Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Court Sittings

Sorca Clarke

Ceist:

5. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Justice the impact of Covid-19 on the District Family Court service schedule; and when sittings are expected to return to full capacity. [22856/20]

While most crime decreased over Covid, domestic violence recorded the largest increase. What impact has this had on the schedule of out family courts and when are sittings expected to return to full capacity? The impact these services have on those living with domestic violence cannot be overstated and they need to be put back in place as soon as possible.

I thank the Deputy for raising what is an extremely important issue. She is correct that we have unfortunately witnessed a significant increase in domestic violence through the Covid months, due to the fact that many people have been at home and have had no other place to go for safety.

Under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, management of the courts is the responsibility of the Courts Service but I will outline where we are currently. I welcome the fact that the family law courts are continuing to sit. Throughout Covid, even with the diminished capabilities in the Courts Service they continued to prioritise urgent matters. Specifically, these were family-related matters but also domestic abuse. However, for the safety of everyone concerned, court business has been and must continue to be conducted in accordance with public health guidelines. As a result, there have been changes to the administration of the business of each court to ensure public safety. The net effect is that, unfortunately and regrettably, fewer cases can be listed every day in order to ensure that maximum attendance levels in courthouses are not exceeded.

The Courts Service has been working to reduce Covid-19 related waiting times. The existing courts video link has been extended to facilitate remote court sittings and we have in particular tried to prioritise and focus this on families where parents have perhaps not been able to get to court. I was glad to make an application, in which we were successful, to receive an additional €5 million for the Courts Service to increase the number of courtrooms and supports available throughout this pandemic.

The Courts Service has advised that regular business in the District Courts, which the Deputy mentioned in her question, has resumed as much as is safely possible since 1 September. These measures will however be constantly reviewed in line with public health guidelines and may be subject to change as the guidelines change or experience suggests changes are required. The Courts Service website has further details on that. Individuals represented by a solicitor should contact them to discuss their situation but if a case is particularly urgent and there is no legal representation, local court offices can explain how an early date for court can be obtained. Again, this is where there is a family-related matter or a case of domestic abuse.

My Department is actively working to deliver much needed modernisation of the family law system in Ireland. This modernisation includes the introduction of a new family court Bill and the development of a dedicated family court system.

The enormous impact on the lives of people across the country is particularly evident in those who seek access to the family courts. How will the family court and family law Bill the Minister mentioned address the adversarial nature of family law proceedings? It has to be available to anyone who needs it. This includes the reassurance of access to barring, safety and protection orders but also the other side of family court cases: access to children, guardianship and maintenance payments. Women's Aid said they have experienced a 43% increase in calls to their helpline. The Garda attempted to contact more than 8,000 people living in a dangerous environment. These areas also need additional resources. Will the Minister give a guarantee or commitment that any service dealing with those who live with domestic abuse will see an increase in the resources being made available to them to meet that increase in demand?

I thank the Deputy. We could perhaps look at it in two ways.

The intention throughout Covid-19 has been that urgent cases relating in particular to family law and domestic violence will be prioritised by the courts, which they have been since the beginning of the pandemic. I am aware of issues because people in my constituency have contacted me about child access arrangements where perhaps one parent has used Covid-19 as a reason not to allow somebody to see their child. This is absolutely wrong. Restrictions brought in due to Covid-19 do not stop orders being implemented and should not be used as an excuse by any party. Every effort has been made, in particular since 1 September and the reopening of the various courts, to protect the most vulnerable people.

The courts are adopting measures to schedule court days in accordance with business so people are told when they will be heard in order that they can come at that particular time. This had often been a challenge previously. There are variations in the volume of work that can be safely carried out in the District Courts as some of the buildings have a greater capacity. We have introduced video links so people can have access to the courts without actually going in and seeing the person they are in court with.

What is the current backlog in the family court service? What are the actual numbers? Does the Minister have this information to hand?

Can it be provided?

The Deputy has a minute to put her question.

Can that information be provided? What is the current backlog in the family court services? These figures represent people in crisis. Otherwise they would not be in the family court service to begin with. We have an obligation to ensure any support these individuals and families need is put in place as soon as possible.

I do not have the figures to hand. As I mentioned, management of the courts' services is a matter for the courts but I can certainly ask for and seek that information. I know every effort has been made to try to ensure that urgent cases involving the most vulnerable people in complex family situations and victims of sexual and domestic abuse have been seen. From 1 September, a huge amount of work has been done by the Chief Justice, the various presidents of the courts and the Department on seeking additional funding to support the courts in resuming services as much as possible. When I spoke to the Chief Justice prior to the summer recess his intention was that the courts would resume with a capacity of 70% to 80% in the autumn. This is the objective he wants to achieve.

With regard to the family courts Bill, I hope to have the heads of the Bill before the Government in the coming week or two. It will be quite a large Bill and I look forward to engaging with the Deputy on it.

The specific family court at Hammond Lane will be a significant development. I was pleased to be able to announce additional funding for it earlier in the summer and work will progress as soon as possible.

