My ambition is that, at the end of the Government’s term in office, we will be seen as the most radical reformist government in the history of the State. I am determined in my privileged role as Minister in two great Departments – Justice and Equality and the Department of Defence – to fully play my part. Being a member of a Cabinet composed of talented colleagues in the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party and talented colleagues in the Labour Party, committed to public service, to restoring our economic sovereignty and getting our people back to work is truly a privilege. And that is the difference between our Government led by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny and the Fianna Fail led governments of yesteryear. Unlike our immediate predecessors we are committed to public service not self service. Being a Member of Government is, for each of us, not focussed on how we can financially benefit ourselves but is totally focussed on what we can do for the benefit of all of our people on this island.
Justice, Equality and Defence are enormous areas of central importance to the State as a functioning accountable democracy in which people can go about their daily lives in peace and safety. It is a tremendous responsibility to have under my wing the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, an Garda Siochana and our Prison Officers as well as the many extraordinary people who work in both Departments and the Agencies attached to them. It is right and fitting that I acknowledge, at this Ard Fheis, the extraordinary commitment to and work done on behalf of the State, on behalf of each and every person, both citizen and non-citizen, by the dedicated members of an Garda Siochana and our Defence Forces as well as our Prison Officers.
Our Defence Forces, under the UN flag, bravely contribute to peace missions across the globe and are always available to provide assistance at home when required. Despite the success of the peace process, there remain on this island recalcitrant, home grown, rogue terrorists dedicated to returning our island to murder and mayhem, who still resort to the bomb and the bullet and cowardly attacks on members of the PSNI in Northern Ireland. We also have the drug gangs engaged in internecine warfare who have no respect for human life. The unsung heroes in our Army, when called upon to assist the Gardai, are still too frequently required to neutralise explosive devices in order to protect the public. All too frequently also members of the Gardai are in harms way when confronting armed hooded hoodlums. It is right that we thank them and acknowledge their bravery.
Our Garda Force is targeting the drug gangs and has been enormously successful in putting many of their members behind bars. For example, 106 members of the eight Limerick gangs are presently in prison including 20 who were in leadership positions. 2011 marked considerable success in crime reduction. Homicides, kidnapping and related offences, weapons and explosives, controlled drug and public order offences all decreased by between 10% and 29%. The Gardai had substantial success in the seizure of illegal goods, drugs, illegal fuel and cigarettes and achieved a homicide detection rate of 80%. We have, in An Garda Siochana, a dedicated professional police force committed to public duty and to maintaining law and order of which we can be proud. As Minister, they have my full support in the crucial work of both crime prevention and crime detection.
I also want to acknowledge the close working relationship between the Gardai and the PSNI which has greatly enhanced policing on this island. To those locked in the time warp of the troubles, intent on targeting members of the PSNI, I say - we stand by the PSNI as we stand by the Gardai. There will be no safe haven anywhere on this island for those intent on homicide under the false flag of a warped republican patriotism.
The Criminal Assets Bureau has been responsible for the recovery of millions of Euros from the proceeds of crime and, working with the Revenue Commissioners, has assisted them in recovering many millions in taxes. I am engaging with my European Justice Ministerial colleagues and the EU Commission to bring about a European wide Criminal Asset Recovery Framework. It is my objective that members of drug gangs who are leading the easy life in Spanish villas will, in the future, have their properties confiscated and sold. I am also determined that those financially benefiting from human trafficking across Europe have their assets similarly targeted.
As Minister, I am determined that there will be no impunity for those engaged in white collar crime. Within four months of assuming office, I published and enacted the Criminal Justice Act 2011 which conferred crucial new powers on the Gardai to assist in both current and future investigations into alleged white collar crime, including issues relating to our financial institutions. Within days of the Act’s commencement, it was successfully used by the Gardai to access vital information. The Garda Commissioner assures me that the Gardai are leaving no stone unturned in their investigation into various financial dealings inextricably interwoven with banking issues. Important files and papers have been furnished to the DPP and it is my hope, that where there is evidence of alleged criminality, we will see prosecutions initiated sooner rather than later.
There must also be no hiding place for those who abuse children or for those who cover up and fail to expose their knowledge of such abuse. Such failure is a gross betrayal of victims of abuse and gives a free licence to those responsible to continue to target children and destroy their lives. We will very shortly be publishing legislation to make it a criminal offence to withhold such information and comprehensive legislation to ensure the proper vetting of all of those regularly interacting with children on a professional or voluntary basis.
Whilst 2011 saw a substantial fall in the overall crime figures, burglary was the exception. There were just over 2000 more burglaries than in 2010. It is, of course, no secret that my wife Carol and I will feature in the 2012 crime statistics as victims of this crime. I can tell you that the Garda Commissioner has a strategy in place, which I fully support, to counteract this trend and to ensure that those who burglarise peoples’ homes are brought before the courts and properly sentenced.
2011 marked our enacting the long promised Criminal Justice Defence of the Dwelling Act under which a householder who uses reasonable force to protect himself or a family member against an intruder cannot be successfully prosecuted or sued by an allegedly injured burglar. People are entitled to feel safe and secure in their homes and I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure this is the case.
