Gang laws - Debate still the same 30 years on

At this time of year, the State Papers inevitably fill much newspaper space. Such material is 30 years old, but it is news because it has only just been released.

Also, in a sense, the problems of 30 years ago may still be the problems of today.

The gardaí are currently hoping to bring two test cases to court under the controversial gang membership laws introduced last summer. Draconian powers were accorded to the state to combat organised crime and the intimidation of witnesses and juries.

The legislation contains emergency-type powers, such as making the direction or control of a criminal organisation an offence that is punishable by up to life in prison, or deeming the participation in organised crime an offence that is punishable by up to 15 years in jail. Henceforth, all organised crime offences will be dealt with by the non-jury Special Criminal Court.

These provisions have been heavily criticised by the state’s Human Rights Commission as well as by civil liberty groups. There is also an element of confusion about the constitutionality of the legislation and the forthcoming cases are being considered “test cases”.

In July, when the legislation was passed, the Irish Examiner welcomed it, but we warned that it could become a snare if it were subsequently ruled unconstitutional. This newspaper expressed the hope that President McAleese would ensure clarity by exercising her prerogative in referring the bill to the Supreme Court.

The Garda Síochána intend to forward the files to the Director of Public Prosecutions and hope he will prosecute a serious gangland figure from the Crumlin area of Dublin, and an underworld figure from Limerick.

Back in 1979, when Taoiseach Jack Lynch met Margaret Thatcher on the day of the funeral of Earl Mountbatten, who was murdered by the IRA in Sligo, the then British prime minister was anxious to bolster cross-border security. In particular, she called for the re-establishment of a Garda crime squad that had been operating effectively in the border area.

Mr Lynch explained that it had been disbanded in order to send the experienced gardaí to other areas to combat crime there, as there had been an increase in bank raids around the country.

“We are looking at the whole spectrum of criminal law and procedures,” he explained.

At one time there was an imbalance in the legal system against poor and badly educated people, but in rectifying that imbalance, the whole system had become somewhat skewed, Mr Lynch explained. Criminals had become sophisticated with money and access to the best legal brains.

“The time had come to shift the balance in the law so as to protect the public and not the criminals,” Mr Lynch said in 1979.

If that was true 30 years ago, it is even more so today. The French have a popular saying, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – The more things change, the more they stay the same.


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