot ignore the threat posed to the criminal justice process by criminal gangs. The purpose of this provision is to guard against the possibility of interference with jury trial by ruthless criminal gangs operating across society. I will not delay the House repeating the detail of what is set out in the report on this section. The report covers the period from 1 June 2018 to 31 May 2019 and was laid before the House on 10 June 2019. It includes information provided by the Garda Commissioner on the use, over the past 12 months, of the provisions in question and details of the offences in question.
Although the provision has been in place since 2009, and while there have been arrests under the relevant offences, it was more recently that we saw convictions in respect of relevant offences being secured in cases before the Special Criminal Court. This highlights the considered approach of the DPP in using her discretion to direct that cases be tried in the ordinary courts where it is possible to do so.
Nobody in this House could be in any doubt about the pernicious nature of the activities of serious organised criminals in this State. They have no regard for the damage they cause in communities. They prey on the weak and vulnerable. They have no respect for life, as evidenced from the three murders committed in the space of a week recently in Dublin. Murders committed in broad daylight in residential areas say a lot about the kinds of people we are dealing with. Their ever-increasing depravity was demonstrated recently by the willingness to attempt to commit murder in a busy supermarket. They have nothing but disdain for the rule of law. They have no hesitation whatsoever in the use of extreme violence and murder in pursuit of their aims.
The views of An Garda Síochána are set out clearly in the report. This provision will be required for some time to come. As Minister, I must have full regard for the views of the Garda authorities, and I do. In that regard, I acknowledge the work of An Garda Síochána in tackling organised crime. It continues to make significant seizures of drugs and firearms and continues to prevent further loss of life.
I reiterate that the Special Criminal Court should be preserved to the greatest extent possible. However, we cannot ignore the threat posed to the criminal process by individuals, terrorist groups and organised criminal groups who seek to intimidate jurors or potential jurors. I reject any accusations that the court has operated with bias. Its judges have performed courageous public service in presiding without fear or favour over the prosecution of some of the most dangerous terrorists and ruthless criminals in the State. The court continues to be a necessary and important part of the State’s criminal justice architecture.
On the basis of the information set out in the report, and on the advice of the Garda authorities, I propose that the House approve the continued operation of the relevant provisions of the two Acts for a further 12 months commencing on 30 June 2019.