I thank Deputy Clarke, who is well within her time. If we move on like this, a lot of Deputies will get in.

Crime Prevention

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Ceist:

6. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Justice the amount of funding allocated to implementing the national drugs strategy in County Louth; and if there is scope to increase funding following the outcome of the recommendations presented in the Drogheda scoping exercise. [22994/20]

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

23. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Justice the status of the scoping exercise for Drogheda, County Louth, announced on 21 August 2020; the date of commencement and other relevant details on the matter; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22869/20]

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Ceist:

173. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Justice her plans to extend to other areas in County Louth the Drogheda scoping exercise that is due to be undertaken. [23176/20]

What amount of funding has been allocated to implementing the national drugs strategy in County Louth? I am also asking about the level of resources required and whether there is scope to increase funding following the outcome of the recommendations presented in the Drogheda scoping exercise. I have made a request that the exercise be escalated to involve major towns such as Dundalk in County Louth, which have huge problems in this particular regard.

In view of the Minister's interest in fighting criminality in County Louth, particularly in Drogheda with her attendance at the protest following the barbarous murder of one of our citizens, the petrol bombing of homes and the intimidation of people, will she give us more detail on a very welcome scoping report for Drogheda to look at all of the issues with regard to criminality, crime, youth crime, youth supports, recreation and amenity and support for community organisations, exactly as happened in the north inner city of Dublin?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6, 23 and 173 together.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. It is obviously very close to both Deputies, who have worked extremely hard in their communities and with local resources and authorities to try to address this.

As the Deputies are aware, on Friday 21 August 2020, I appointed the former director of the Probation Service, Vivian Geiran, to carry out a scoping exercise to assess the impact that criminal activity in Drogheda is having on the community and make recommendations for action. I am pleased that Mr. Geiran is available to carry out this scoping exercise, which will make recommendations on what action we need to take in Drogheda in light of the impact of the criminal activity there. The scoping exercise will gather and assess information relating to the ongoing challenges and needs experienced by communities in Drogheda, and identify opportunities to connect, support and strengthen services in the area, including in particular those for young people. The exercise will look at the areas of community safety, policing, the impact of substance abuse, and drug debt intimidation but also at community development needs, the existing service landscape, including facilities for families and children's services, the physical environment of the town, and education and employment opportunities.

I met Mr. Geiran last week to discuss his work and to assure him of my absolute support as Minister and my commitment to this project as somebody who is not from Drogheda but who lives in the neighbouring village of Slane in County Meath. I have seen how this problem has seeped out of the town of Drogheda into the surrounding areas, not just to Dundalk but also to Laytown, Bettystown and Duleek. It is something I want to see addressed.

The work, which will take between six and ten weeks to complete, includes gathering information and assessing the scale and nature of the problem in order to map the services available and identify any gaps. Mr. Geiran will engage with residents, service providers, including An Garda Síochána, businesses and other members of the community, and draw on their local knowledge and understanding of the problems to identify key opportunities for action.

I am aware a body of work had been started by the chief executive of Louth County Council and the intention is to continue to work with the local council, councillors, local representatives and Deputies and Senators in the area, and I am sure Mr. Geiran will engage with all representatives.

As I have mentioned, the issue in Drogheda has spilled into neighbouring areas and, where relevant to the scoping exercise, this will be taken into account. It is a matter I discussed with Mr. Geiran. It will take into account that this problem does not just have an impact on the people of Drogheda, although it is the main focus. We have seen how it seeped into other communities, towns, villages and rural areas. I have asked Mr. Geiran to ensure there is no limit if he feels he needs to go further than the town.

As the Deputies are aware, the national drugs strategy is under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Health and, therefore, is a matter for that Department. With regard to the funding, while I have asked Mr. Geiran not to hold back on what he feels is needed, it should not just be about additional funding. There are, of course, services and supports. We heard very clearly from many people at the march earlier this year that some of the organisations need additional support, help and funding. However, there needs to be a particular focus on where we can better connect and better integrate the services that are already in place, where we can link people in a better way and understand what each one is doing and where they can understand themselves in order that they can support people and provide a greater wraparound service.

We are also considering that the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland very much focus on community policing, and this will be a particular priority here. Whatever we do, and whatever recommendations come out of this, they will feed into the overall work being done by An Garda Síochána.

I welcome the Minister's response. The scoping exercise is absolutely necessary. She spoke about how this problem in Drogheda has seeped into other areas, including County Meath. Criminality is interconnected and any scoping exercise must at least look at the entire county and beyond, particularly where there are major connections to organised crime between Dundalk and Drogheda. We are dealing with a very dangerous quotient of criminals. I welcome the Minister's mention of drug debt intimidation. I accept that the national drug strategy does not fall under her remit but I have had this conversation with the Minister previously. We need somebody at the Cabinet who has full responsibility for dealing with the entire drugs problem, which encompasses health, justice, education and children. We need this to happen as quickly as possible.

