Organised crime suspects will face non-jury trials in a planned extension of anti-terrorism laws, it was announced today.
Electronic bugging evidence will also be allowed to help convict gangsters in a crackdown rushed in after the murder of a relative of a gangland investigation witness.
The new powers will mean members of increasingly ruthless criminal gangs will be treated the same as IRA members and dissident republicans under laws introduced in the aftermath of the Omagh bomb.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern decided to fast-track measures after last week’s killing of businessman Roy Collins in Limerick, who was targeted four years after his stepbrother gave evidence in a gangland trial.
“Clearly what has happened in recent times is an affront to ordinary people in that somebody was murdered because they were associated with somebody who gave evidence previously. That is something the State cannot tolerate,” said Mr Ahern.
Planned new measures include:
* New offences of membership of a criminal organisation, like membership of paramilitary organisation, which would come under the Offences Against the State Act and be heard before the non-jury Special Criminal Court, unless otherwise directed by Director of Public Prosecutions.
* Post-release conditions similar to those for sex offenders, such as orders on convicted criminals not to associate with known members of a gang.
* Offences of directing criminal organisation to be created.
* Longer penalties for witness intimidation, which already carry a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Mr Ahern said there are legal hurdles to defining membership of a criminal gang in the same way as that of a paramilitary organisation, but his officials are working to overcome these.
The Attorney General also advised him that a court would not convict a suspected gangster solely on the opinion of a senior investigator, but that there would have to be corroborative evidence.
By putting covert surveillance, such as electronic bugging and tracking, on a statutory footing through the proposed Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act, it is hoped such evidence could then be introduced in court to secure convictions.
“What I am proposing to my officials and to the Attorney General is to adopt a similar approach to the approach we took in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing,” said Mr Ahern.
“(We) are dealing with extremely dangerous individuals who are an affront to society and society has to react, in a measured and proportionate way,” he said.
“Obviously there will be people who will feel that this type of surveillance and the proposals to schedule these offences is going too far.
“But I think it is a statement by the State that we regard what is happening in certain areas of this country as an affront to society just as the terrorists who were running around this island for many, many years were an affront to our society as well.”
The Gardaí, Defence Forces and Customs will all be able to apply to a designated judge for electronic bugging authorisation for up to three-month periods, or four months for tracking devices, in cases of suspected serious offences, under the proposed new powers.
In emergency circumstances, a senior investigator in any of the agencies will be able to approve a 72-hour period.
Mr Ahern admitted the measures were necessary because the witness protection programme already in place was not working.
“Unfortunately people who are targeted for witness protection, whatever it is in the Irish psyche, they don’t want to leave their home, they don’t want to take up their life and go to the UK or Australia and start up a new life,” he said.
Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy welcomed the proposals as a “proportionate and necessary” measure to the threat of gangland criminals.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) gave a cautious welcome to the crackdown, stressing however that intelligence-led policing, and not the restriction of fair trial rights, is the most effective way to tackle gangland crime.