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Speech by the Minister for Defence, Mr Willie O’Dea, T.D., during Second Stage Dáil Debate on the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, 2009

13:42-14.02pm Friday July 3rd 2009

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A Cheann Comhairle, there are two important matters that need to be emphasised when debating and discussing this Bill.

Firstly, this Bill does not make the use of the Special Criminal Court a permanent feature of our Criminal Justice system. Section 8 of the Bill, at subsections 4. 5 and 6, provide the expiry and possible renewal provisions so that this House will have the opportunity to assess and review the effectiveness of these measures.

Secondly, the DPP has absolute discretion to decide, based on his best judgement and the information available to him, on whether to refuse to send a case for trial to the Special Criminal Court.

The main focus of opposition to this legislation has come from the deliberations and pronouncements of the Irish Human Rights Commission.

At a media briefing on Tuesday June 30th solicitor Michael Farrell speaking on behalf of the Commission said that the Bill:

strikes at the centuries-old right to trial by jury, without any data being produced on the existence of jury-tampering.”

He went on to say:
“It (The Bill) would not solve the problem of the intimidation of witnesses, he said, who are identified in the Special Criminal Court in the same way as in ordinary courts.”

This later statement is a classic example of the “knocking a straw man” school of debate. The purpose of Section 8 of this Bill is not to deal with the intimidation of witnesses. It is to deal with the intimidation of jurors and potential jurors.

Mr Farrell apparently frets at the lack of “data” on the existence of jury tampering. This argument is at best disingenuous and at worst bogus.

People who feel intimidated from serving as jurors in gangland trials do not register the fact so it may be recorded and counted for statistical purposes. This is also true for those who do serve on juries.

It is not an activity you can measure in the same way as you compile crime statistics.

Of course, there is no data to measure this when it happens. The very notion of measurable, identifiable data on the existence of jury tampering is risible and I suspect Mr Farrell and others in the Human Rights Commission know this as well as everyone else.

In what must rank as one of the greatest volte-faces in history of Irish parliamentary democracy the Labour Party has fallen for this argument hook line and sinker.

Just examine the Labour Party’s statement of last Tuesday where they parrot the concerns of the Human Rights Commission almost word for word claiming:

“There is no evidence that tampering with juries is an issue in our criminal justice system.”

Can this be the same Labour Party whose front bench spokesperson - and my constituency colleague - Deputy Jan O’Sullivan said during statements on the killing of Shane Geoghegan in this House on Thursday, 13 November 2008:

“…the words on everybody’s lips were “Please do something”. I ask the Minister to do something.”

Deputy O’Sullivan went on to say:

“People want us to do whatever is necessary to smash these gangs, take away their power and put them behind bars where they belong.”

By April this year, Deputy O'Sullivan was lambasting the government and me in particular for not bringing forward legislation to “make it easy to convict gangland figures”.

Indeed, Deputy O’Sullivan’s colleague, the Labour Party’s Justice Spokesman was just as forceful during the Statements on Shane Geoghegan’s killing: He said:

“The public mood is to assent to measures in the present crisis that people would not otherwise tolerate… There must come a tipping point where the State asserts its democratic mandate and asserts decent values… The people are saying that enough is enough. It is the Government’s duty to put the gangs out of business.

The Labour Party was right then. It is wrong today. There is no point in wishing the ends without being ready to will the means.

The unfortunate truth is that there is massive and widespread anecdotal evidence of jury intimidation in Limerick.

While it is impossible to produce hard data on this intimidation; it is easy enough to find firm evidence of its results and implications.

Jury intimidation in Limerick is now so widespread and pervasive, that it is now virtually taken for granted that in any trial relating in any way to gangland crime, potential jurors are either intimidated or feel they are in danger.

Back in 2003 it was decided to try the six leading members of one of the most violent and dangerous gangs in the country for the murder of rival gangland figure Kieran Keane, in Limerick.

729 people were called for jury service but the State found it impossible to get 12 people to serve.

Why did this happen? Perhaps everyone was suddenly too busy? 2003 was, afterall, when the Celtic Tiger was at its peak. Things may have been so hectic that even 12 out of the 729 could not be bothered to show up. I suspect, however, that the truth lies elsewhere.

In the year 2000, the number of jury trials (i.e. ordinary trials not necessarily gangland) coming before the Limerick circuit criminal court was 67. The number of people required to be called to fill those juries was about 1,000. The Court’s office summoning jurors were working on the basis that 4 out of every 5 people called would serve.

By 2008, the number of trials had risen to 124, yet the number of people who had to be called as potential jurors had risen to just under 7000.

This represents a sevenfold increase in calls of potential jurors despite less than a twofold increase in the number of trials.

Initial figures indicate that the number of jurors to be called this year will exceed 8,000 for roughly the same amount of trials as last year as individuals seek to be excused from jury service for a range of health and reasons.

In other words instead of 4 out of every 5 turning up as heretofore, the State now calls 5 people and only one shows up. Why?

There is no evidence to be found anywhere that the sense of civic duty of the people of the Mid-West has evaporated so quickly. It is extremely difficult to get people to serve on a jury in Limerick, now, even for ordinary trials on indictment which have no connection with gangland crime.

People tell me on a continuous basis that they are afraid to serve as jurors in any type of criminal trial in case the defendant would have any connection however tenuous with anybody involved in gangland crime.

In the years following the Kieran Keane trial over 80% called for jury service sought to be excused. There was a huge increase in the number of medical certificates submitted, particularly from women, stating that they were suffering from stress and anxiety. Ultimately, the Keane trial was moved to the courthouse at Cloverhill, Dublin where it was found possible to empanel a jury.

Everybody involved in the Criminal Justice system in Limerick I have spoken to is now of the opinion that it would be impossible to do this now six years later in similar circumstances.

The reason is self-evident. The reach of the gang whose members were on trial in that case has expanded enormously since 2003 and they have very strong associations with a number of criminal gangs in Dublin.

The gang suspected of carrying out the callous murder of Baiba Saulite, is the same gang suspected of ordering the murder of Roy Collins, Kieran Keane, Brian Fitzgerald and Shane Geoghegan.

Baiba Saulite’s murder occurred in Dublin, allegedly at the behest of a Dublin based criminal who reportedly engaged this gang to carry it out.

This difficulty in finding jurors is not just a phenomenon of gangland trials. Such is the level of fear that many people do not want to take the risk of sitting on any jury dealing with even the most minor offences in case the accused is related to, or associated with, any gang.

On May 10th of this year I marched with thousands of other Limerick citizens in support of the Collins family. I personally observed a number of known individuals taking photos and recording video footage on their mobiles as the solemn march passed by. Those behind the fear and intimidation were determined to make their presence felt even as the people gathered to say no to this intimidation.

It was metaphor for part of the problem that has besieged our city: the gangs were trying to intimidate the people from even showing publicly that they wanted to end this malaise. Such is the brazenness and bravado of the gangs that they seriously think they can hold both a city and a criminal justice system to ransom.

Our duty as the democratically elected representatives of the people is crystal clear. It is to send out a strong, universally, recognisable and unmistakable signal that they cannot; will not and must not succeed.

That is what this Bill does and that is why I am proud to support it.

ENDS


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