We also need to ensure we have all of the wraparound services. Gardaí would be the first to tell us we do not have, even through NGOs or the State itself, the additional services required. They end up chasing their tails.

I welcome the Minister's statement and, as I said earlier, her commitment to Drogheda and the surrounding area. I agree with her that there is a drug problem and criminality in east Meath in towns such as Laytown, Bettystown, Mornington, Donacarney and even Duleek. This is the real change in our society in Drogheda. This is the first time the Minister holding the justice portfolio has cared and the first time the Government will act and significantly invest in the social infrastructure there, supporting areas that suffer from economic loss and lack of employment.

In addition, the Garda is doing a fantastic job. I welcome the increased number of gardaí and the determination of Chief Superintendent Christy Mangan to win this battle for the people and to make sure all these criminals are put behind bars.

The other side of this is to support, nurture and improve the facilities, particularly on our working-class estates, which suffer from a deficit of appropriate and proper recreation facilities and other amenities. Working together, as the Minister wants to do, and across Departments, which must be involved in this, we will make Drogheda just like the north inner city of Dublin is, a changed area where the many, not the few criminals, are winning.

I again thank both Deputies for their commitment to this. The implementation of these recommendations will only work, if all agencies, including the various Departments, whether Justice and Equality, Health, Education and Skills or Employment Affairs and Social Protection, come together. This mirrors the work we intend to do through the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, in respect of which we are bringing together all the various agencies. It was alluded to, that in many cases, particularly at weekends and where services are closed or otherwise not available to people, gardaí are the front-line service that people call. They are there for health reasons, housing reasons and many other reasons. What we need is for them to be on the ground tackling criminality and working with our communities. They can only do that with the support of all the various agencies. That is why I hope with the recommendations from Mr. Geiran that we can set about this work specifically in the town of Drogheda. I accept there are other surrounding areas in the county and other counties that would like to be included, but this is a specific ask from the people of Drogheda, given the very serious crimes that have happened there in recent years. I have asked Mr. Geiran to expand that if he needs to do so.

I welcome what the Minister said. In that scoping exercise, they will need to look above and beyond just Drogheda and will have to take into account wider facets. There is a necessity for an audit of all services and the capacity and capability of the gardaí, who are doing brilliant work tackling these crimes. We are, however, starting from behind. I have recently been in houses in major urban areas in Dundalk that have been firebombed. I have also been out in north County Louth, where houses have been attacked in cases of attempted drug debt intimidation, putting pressure on parents to pay their children's debts. This is happening across the board. It is becoming absolutely normal for many people. We need to make sure that along with dealing with the health aspects of this and ensuring that all sectors have sufficient funding, we deal with the backlog in courts and serious criminals by putting them where they need to be put. I commend the Red Door Project, Turas and Family Addiction Support Network in Dundalk

I believe this initiative will be transformational in our county, particularly in our town and surrounding area. I look at the young people growing up and the opportunities they need and which they have been deprived of in the past because Government policy has not invested adequately in employment locally. I welcome Amazon's building of a data centre in Drogheda, and there are good signs of increased investment in our community. Young people need to be shown the way, and they are willing to grasp the opportunities. The youth organisations and sports organisations are very anxious to be involved in this. Similarly, on our estates we have a number of community and voluntary bodies. I welcome again the inclusiveness of the Minister's proposal and the short period - ten weeks is just about right - to get everybody together and get the plan together. As she says, we will not be hesitant in putting forward proposals for investment in our community or pointing out that the option of drugs is negative in its totality for families. Opportunity, education, good health, a good future for young people and, most of all, the happiness of all the people will be determined by this initiative.

Deputy O'Dowd raised the issue of the timeline. I asked Mr. Geiran whether ten weeks would be enough and he absolutely assured me it would be. The sooner we can get the recommendations, the sooner we can start to act on them. In the meantime, there are still concerns about criminal activity in Drogheda and the surroundings area in counties Louth and Meath.

Regarding the changes over the past year or two, there are currently 152 gardaí assigned to the Drogheda district. This represents an increase of 46% compared with the end of 2015, so there has been a massive increase in the number of gardaí on the ground. There are also now 18 garda staff within the Drogheda district, an increase of 64% on the previous figure. While the focus of this scoping exercise is not that we have more gardaí but that we have a wraparound service and support for the community, it is important to note, given the serious crime and serious incidents that have been happening and the very tragic murder of a young man, that there is an increased Garda presence on the ground, and they are doing everything they can to support the community in the interim.

Garda Investigations

Martin Kenny

Ceist:

7. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Justice if she has contacted the Garda Commissioner about the burning out of a car that was being held as evidence by An Garda Síochána as part of the investigation into the abduction of a person (details supplied) to ascertain the way in which this occurred; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22988/20]

Has the Minister for Justice and Equality contacted the Garda Commissioner about the burning out of a car that was held as evidence by An Garda Síochána as part of an investigation into the abduction of a person in order to ascertain why this occurred? Will she make a statement on the matter? This is a serious incident. For many years, Garda evidence used to go missing. I had hoped, however, that the Garda reforms we have had recently would have ensured that this would not happen any more. This happened in the past 12 months, however, and it is very concerning.

