TOPICAL ISSUE DEBATE – TUESDAY 5TH NOVEMBER 2019
Deputy Brendan Smith
I appreciate the opportunity to raise this issue and I welcome the fact that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, is in the House to take it. The issue is self explanatory and barely requires further expansion from me. At midday yesterday the Independent Reporting Commission reported on progress being made towards ending continuing paramilitary activity. The commission’s core finding is concerning, namely that “paramilitarism remains a stark reality in Northern Ireland” that continues to be a serious obstacle to peace and reconciliation. Some 21 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, this is a worrying assessment and it should remind us all that implementing the agreement is still a work in progress and that progress in recent years has been slow, to put it at its most diplomatic. It is indeed ironic that the Independent Reporting Commission now operates under the mandate given to it by the Fresh Start agreement of 2015. If the other bodies and institutions took the mandate to start afresh and focus on their own roles as seriously and assiduously as the Independent Reporting Commission, we would all be in a better place on this island.
In their assessment, the four members of the Independent Reporting Commission state clearly and unambiguously that ending paramilitarism can only be sustainably brought about by means of a twin track approach which combines policing and justice responses alongside systemically tackling the serious socioeconomic deprivation facing the communities in which paramilitaries operate. The commissioners specifically recommend that tackling paramilitarism be made a new dedicated outcome in a programme for Government. They view this as the best way of achieving the whole-of-system approach that is needed in Northern Ireland. As a representative of a Border community that has enjoyed the benefits of the Good Friday Agreement that have been allowed to flow, I agree wholeheartedly with the commissioners in this judgment and urge both Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland to put the eradication of the scourge of paramilitarism and paramilitary criminality at the core of any future programme for Government of a future Executive in Northern Ireland. Such an Executive and a Northern Ireland Assembly is sadly lacking at present.
There is much more we can do now, however, starting with making all of the necessary resources and manpower available to An Garda Síochána and the PSNI without delay. Indeed, the Independent Reporting Commission specifically calls for increased and enhanced neighbourhood policing and for urgent action to address the delays in cases coming before the courts. I do not know of a single person in Cavan or Monaghan who would not endorse that call 100%. Co-ordinated action is needed now to tackle the wanton intimidation of whole communities by paramilitary gangsters that we have seen over the past few weeks and months. I had the opportunity some weeks ago in this House to outline my abhorrence and that of the people I am privileged to represent of the cruel terror that was inflicted on Kevin Lunney. There were also other despicable and cowardly incidents perpetrated on other Quinn Industrial Holdings executives that were intolerable. These are a challenge to our local communities and to this State but the rule of law must prevail at all times. I must emphasise the fact that this is the view of more than 99.99% of the people that I represent in the Border communities. Previous Governments and Ministers for Justice and Equality have shown how this State is prepared to use all its resources to stand up to the gang lords and thugs. Over a decade ago in Limerick such necessary action was taken with a successful outcome. We need to show the same level of seriousness and resolution today. The first step must be to dramatically increase the resources available to An Garda Síochána in the Border areas to show that this State will not tolerate the intimidation of individuals or communities, regardless of the jurisdiction from which the perpetrators come.
In conclusion, this House should express its gratitude to the four members of the Independent Reporting Commission, Mr. John McBurney, Mr. Tim O’Connor, Ms Monica McWilliams and Mr. Mitchell Reiss for their continuing service.
Deputy Charles Flanagan
There is no more consistent an advocate for Border security and policing than Deputy Brendan Smith. I say that not only in respect of my time as Minister for Justice and Equality, but also previously as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Deputy and others will acknowledge that policing the Border region has always presented particular challenges and these necessitate a collaborative approach to policing between law enforcement agencies North and South of the Border. There is ongoing close co-operation between An Garda Síochána in this Republic and the PSNI in Northern Ireland. The importance of this ongoing high level of co-operation has been emphatically demonstrated again in recent weeks by the abhorrent attack in County Fermanagh to which Deputy Brendan Smith referred. I visited the area and was briefed by the Commissioner and the investigation team in Cavan. It is clear that elements of this horrific crime took place on both sides of the Border and a joint investigation is ongoing, including ongoing sharing of information and evidence between An Garda Síochána and the PSNI.
I am sure the Deputy will join me in welcoming the Commissioner’s decision to establish an additional armed support unit in Cavan town. This unit will complement the work of units already based in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, close to the Border and in Dundalk, County Louth, the home town of Deputy Breathnach, in the northern region. The northern region has benefitted from the accelerated recruitment to An Garda Síochána and the unprecedented €1.76 billion budget provided to the force for 2019.
