Speech by the Minister for Justice and Equality Mr. Alan Shatter T.D. - Dáil Éireann -Wednesday, 13 June 2012 - “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 of 12 months beginning on 30 June 2012.”
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
I move the motion, a Cheann Comhairle.
The House will be aware of the background to the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998. It was enacted in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing in August 1998 in which 29 people were murdered in an indiscriminate bomb attack.
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 2011, these sections were continued in force until 30 June 2012.
Renewal of the Provisions
Prior to moving any motion for renewal, the Act requires me to lay before the Oireachtas a report on the operation of the relevant provisions. The present report covers the period from 1 June 2011, the end date of the previous report, to 31 May this year. The report was laid before the House on 8 June 2012. It also includes, following a commitment I gave when seeking renewal of the sections this time last year, a table showing the figures for each of the years since the Act came into operation. I believe this is helpful in showing the importance of the Act in equipping the Gardaí to detect and prevent terrorist actions.
It is my fervent wish that the time will come when these provisions will no longer be required. But as Minister for Justice and Equality I must have regard to the reality of the situation. The Garda assessment, shared by the PSNI, in relation to the terrorist threat level in Northern Ireland is that it is regarded as severe. This clearly demonstrates the need for the continuance of these provisions. If Deputies needed reminding, this need is clearly and tragically evidenced by the murder of PSNI Constable Ronan Kerr on 2 April 2011 and the numerous other attacks on PSNI and security personnel and attempted bombings in recent months. These attacks have included;
Ø the attempted murder of a soldier on 5 January 2012,
Ø a pipe bomb recovered at the scene of a fire in West Belfast on 17 January 2012,
Ø two pipe bombs set off in Londonderry on 19 January 2012,
Ø a viable placed under the car of the elderly parents of a PSNI officer on the 15th April 2012, (the second such attack on these individuals,
Ø a van with 262kg of home made explosives with the potential for remote detonation discovered near the border at a location used as a regular turn-around point for PSNI vehicles on 26th April 2012
Ø An explosive device and a cache of weapons were found in North Belfast on the 27th April 2012. The bomb was found under a parked car, and
Ø Only on Saturday last, 9th June, a quantity of explosives was found during a search in Co. Mayo.
North/South cooperation in the area of security is vital and I can give the House the assurance that it has never been better. I keep in close contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson and with the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice David Ford. I know that the Commissioner maintains close and frequent contact with Chief Constable Baggott. This is mirrored by contacts between the two forces at every level.
While countering the threat posed by dissident groups is very important, it is necessary not to lose sight of the threat from international terrorism. The 1998 Act grew out of our own domestic troubles. However, its provisions form an essential element of the State's response to the threat of terrorism from any source. We cannot ignore the growth in recent years of the international terrorist threat. In co-operation with our EU partners, we must continue to counteract any threat from such sources. The 1998 Act forms part of the response to that threat also.
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. Furthermore, given the considerable threat posed by some dissident groups it is essential that the Act’s provisions should continue in force to support the ongoing investigation and disruption of terrorist activity.
Operation of the provisions of 1998 Act
I would like to turn to the provisions of the 1998 Act which are the subject of the resolution. As I mentioned, I have laid before the House a Report on the operation of the relevant sections between 1 June 2011 and 31 May this year. The Report demonstrates the value of the relevant sections to the Gardaí and the necessity for their continued availability in tackling the terrorist threat.
Looking at the sections themselves, Section 2 allows a court, in proceedings for membership of an unlawful organisation, to draw appropriate inferences where an accused person fails to answer or gives false or misleading answers to questions. However, a person cannot be convicted of the offence solely on the basis of such an inference. There must be some other evidence which points towards a person’s guilt. The section was used on 47 occasions in the period covered by the report.
Section 3 requires an accused, in proceedings for membership of an unlawful organisation, to give notification of an intention to call a person to give evidence on his behalf. This section was used on 4 occasions.
Section 4 provides that evidence of membership of an unlawful organisation can be inferred from certain conduct, including matters such as ‘movements, actions, activities, or associations on the part of the accused’. This section was not used in the period covered by the report.
Section 6 creates the offence of directing the activities of an organisation in respect of which a suppression order has been made under the Offences against the State Act 1939. This section was not used in the period covered by the report.
Section 7 makes it an offence to possess articles in circumstances giving rise to a reasonable suspicion that the article is in possession for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of specified firearms or explosives offences. It was used on 15 occasions.
Section 8 makes it an offence to collect, record or possess information which is likely to be useful to members of an unlawful organisation in the commission of serious offences. It was not used in the period covered by the report.
Section 9 makes it an offence to withhold certain information which might be of material assistance in preventing the commission of a serious offence or securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of a person for such an offence. It was used on 83 occasions.
Section 10 extends the maximum period of detention permitted under Section 30 of the Offences against the State Act from 48 hours to 72 hours, but only on the express authorisation of a judge of the District Court following an application by a Garda of at least Superintendent rank. Furthermore, the person being detained is entitled to be present in court during the application and to make, or to have made, submissions on his behalf. An extension was granted in 11 cases.
Section 11 allows a judge of the District Court to permit the re-arrest and detention of a person in respect of an offence for which he was previously detained under Section 30 of the Offences against the State Act but released without charge. This further period must not exceed 24 hours and can only be authorised where the 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. It was used on 17 occasions.
Section 12 makes 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. I t was not used in the period covered by the report.
Section 14 is, in effect, a procedural section which makes the offences created under sections 6 to 9 and 12 of the 1998 Act scheduled offences for the purposes of Part V of the 1939 Act. This means that persons suspected of committing these offences may be arrested under Section 30 of the 1939 Act. It was used on 98 occasions during the period under Report.
Section 17 builds on the provision in the Criminal Justice Act 1994 providing for the forfeiture of property. Where a person is convicted of offences relating to the possession of firearms or explosives, and where there is property liable to forfeiture under the 1994 Act the court is 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 section was used on 3 occasions during the period covered by the report. Deputies will note, by reference to the Table, that this is the first reporting period that has recorded a usage of this most valuable provision. I very much welcome this development.
As I have already stated, dissident groups remain a threat to the existence of this State. 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 relevant provisions of the 1998 Act should remain in operation for a further 12 months.
I commend the motion to the House.