As the Deputy will be aware, section 26 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 provides that the Commissioner is responsible for the direction and control of An Garda Síochána. The Garda Commissioner is also responsible for the day-to-day management of An Garda Síochána, which includes investigations of alleged crimes and other relevant matters.

As Minister, I have no role in these matters and, therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on an investigation carried out by An Garda Síochána, in particular in respect of a case currently before the courts.

Generally, however, and to try to be of assistance to the Deputy, I understand that where no facilities for the storage of vehicles exist in Garda stations, the Garda tenders for such services. Contracts for the storage of vehicles are awarded locally following a comprehensive tendering process. As part of any such process, applicant companies are required to meet certain security criteria and submit to an evaluation by the local crime prevention officer. In cases in which incidents such as those mentioned by the Deputy occur, they are fully investigated. I am informed that the premises where the vehicle is stored will be subject to a further security review.

For many years we came across situations in which video evidence was "lost" or evidence was destroyed or went missing. Down the years we have had whistleblowers come forward with various such examples. A lot of reform and work was done, in fairness, to try to move things forward and move that culture to one side to ensure that this stopped happening. I fully appreciate and understand that this is a live case before the courts and that it would not be appropriate to go into the detail of it. The incident has occurred, however, and it reflects very badly on the reform we expected to have brought us well past any such situation happening now. The view among the public is, "Here we go again", and that it is back to this type of situation again. I do not think that will be good for anyone but I believe this incident needs to be a red flag to ensure that nothing like it happens in the future.

I do not want to give the Deputy a short answer, and it is not that I do not want to answer him, but, given the very serious nature of what we are talking about and the situation in general surrounding this case, it is important I do not say anything that could impact a case currently before the courts. As I have outlined, however, there is a very clear process where there is no storage or capacity available within An Garda Síochána's facilities. The Garda has to go through a very rigorous process to ensure that anybody who does win a contract for storage goes through a certain set of security criteria.

What has happened here should not have happened but this is being investigated. I am informed there is a security review under way based on this incident but I cannot say any more on that.

I wrote to the Garda on this and asked if there were any other incidents where evidence of this nature went missing or vehicles were burned while in Garda pounds or under Garda custody. I did not receive any reply, which was disappointing. The thing that struck me about it was that it is not something that happens. If a file was shredded, it is likely there is at times a process where files are shredded and the wrong file could get mixed up and be accidentally shredded. However, cars or vehicles are not being burned. It is not something that can accidentally happen. It clearly has a sinister nature and that is how most people would see it. It requires the Minister to ask questions as to why this has happened and to make sure that there is an absolute guarantee that any pound or compound storing vehicles that could be used as evidence in cases would be safe and that there would be no possibility of this happening again.

I agree we need to ensure that any kind of evidence being kept or stored is kept safely. That is why there is a security review under way as to what happened here specifically. I do not know of any other such incidents nor do I have figures of incidents like this. I do not know if that information is available but I reassure the Deputy that this is being looked at and a review is under way. We do not want to see this happening at any stage with any kind of evidence and it is important that all the correct procedures and mechanisms are followed by anybody who is given a contract through the Garda or any Government body and that something like this does not happen.

Garda Investigations

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

8. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Justice if there has been further progress in achieving a full and comprehensive investigation here and in Northern Ireland into the bombing in Belturbet, County Cavan, in December 1972, which caused the death of two young persons and injuries to many others; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22831/20]

I wish the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, well in their important work in the Department of Justice over the next number of years.

I have raised with a number of the Minister's predecessors the urgent need for a comprehensive and thorough investigation into the bombing in Belturbet in December 1972, both in Northern Ireland and this State. I am not convinced that an adequate investigation has been carried out in Northern Ireland and I appeal to the Minister to ensure that every possible avenue of investigation is pursued. Will the Minister raise this matter with her counterpart in Northern Ireland, with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and with the British Foreign Secretary? We must ensure that the perpetrators of this horrendous crime are brought to justice.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I know it is a long-standing interest of the Deputy and I agree that the perpetrators of this crime should be brought to justice. This was an appalling bomb attack that took place in Belturbet in 1972 which sadly cost two innocent young people their lives and injured many others. I extend my sincere sympathy to those bereaved and injured in that terrible attack. Many people are understandably still suffering the effects of it. I appreciate that the Deputy continues to seek answers, in particular with regard to bringing the perpetrators to justice. It is my sincere wish, and that of everybody involved in this, that this should happen.