Since the end of 2017, Garda strength in the northern region has increased by 150 to approximately 1,500, with Garda staff in the region also increasing by approximately 150, which represents an increase of almost 30% over the past three years. The ongoing recruitment will provide the Garda Commissioner with the resources needed to deploy increasing numbers of gardaí to the region to deliver a visible, effective and responsive policing service. These requirements will be kept under ongoing review by Garda management with a view to addressing any policing requirements for the Border region which may arise from time to time. In the event that a no-deal Brexit gives rise to additional requirements in Border areas, further resources can and will be provided through redeployment.
I acknowledge what Deputy Brendan Smith said about the Independent Reporting Commission, IRC, report. In November 2015, the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive agreed a series of measures under the Fresh Start agreement as part of a concerted and enhanced effort to tackle organised and cross-jurisdictional crime. These measures included the creation of the joint agency task force which is led by senior officers from An Garda Síochána, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Revenue Commissioners and UK Revenue and Customs. This joint agency task force meets regularly and did so most recently this week in Belfast. Both Governments are determined that, regardless of the political outcome of Brexit, the excellent ongoing level of co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the PSNI must and will continue. It is important that every resource be made available, as Deputy Smith rightly says, to combat the threat posed by dissidents and criminals of an organised and ruthless nature who seek to exploit the policing challenges faced in the Border area.
Deputy Brendan Smith
I thank the Minister for his detailed response. As he knows, the Independent Reporting Commission report is very clear that ending paramilitary activity is made immeasurably more difficult by two issues, namely, the vacuum created by the absence of devolution and uncertainty over Brexit. A return to political decision-making in Stormont is essential in order to comprehensively address these issues, which are multifaceted and deep-rooted. I have often said in this House that the one political mandate that all of us on this island have is to implement the Good Friday Agreement, having been given that mandate through the referenda held both North and South in May 1998. Sadly, we do not have a functioning Executive or Assembly in Northern Ireland, for which both Sinn Féin and the DUP should be ashamed as they have held up the restoration of those necessary institutions. A non-functioning North-South Ministerial Council has also been a huge loss to this country, as it could have been central to the preparations for Brexit in an all-Ireland context.
The residue of paramilitary activity must be eliminated. Great emphasis must be placed on dealing with these criminals who masqueraded for decades under so-called political ideologies, resulting in destruction and loss of life. That must be ended once and for all.
The Minister correctly pointed out that I have consistently raised the need for additional resources for the Border region in this House. I have often said that there are unique policing demands in the Garda Border division. The Minister used that phrase on television the other night. I have always highlighted the need for additional resources because of cross-Border criminality. It hurts me and 99.9% of the people I have the privilege of representing when we hear ill-informed commentary that our region is lawless or that its people do not subscribe to the rule of law. Sadly, a very small number of criminals both North and South have inflicted damage on the area. I reiterate that more than 99.99% of the people living in the Border region are law-abiding. They work hard, the same as people in every other part of our country, pay their mortgages, rear their families, pay their education and health bills and are looking to the future. They want to be secure in the knowledge that they are safe when going to and from work. That does not take away from the fact that a very small number of people can do a lot of damage to a region, but the people I represent believe in the rule of law.
An anniversary mass for the late Paul Quinn, a young man who was murdered in horrific circumstances by thugs and criminals, was held only a few weeks ago. Recently, my colleague, Deputy Breathnach, launched a report on cross-Border crime on behalf of committee A of the British-Irish Parliamentary Association. The report noted that there had been an increase in the number of criminal groups with cross-Border operations over the past five years, rising from approximately one in five groups in 2014 to one in three in 2018. Cross-Border criminality, in which people are involved in illicit trade in drugs, fuel products and so on, must be tackled with every possible resource available to the State and its agencies both North and South.
Deputy Charles Flanagan
It is both appropriate and timely that Deputy Brendan Smith should make specific reference to the second report of the Independent Reporting Commission, which was published yesterday by the British and Irish Governments. It draws attention to a recent upturn in paramilitary activity and paramilitary-related murders over the past year. I think of Jim Donegan, Ian Ogle and Lyra McKee. The report also makes clear that the lack of a Northern Ireland Executive is a hindrance to progress. There is an urgent need for the re-establishment of the institutions in Northern Ireland and for political leadership to be restored. A key recommendation of the IRC report is that tackling paramilitarism should be properly placed within the Northern Ireland programme for government. This placement should address the complex and interconnected social deprivation factors, such as educational under-attainment, which strongly correlate with the legacy of paramilitarism in many areas. This recommendation cannot be implemented while an Executive is not sitting in Northern Ireland. I join Deputy Smith in his call in that regard.