Too many of our people, through no fault of their own, as a result of the appalling economic legacy we have inherited, unexpected unemployment and the bursting of the property bubble, are in personal financial difficulty. Last January, I published the scheme of a new comprehensive Insolvency Bill to put new mechanisms in place to assist those overwhelmed by debt and this legislation will commence enactment in the Dail before the summer. The reformist and radical provisions contained in this Bill will provide a means for those in difficulty to get their lives back in order whilst ensuring appropriate protection for creditors, where those in debt have behaved fraudulently or dishonestly.
Fine Gael’s 2011 General Election Programme and the Programme for Government contained a roadmap of essential reforms to bring our laws into the 21st century. The Legal Services Bill published last October has resulted in some unnecessary hysteria by the vested interests opposed to it. Some of the opposition comes from financial high rollers, used to pulling the levers of power, who have deliberately confused their self interest with the public interest. The Bill, when enacted, will ensure independent regulation of the legal profession, an end to a variety of restrictive practices, greater transparency and accountability in relation to legal costs and an independent disciplinary tribunal to address allegations of lawyer misconduct. It is not only in the interest of consumers but also in the interest of solicitors and barristers that this legislation is enacted. In providing alternative business structures through which legal services can be delivered, whilst still facilitating those solicitors and barristers, who wish to do so, to continue practising as they do today, the Bill is essentially implementing reforms already in place elsewhere and facilitating Irish lawyers to properly compete in the international market for legal services. It is time to sweep the 18th century cobwebs away and provide modern, competitive and cost effective legal services and I will not be deflected from doing so.
In the Programme for Government we are committed to a programme of family law reform. There is a need for an independent fully integrated family court system with a jurisdiction to determine all family disputes, adoption disputes and child care cases. We are commencing work on implementing the commitment in the Programme to provide such a court system and it is my objective that we hold the necessary constitutional referendum to establish such courts in 2013. We can, at the same time, also hold the referendum required to establish a Court of Civil Appeal.
Where relationships break down, it is important that we have a modern legal framework to encourage disputing parents to agree parenting issues concerning their children, in a manner which protects the best interests of children, minimises conflict and facilitates future cooperation between estranged parents to the benefit of their children. A new Child Parenting Bill will be introduced during our term of office to reform our law in this area.
It is also essential that we contain the legal costs incurred by estranged spouses when marriages break down. The use of mediation is preferable to court confrontation and I intend to enact a Mediation Bill, the Scheme for which has already been published, before the end of this year. It is in the interests of spouses and their children that issues that must be resolved when marital breakdown occurs, are not unduly drawn out and that people are given an opportunity to restart their lives without further unnecessary conflict or trauma.
I believe the time has come for public discussion on the desirability of amending our constitutional provisions relating to divorce. A simplified legal provision which enabled speedier access to a divorce decree by those whose marriages are truly over and which eliminated the duplication, expense and additional stress of the current system would be, I believe, in the public interest, in the interest of estranged spouses and would provide additional stability to the benefit of their children.
Both of my Departments have a role to play in rebuilding our economy and in the creation of jobs. As Minister for Defence I am actively encouraging and supporting innovation and the manufacturing in Ireland of product that can be utilised, not only by our Defence Forces, but also by others in peace keeping missions - and in our Defence Forces trialling safe products that can enhance capacity in such operational activities and in the area of maritime surveillance and protection. In the Justice area we have put in place an already successful Visa Waiver Scheme to increase tourist and business visitors and announced an Entrepreneur and Investments Residence Scheme to encourage both research and development in the State by non-EU nationals and investment in a manner that will both benefit the State and create employment. Two Government Departments which have traditionally been perceived as spending Departments are now playing a dynamic role in our economic recovery.
An important part of my brief is that, together with Minister of State Kathleen Lynch, we actively ensure that, as a State, we treat all people equally and with respect; that no individual suffers discrimination because of colour, religion, race, gender, sexual orientation or ethnic background and that we fully respect and protect human rights. This year, we are committed to enacting legislation for an enhanced Human Rights and Equality Commission. Within weeks of being in Government, I created our new Citizenship Ceremonies which have brought a sense of dignity, welcome and celebration to the conferring of Irish citizenship and which, I know, have been widely welcomed. I also took steps to address the huge, unacceptable backlog of applications that built up during the lifetime of the previous Government. Later this year, I hope to publish a new comprehensive Residence, Immigration and Asylum Bill. Fine Gael, together with our Labour partners in Government, is committed to a tolerant and inclusive society in which those of diverse backgrounds feel welcome. There will be no tolerance of any nature shown to the small minority who seek to incite racial or religious hatred and to create division and to foster fear.
As have other colleagues, I urge you all to work with us in the coming weeks to ensure a successful outcome to the forthcoming referendum to make sure that no future Government can again squander the wealth of our country and the hopes of our people as did the morally bankrupt and economically illiterate Fianna Fail led Governments of the past decade.
The first steps have been taken to put in place the modern legal and administrative architecture required for the Ireland of the 21st Century and to make our country a better place. I look forward to the challenges that our second year in office will bring and greatly value the support we are receiving from members of this great party and from people throughout the country.