I am informed by the Garda authorities that the matter was thoroughly investigated at the time by An Garda Síochána with assistance from the Defence Forces and the close co-operation of the authorities in Northern Ireland. Despite their best efforts, however, it was not possible to secure evidence which would have led to the prosecution of the perpetrators. I appreciate that this continues to remain a source of disappointment and frustration, particularly for family members of those who passed away. With the passage of almost 50 years and no new evidence forthcoming, I regret that we must be realistic about the limited prospects for a successful prosecution in this case. Nevertheless, I have been assured by the Garda authorities that the case remains open and will remain open and that they will continue to investigate any new information they receive. They remain committed to working with the PSNI where that could advance the investigation. I ask anybody with information in relation to this act to bring it to the attention of the Garda and the authorities. I commit to raising this with my counterparts in Northern Ireland and the UK as the Deputy has asked.

I thank the Minister and appreciate that she will take this up with her counterparts in Northern Ireland. The University of Nottingham recently contacted me with a recent detailed document on loyalist activities in Northern Ireland and, particularly, in Cavan and Monaghan. A very detailed article has been written by Edward Burke, an assistant professor in the University of Nottingham, entitled "Loyalist mobilisation and cross-border violence in rural Ulster, 1972-1974". One of the sub-headings is "Blowing up Belturbet: Loyalist operations in County Cavan". It contains the following:

At approximately 9:00 p.m. on the night of December 28, a red ford escort with at least two passengers, a young man and a woman, crossed the bailey bridge at Aghalane and made its way to the nearby town of Belturbet in County Cavan. An hour and a half later, the same car exploded on Main Street, Belturbet, killing two teenagers, Geraldine O’Reilly (15) and Paddy Stanley (16). Twelve more people were injured, some seriously, including Geraldine O’Reilly’s brother.

I will forward this document to the Minister, to her Department and to An Garda Síochána. There is a lot of information in this. I hope the Northern Ireland authorities will co-operate with our authorities, An Garda Síochána and the Minister's Department to ensure a necessary and proper investigation is carried out.

I have not seen the document the Deputy referred to but I would be happy to receive it, as I am sure the Garda and the PSNI would be. They are committed and where there is new evidence or an ability to reach a conclusion and bring the perpetrators to justice, they want to do that. However, it is difficult without new evidence, given the period of time lapsed. This case will remain open. They are committed to that.

The families in question have recently sought access to files under the Freedom of Information Act and I can inform the Deputy that those records are being prepared for release to the families. I have been advised that the normal response timeframe has passed so it has gone on a bit longer than they would like but, as the Deputy would appreciate, the request necessitated significant work regarding older files and preparations of paper, with any necessary redactions that need to be taken into account. This work is now concluded and they will be released in the coming days. That is something the family have been looking for.

I recently had the privilege of attending, along with the O'Reilly and Stanley families, the publication of the book Children of the Troubles: The Untold Story of the Children Killed in the Northern Ireland Conflict by Joe Duffy of RTÉ and Freya McClements of The Irish Times. It contains the following in relation to the Belturbet bombing:

Geraldine was one of two children killed in the explosion; the other, Patrick Stanley, had been calling his mother from a phone box when the bomb went off.

Nobody has ever been convicted of the atrocity but according to Lost Lives, 'reliable loyalist sources' attribute the bombings to the UVF. ... The bomb killed two people, both children; Paddy and 15-year-old Geraldine O'Reilly are now remembered with a memorial in Belturbet.

Over the years, I have been in contact quite often with the O'Reilly and Stanley families. They seek justice. They know, unfortunately, their beloved family members will not be brought back and they lost them at such a young age. That book, Children of the Troubles, should nearly be compulsory reading in our schools because of the devastation and loss of life during that time. Children were killed by Provisional paramilitaries and by loyalist paramilitaries and some by British State forces. When we talk of children being killed, it amplifies both the futility of conflict and the need for families to get justice.

I agree with the Deputy. The use of violence in any instance is reprehensible and should never be a course of action for anybody, particularly when such innocent young lives are lost. I cannot begin to imagine the pain and suffering that has been faced by the families of these two victims over the years, as well as by the many victims of violence on this island in recent years. Violence should never be the answer and we need to do everything possible to support and work with An Garda Síochána and the communities involved to bring these perpetrators to justice but also to bring other perpetrators who have not been caught to justice for many other serious crimes and murders that have taken place over the last number of decades. I thank the Deputy for raising this and assure him we will do what we can. If there is new evidence or information that has come to light, I encourage the Deputy and anybody else to bring it to the attention of An Garda Síochána.

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Female Genital Mutilation

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

10. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Justice her plans to prioritise practical actions to support the elimination of female genital mutilation in view of the enactment of the Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Act 2012; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22918/20]

Female genital mutilation, FGM, is a barbaric practice perpetrated on young girls. While the practice is concentrated in 30 countries in Africa and the Middle East, it is a universal problem which continues to persist among migrant populations living in Ireland. I would like the Minister to update the House on the practical measures being taken to eliminate this practice.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Deputy will be glad to know that female genital mutilation has been an offence in Ireland since 2012. It is barbaric and should never happen. The Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Act was enacted in 2012. It was sponsored by the then Minister for Health and the Act created the offence of female genital mutilation and related offences. Addressing this serious issue in Ireland falls primarily under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Health Service Executive is responsible for addressing the health implications arising from female genital mutilation.

