I move the motion, a Cheann Comhairle.
The House will be aware that the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 was enacted in the wake of the murder of 29 people by the Real IRA in Omagh on the 15th of August that year. It was a necessary response to that atrocity and the loss of 29 innocent lives.
That bombing and those murders represented a direct attack also on the fragile peace process and indeed on this State as a major sponsor of that peace process. It demanded a robust response from the State and a clear statement that the morally bankrupt culture of death and destruction adopted by these murderers would not prevail and that the will of the majority could not be so contemptuously disregarded. Those responsible for these murders continue today to deny the people of this island the peace which they long for and which they deserve. I will return to this point later in my speech.
This democratic State’s response was to provide strong legislative powers to ensure that the Gardai and the Courts were in a position to meet the challenge laid down by those opponents of peace. In that regard, the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 was a necessary and proportionate response.
It is right at the outset that I pay tribute to the excellent work of An Garda Siochana and the Police Service of Northern Ireland in countering the threat from the paramilitary organisations.
The Act contains a series of amendments to the Offences against the State Acts 1939 to 1985 to make them more responsive to the threat from certain groups. Principally, these amendments concern:
§ changes in the rules of evidence for certain offences under the Acts, including the drawing of inferences in certain circumstances,
§ the creation of new offences, such as directing an unlawful organisation, possession of certain articles and collecting information, and
§ extending the maximum period of detention permitted under section 30 of the 1939 Act to 72 hours.
Section 18 of the 1998 Act, as amended by section 37 of the Criminal Justice Act 1999, provides that sections 2 to 4, 6 to 12, 14 and 17 must be renewed by the Oireachtas at specified intervals if they are to remain in force. By virtue of resolutions passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas in June 2013, these sections were continued in force for a period of 12 months.
Renewal of the Provisions
Prior to moving any motion for renewal, the Act requires that I lay before the Oireachtas a report on the operation of the relevant provisions. The present report covers the period from 1 June 2013 to 31 May 2014. The report was laid before the House on the 16th June 2014. It also includes, following a commitment given previously, a table showing the figures for each of the years since the Act came into operation. This table is helpful in showing the importance of the Act in equipping the Gardaí to detect and prevent terrorist actions.
It is the fervent wish of the Government and, no doubt, this House, that the time will come when these provisions will no longer be required. But as Minister for Justice and Equality, I must take into account the reality of the situation.
In that regard the Garda assessment, shared by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), in relation to the terrorist threat level in Northern Ireland is that it is regarded as severe. We all know that those groups vehemently opposed to peace seek to attack the institutions of Northern Ireland and destabilise the peace process. However, they will never succeed in their objective.
During 2013 there were a total of 30 terrorist related attacks in Northern Ireland and there have been 5 so far this year. This includes such serious incidents as the planting of a bomb in a Belfast shopping centre in the run up to Christmas last year and the fire-bombing of a hotel in Derry on the 30th May where continuing scant regard for human life and the targeting of civilians was clearly demonstrated.
While the direct threat level in this jurisdiction may be different, it is imperative that our laws and our police are properly equipped to deal with the threat, whether in this jurisdiction or Northern Ireland; and let no one be under the illusion that these groups do not represent a threat to this State as well as to Northern Ireland.
By way of example, let me point to the discovery by An Garda Siochana of an estimated €10 million in partially forged banknotes in April this year, the detection of a large improvised explosive device in Co. Louth possibly destined for Northern Ireland in May last and the disruption of a Real IRA gun attack in Tallaght earlier this month.
The Gardaí must have at their disposal the appropriate measures to meet this threat. The powers available under the 1998 Act are considered paramount in maintaining effective preventative action against the terrorist groups. Consequently there is a clear need for the continuance of these provisions.
North/South cooperation in the area of security is vital and I can give the House the assurance that it has never been better. As was the case with my predecessors I intend to keep in close contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers and with the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice, David Ford. Indeed I recently met with the Secretary of State on the 29th May last. I have spoken with David Ford on the telephone and am due to meet him next week under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Agreement on Cooperation on Criminal and Justice Matters. In addition, the Acting Garda Commissioner maintains close and frequent contact with her counterpart in the PSNI and this relationship is mirrored by contacts between the two forces at every level.
It is the firm view of the Garda Síochána that the Act continues to be a most important tool in its ongoing efforts in the fight against terrorism. The Garda authorities have stated that the provisions of the Act are used regularly, which is evident from the Report which I have laid before the House. It is essential, I believe, that the Act’s provisions should continue in force to support the ongoing investigation and disruption of terrorist activity.
The Report provides details of the instances in which the various Sections have been used in the period in question. A number of sections, namely Section 3 (Notification of witnesses) Section 4 (drawing of inferences from the statements of an accused person that s/he is a member of an unlawful organisation), Section 6 (directing an unlawful organisation), Section 8 (unlawful collection of information) and Section 12, (training persons in the making or use of firearms) were not utilised during the reporting period in question. It should however not be inferred from this lack of use that these provisions are in some way redundant or unnecessary as the usage of the different Sections can vary from year to year. For example Section 3 was used on 19 occasions in the reporting period prior to this.
The existence of the provisions means that members of terrorist groups are aware that the State remains resolute in its determination to use every lawful means to defeat them.
As I have already stated, terrorist groups remain a threat to the peaceful lives of people on this island. They are opposed to the benefits that have flowed from the peace process and are determined to undermine it. The State must retain, in its laws, the capacity to defeat them.
On the basis of the information set out in the Report and on the advice of the Garda authorities I consider that the House should approve the continued operation of the relevant provisions of the 1998 Act to remain in operation for a further 12 months commencing on the 30th June 2014.
I commend the motion to the House.