I spoke recently to the UK Home Secretary and met the recently appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I assure Deputy Smith that I took both these opportunities to reaffirm our deep commitment to continuing the close working relationship we have with our colleagues in Northern Ireland and the UK on matters such as security and risks in the Border region. I remind Deputies that this co-operation and intelligence-led policing is producing significant results in addressing cross-Border criminality. Last Thursday, for example, gardaí attached to the national drugs and organised crime bureau intercepted a commercial haulage vehicle in Dundalk and recovered cannabis herb with an estimated value of €3.2 million, subject to analysis. Two men were arrested and investigations are ongoing.
I reaffirm that An Garda Síochána has the full support of the Government in its ongoing work addressing cross-Border criminality. We are providing record resources to enable it to perform this critical role. I welcome the interventions of Deputies Breathnach and Brendan Smith from the Border area, not only this evening but on a consistent basis. It is important that we all work together towards ensuring that the scourge of violence and criminality of an organised nature in the Border area is by no means tolerated.
TOPICAL ISSUE DEBATE – 19TH SEPTEMBER 2019
Deputy Brendan Smith
I am glad the Minister for Justice and Equality is present for this important debate. Yesterday morning it was chilling to hear of the barbaric attack on Mr. Kevin Lunney, a decent family man who has contributed greatly to the economic development of the Cavan-Fermanagh area, the much wider Border region and further afield. It was a violent and sinister attack on a good man, whom I have known well for more than 20 years.
Kidnapping and abducting an individual has no place in society. It is most reprehensible and I condemn in the strongest possible terms the deplorable act. Those of us who grew up in a Border community and have had the privilege of representing a large Border constituency believed that the era of kidnapping innocent people, throwing them in the boot of a vehicle, driving them to an isolated place and inflicting serious injuries was long past and that such thuggery, violence, attacks on persons and general lawlessness will not be tolerated in our area of County Cavan and the neighbouring area of County Fermanagh. I appeal to anybody who has any information about the attack or the previous serious incidents to speak to An Garda Síochána or the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI. The thugs, who are obviously dangerous criminals, must be brought to justice without delay.
It is the latest in a series of attacks on members of Quinn Industrial Holdings, all decent men playing an important and positive role in the local community and economy. I am particularly concerned that no arrests have been made to date on either side of the Border. It is a campaign of intimidation. An Garda Síochána and the PSNI must work closely together on a daily basis to ensure that it ends immediately and bring those responsible to justice. The thugs who carried out the deplorable attack on Kevin Lunney must be caught and brought to justice as a matter of urgency. There is a serious moral obligation on anyone who has any information on the incidents to pass it on to the authorities either in our jurisdiction or in Northern Ireland. People in my community of Cavan-Monaghan and in the neighbouring community of County Fermanagh are outraged at the attack on Kevin and condemn strongly the other sinister attacks on his colleagues and the damage to property.
The latest attack is very worrying in light of the many other violent incidents of recent years. I wish Kevin Lunney a speedy recovery from the horrific injuries inflicted on him. I think of him and all his family, his friends and colleagues, during what must be a frightening time. I reiterate that the reprehensible thugs must be brought to justice and feel the full force of the law, whether here or in Northern Ireland. As I noted, it was chilling to hear the reports yesterday morning of Kevin’s abduction. Reading the newspapers today was even more terrifying in view of the injuries inflicted on an innocent, decent, good man who has contributed handsomely to the development of our country.
Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Charles Flanagan)
I acknowledge the importance of the issue and thank the Deputy for raising it in the House. People on both sides of the Border were appalled when news of the vicious attack on the Fermanagh-Cavan border emerged in recent days. The Deputy, along with all other Deputies, will understand that the incident is now the subject matter of a significant investigation by the PSNI and An Garda Síochána. It would not be appropriate, therefore, for me to engage in detailed discussions at this stage, although I clearly and unequivocally condemn the utterly disgraceful attack that took place on Mr. Lunney. It was a reprehensible and cowardly act by barbarous thugs who have no regard for human decency or the rule of law on either side of the Border. I assure the Deputy and the House that An Garda Síochána and the PSNI will leave no stone unturned in seeking to identify and bring to justice those responsible for the sinister and reprehensible act. I take the opportunity to wish Mr. Lunney and his family well as they begin the process of recovery from the horrific and traumatic incident.
Over the past 24 or 30 hours I have spoken to a number of people in the community. I agree with the Deputy there is widespread revulsion at what has taken place in his constituency. The Garda Commissioner, Mr. Drew Harris, addressed the matter briefly yesterday at the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality and I have been in contact with him directly.