Insofar as concerns my remit, the second national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence runs from 2016 to 2021 and we are finalising a review to set in train a new strategy for 2022 onwards. The current strategy contains a commitment to raise awareness of female genital mutilation within An Garda Síochána. This is being actioned through the delivery of a training module twice a year to front-line gardaí; and the development and dissemination of an information guide for all members of An Garda Síochána. The latest report of the monitoring committee for the strategy notes that this action is meeting the targets as set out in the strategy. Action 61 of the migrant integration strategy sets out the State’s obligation across Departments to provide intercultural awareness training to staff where it is appropriate to their role. For front-line staff such as medical workers and members of the Garda, this is particularly important as they may be the first point of contact with at-risk women and girls. An Garda Síochána is committed under action 63 of the migrant integration strategy to continue to implement a victim-centred policy and good investigative practices in racial or similar crimes. I note that the first conviction under the legislation was secured in the courts in November of last year and An Garda Síochána took the opportunity to highlight the dangers through the national media and the illegal nature of the practice.

Based on UN estimates, two young girls have female genital mutilation performed on them every minute. In a majority of countries, girls are cut before the age of five. This is happening in Ireland and young girls have been taken out of Ireland to have this practice performed on them. It is estimated that 5,790 girls and women living in Ireland have experienced FGM. Some 2,639 girls may be at risk of being subjected to it. We need to stop this practice in the first instance and there needs to be a cross-departmental approach to it. Will the Minister sit down with the Minister for Health and the Minister with responsibility for equality and integration and lead a cross-departmental approach to this issue?

The Deputy has asked a number of questions there. He is right in saying that first and foremost, we need to stop this practice and a lot of that is done through education of parents and within communities. We will progress this through the second domestic, sexual and gender-based violence strategy, which includes a number of measures. A review is under way and we are looking to develop a third new strategy. Specific to that, an audit will be under way within weeks which will look at all of the various different Departments and agencies, from the Department of Health, the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. In that audit, we will look at the infrastructure and how we will implement these particular policies in a better way. I commit to ensuring that this particular issue is a part of that overall review, not just for the next strategy but we will also ensure that this will be implemented as soon as possible, whether in new or existing structures.

We need to send out a clear message that Ireland will not tolerate female genital mutilation under any circumstance, either in this jurisdiction or outside it. The most powerful step the Minister can take is to lead on this issue by bringing her other two Cabinet colleagues together and to sit down around a table and committing as three Ministers that they will drive the agenda forward on this. Nothing concentrates the minds of public servants more than the Ministers themselves being committed to an issue. I ask the Minister to do that to ensure a strategy is put in place that works with women, men, girls and boys from the communities where FGM is part of their tradition to raise awareness and empower them to reject this practice. I ask the Minister to do so across all of the agencies that work with those communities, such as An Garda Síochána, the health services and the integration agencies because it is only with a co-ordinated strategy that we can eradicate this practice.

I support the Deputy and I agree that we need to eradicate this process. We have made good strides in recent years with the introduction of legislation as a priority as part of the domestic, sexual and gender-based violence strategy. I mention the fact that we have had one conviction. While the number might seem low, there was a significant problem in Ireland whereby this is often only brought to light when there is a medical need following such a procedure and where there is a willingness or ability for an individual to press charges. It is a difficult and complex area but it is only through education, reaching out and engaging with communities that we can address this. I am committed to working with my ministerial colleagues, Deputies O'Gorman and Stephen Donnelly, and with any other Department which may potentially need our support with this issue. As I have mentioned, an audit is due to take place and it will hopefully be done by the end of the year. It is looking to identify how we put in place structures that will ensure that where a particular issue in this area has a number of Ministers working on its behalf, it can be driven either by one Minister or by all of them together.

Fire Safety

Mark Ward

Ceist:

11. Deputy Mark Ward asked the Minister for Justice if her attention has been drawn to the increase in the use of fireworks; the resources in place to deal with such a rise; the powers An Garda Síochána has to combat the rise in view of the detrimental effect the issue is having within communities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22809/20]

I want to draw the Minister's attention to the increase in the misuse of fireworks across Dublin. If the Minister stayed in Dublin in recent nights I probably would not have to bring this to her notice because it is quite visible. What resources are in place to deal with such a rise and what powers has An Garda Síochána to combat this rise? It is having a huge and detrimental impact on our communities.

While I have not stayed in Dublin in the last few nights, I have friends who live here and they have highlighted this issue to me a number of weeks ago, which was surprising and concerning given how far out we are from Hallowe'en.

The importation of fireworks is controlled under law in the interests of safety and security. Government policy restricts the availability of all hazardous fireworks to the public. Licences under the Explosives Act 1875 are issued by my Department but only for the importation of fireworks which are to be used in organised displays conducted by professional and competent operators. Having said that, I am all too conscious of the numerous incidents, and sadly some serious accidents arising from the use of illegal fireworks. I understand this is particularly acute this year for some reason. Every year, as we approach Hallowe'en, my Department runs a public safety campaign. This is aimed at ensuring the public is aware of the dangers of illegal fireworks and bonfires.

As for what the Garda can do, examples of the penalties faced include a fine of up to €10,000 and up to five years' imprisonment if convicted of having fireworks in one's possession with intent to sell or supply. Igniting fireworks or throwing an ignited firework at a person or property is also liable to severe penalty. These penalties demonstrate the seriousness attached to breaches of the legislation governing the importation and use of fireworks. As well as the awareness-raising work undertaken by my Department in the run up to Hallowe'en, additional efforts are made by An Garda Síochána at this time of year to combat the illegal importation, sale and use of fireworks, which is known as Operation Tombola.

As the Deputy is aware, section 26 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 provides that the Commissioner is responsible for the direction and control of An Garda Síochána. The Garda Commissioner is also responsible for the day-to-day management of An Garda Síochána, which includes the investigation of alleged crimes, including in relation to the importation and sale of fireworks, and I have no role in these matters. However, as I have just outlined there are clear penalties for those who breach these rules.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Garda Commissioner has informed me that under Operation Tombola each district will put in place an operational plan to tackle the sale of fireworks including through: combating the importation, sale and distribution of illegal fireworks; intelligence-led operations; visits to local car boot sales; searches and seizures of fireworks; liaising with local authorities and fire services regarding the provision of official, supervised bonfire sites; the policing of these; the identification and removal of stockpiled bonfire material and abandoned vehicles from other locations; promoting awareness of the danger associated with the improper use of fireworks and unsupervised bonfires through the use of the media and social media; school visits and information leaflet distribution by members and the crime prevention officer; high visibility policing of the Hallowe'en night celebrations, that is, beat, bike and mobile patrols, thus preventing damage to property, injury, trauma for the vulnerable and the elderly and general loutish behaviour; and utilising the divisional public order unit on Hallowe'en night.

Operation Tombola also focuses on preventing associated public disorder and anti-social behaviour through the incremental deployment of resources, including Garda public order units to augment local plans as appropriate. As well as Part 6 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, which gives An Garda Síochána the power to make arrests in relation to the possession of unlicensed fireworks, a number of strong legislative provisions are available to the Garda to combat anti-social behaviour more generally and include the Criminal Damage Act 1991; the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994; the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 2003; and the Intoxicating Liquor Acts 2003 and 2008.

It is only necessary to walk through parts of Dublin at night to witness the very visible misuse of fireworks within our communities. A constant barrage of flashing lights and noises is making our communities seem to be in a state of lawlessness. Elderly residents are living in fear and are afraid to leave their homes. Shopkeepers and local businesses are fearful for their staff and customers because fireworks are being aimed at them or into their premises. Bus routes have also been curtailed, which has resulted in people having to walk through areas at night where fireworks could be aimed at them.

As the Minister mentioned, it is not yet even Hallowe'en yet. This situation has been going on longer this year than in other years, for some reason. The Minister referred to the legislation seeming to be strong enough. If it is not the legislation that is the problem, it would seem to be a problem with Garda resources. I put it to the Minister that Operation Tombola is not working and is not fit for purpose.

An Garda Síochána is already undertaking a great deal of work. As we both said, this situation is happening much sooner than Hallowe'en and Operation Tombola has commenced and been in effect since 4 September. Perhaps that operation needs to start even sooner, but it is very early. This plan has many aspects directed against the sale of fireworks, including, to name just a few, combating the importation, sale and distribution of illegal fireworks. This is done through intelligence-led operations, visits to local car boot sales and searches and seizures of fireworks.

There is also liaison with fire services and local authorities regarding the provision of official and supervised bonfire sites, including the policing of those sites, and the identification and removal of stockpiled bonfire material and abandoned material from other locations. Awareness of the dangers associated with the improper use of fireworks is also promoted. There is high-visibility policing of the Hallowe'en night celebrations, which means members of the Garda on the beat, on bikes and in mobile patrols preventing damage to property, injury and trauma and utilising the divisional public order unit on Hallowe'en night. Many gardaí are on the ground implementing these measures to try to address many of the concerns expressed.

I live in one of these communities and my impression is that the Garda is not visible when this is happening. I will give a few examples. A newborn baby had a lucky escape last weekend, after somebody posted a banger through a letter box in Palmerstown. Customers in parts of Clondalkin and Lucan are afraid to use their local shops. People will also not walk their dogs because of the distress that the noise is causing to their pets. I met with residents in Rathcoole recently, and they reported an increase in this type of behaviour and a decrease in their quality of life. Rathcoole is one of the fastest growing areas in Dublin and yet it still does not have a full-time Garda station.