I have asked him to keep me fully informed on the progress in this important investigation. I appeal to anybody who may have information on this terrible incident to please contact An Garda Síochána or the Police Service of Northern Ireland as soon as possible in order to assist their inquiries and investigation. I ask Deputy Brendan Smith to use his influence in his constituency to spread that message, and I know he will do so. Gardaí may also be contacted by using the Garda confidential line at 1800 666111.
I am aware that the question of Garda resourcing has been raised. Yesterday, at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, the Garda Commissioner, who is responsible for the deployment of Garda personnel and resources, confirmed there has been a major uplift in capability in the Cavan and Monaghan division. The northern region, like other parts of the country, continues to benefit from increased Garda recruitment. As of 31 August this year, there were 372 gardaí assigned to the Cavan and Monaghan division, supported by 43 Garda staff and eight members of the Garda Reserve. Over the past three years and due to Government funding for ongoing recruitment, Garda strength in the northern region has increased to approximately 1,500, which is an increase of 150 since the end of 2017. These gardaí are supported by approximately 150 Garda staff in the region, compared with 116 staff at the end of 2016, meaning there has been an increase of almost 30% in Garda staff in the northern region over the past three years. This means additional gardaí can be and are being redeployed from administrative to operational policing duties in the region where their training and policing expertise can be used to best effect.
I acknowledge the importance of the new operating model for An Garda Síochána announced recently by the Garda Commissioner, as this will see more gardaí on the ground protecting and supporting communities. I thank Deputy Smith for raising this matter and I join him in appealing for anybody with any information on this heinous crime to come forward to the PSNI and An Garda Síochána.
Deputy Brendan Smith
I thank the Minister for his reply. During numerous debates in this House on legislation from the Minister’s Department and during Question Time, we have discussed the unique policing demands of a border region. We do not know if those criminals were from our jurisdiction or North of the Border. I do not know at any rate. Wherever they are from, they must be brought to justice. Mr. Kevin Lunney is a senior executive in a company that provides 830 jobs in the Cavan and Fermanagh area. It is a very considerable level of employment. He and his colleagues must be assured that they can be safe going to work and people must feel safe in their communities. Recently, the High Court in Belfast was told of many incidents, including attacks on Mr. Lunney and his colleagues, as well as the property of the company.
I hope the Minister can address satisfactorily the concerns that have been expressed by the chairman of Quinn Industrial Holdings. He states it is “inexplicable that not a single arrest has been made north or south of the Border despite dozens of incidents”. I know a large number of the 830 people who work in those companies. They are decent and honourable people who do an honest day of work. They want to be assured that no threats will be made to enterprises or colleagues going about their daily work.
I know An Garda Síochána, with limited resourcing – that is, unfortunately, always the way – is working assiduously in the Border region to deal with criminality, whether it arises from people in our jurisdiction or those outside it. I repeat that there must be a conscious decision made when resources are being allocated by An Garda Síochána that there are unique policing demands on a border Garda division. Please ensure that An Garda Síochána have the relevant personnel, equipment and resources to root out this criminality and deal with these thugs.
These thugs have no support in the communities that I am privileged to represent in this House. I come from that immediate area. I know where Mr. Lunney was abducted in Kinawley and where he was dropped off in Cornafean in Cavan. I know the area very well. I speak for those communities and they will not tolerate that behaviour. They are absolutely appalled by what has happened to a decent man.
Deputy Charles Flanagan
Deputy Brendan Smith from Cavan-Monaghan and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle from Donegal would be more aware than most people that policing the Border region has always presented unique challenges that necessitate a collaborative approach to policing within law enforcement agencies north and south of the Border. Fortunately, we have never seen such a positive relationship between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána and I am confident that this close co-operation will enable both to continue to combat the threat posed by criminals who seek to exploit the policing challenges posed by the Border.
I am very much aware of the concerns that many communities close to the Border have about recent criminal-related events and the impact of Brexit. There is no question about the lethal terrorist intent of paramilitary groups and the persistent threat they present, as well as the cross-Border efforts of mobile organised crime groups responsible for multiple incidents, including burglary. This is the wider context for the increase in Garda resourcing in the area that I referred to earlier. It is also the context of the Garda Commissioner’s operational decision to establish another armed support unit in Cavan. The Garda Commissioner has now established armed support units in all Garda regions to provide an armed response capacity on a regional basis to support and supplement the national emergency response unit. In the northern region, armed support units are based in Ballyshannon and Dundalk, and arrangements are now in train to provide for the establishment of a unit in Cavan.
I know everybody in the House appreciates the very serious impact that a crime like this can have on both a victim, his family and the wider community, as outlined by Deputy Brendan Smith. I take this opportunity to wish Mr. Lunney all the best in his recovery and I assure those who live in the Border region, including Deputy Brendan Smith and his constituents, that their safety is being given the highest priority by the State in this regard.