Public confidence is shattered. Regarding the current legislation, and as I have tabled a parliamentary question on this aspect I do not expect the Minister to answer now, I would like to know how many convictions there had been under that legislation in recent years to see if it is working. The public perception is that the Garda is less concerned about bangers being shown at the public than if the public had bangers and mash in a pub in the last 28 days.

The challenge here concerns situations, such as those we have seen recently, where there have been large gatherings of people into which fireworks have been thrown. When the police arrived and spoke to people, however, there did not seem to be an ability to identify who had thrown the fireworks. This seems to be a major problem where younger people are not willing to say who threw a firework. Some people living in communities, who also know who is responsible, are not willing to say who did it. If it is not possible to know who threw, fired or set off a firework, it is very difficult for An Garda Síochána to pinpoint who is responsible.

For younger people, in particular, this comes back to education about the dangers of fireworks and what damage they can do. It is often too late to learn lessons once there has been an accident and someone has been seriously injured or damaged as occurred. Whether it is coming up to Hallowe'en or not, we need all communities, all parents and all schools to stress and stress again the dangers of fireworks that are not set off in a controlled environment with people present who have experience in this area. I think that could help a great deal.

Crime Data

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

12. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice the levels of reported crime in each category throughout the past 12 months with particular reference to the extent to which the Covid-19 crisis has impacted on the justice system; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22807/20]

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

191. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice the number of crimes reported in County Kildare on a monthly basis for the past 12 months by category; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23248/20]

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

193. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice the extent to which noticeable increases and decreases in various crime categories have occurred in County Kildare in the past 12 months; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23250/20]

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

194. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice the various categories of crimes in respect of which increases or decreases have been noted in the past 12 months throughout the country; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23251/20]

These questions are to ascertain the level, extent and category of the various crimes reported in the last 12 months and the possible impact of the Covid-19 crisis on these numbers.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 12, 191,193 and 194 together.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As the Deputy is aware, the Central Statistics Office, CSO, as the national statistical agency, is responsible for the compilation and publication of all crime statistics. The CSO produces these statistics using data recorded on An Garda Síochána’s PULSE system and makes regular releases, under reservation, concerning various crime statistics, including recorded and detected crime. The CSO also continues to work with An Garda Síochána to address quality issues in the underlying sources used to compile the statistics.

I am advised by the Garda authorities that since the commencement of the current Government restrictions under Covid-19, there has been a general, and welcome, decrease in many categories of crime. However, some categories have, unfortunately, increased such as domestic abuse, controlled drugs, simple possession, weapons and explosives offences and cybercrime or online fraud, as I mentioned earlier.

I can inform the Deputy that the official crime statistics from the CSO for the second quarter of 2020 are due to be released later this month and I look forward to reviewing these statistics when they are available, because they will be of great benefit in assessing the impact of Covid-19 on crime trends. I refer to whether this was for the first six months or, as we have started to reopen our society, our communities and our economy, if we see those trends changing again.

Regarding the rest of the criminal justice system, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Irish Prison Service and the Courts Service have shown considerable capacity to adapt and respond to ensure that the administration of justice continues in an effective and safe manner. Such measures include video-link appearances from prisons for persons currently in custody; judgments being issued online; avoiding the need for legal practitioners to attend in court; online training and e-manuals for staff; and e-meetings. In addition, a wide range of measures has been implemented to protect our prison population, in line with public health advice, including widespread testing for Covid-19 infection and a 14-day quarantine period for persons newly committed to the prison system.

The business of the justice system is of fundamental importance and the commitment, flexibility and innovation demonstrated by all involved towards delivering continuity of access to justice during the current public health emergency is very welcome.

Has it been possible to focus special resources and reaction in those areas that have shown an increase in crime and particularly in those areas which have had a serious threat to the well-being of the community and the lives of members of the community?

The work of An Garda Síochána is directed by the Garda Commissioner and his team, but I can say that where a particular increase has been identified in these types of crimes it has been possible for An Garda Síochána to place particular emphasis and a focus on trying to improve the response to and support for those individuals affected by crime. Regarding the area of domestic abuse, for example, where there was a great increase in crimes in the last six months, An Garda Síochána has made a great effort to engage with those who are seen as being particularly vulnerable. Several campaigns and plans have also been rolled out in recent months, and members of the Garda have increased their engagement and are ensuring that they are being proactive in trying to address these particular concerns, as well as identifying people within units to provide help.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Has there been a commensurate number of prosecutions arising from the increased incidence of crime in each category?

I do not have the figures now, but I can respond to the Deputy later. I have exact figures for Kildare, the Deputy's county, but I appear to have mislaid them in my documents. I will pass those figures on to the Deputy once these Questions are finished.

Deputy Durkan will be delighted to receive them. I thank the Minister. We just have enough time for Deputy Naughten to introduce his question.

On my Question No. 13, I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government to bring in a pathway to long-term residency for undocumented people and their dependants within the next 16 months. I would like to know where are we with that process and what progress is being made.

I thank Deputy Naughten, but we are out of time, unfortunately.

Question No. 13 replied to with Written Answers.
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.