Surveillance Bill - An end to a crazy anachronism

The Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Bill published by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern to allow for the use of covert surveillance in evidence in criminal trials, has been broadly welcomed in the midst of the current wave of gangland criminality.

There have already been 10 murders and a dozen shooting this year so far, compared with 19 murders in 2008.

Fine Gael and Labour have welcomed the legislation. Their only complaint was that it has taken so long to introduce it. Fianna Fáil came to power in 1997 promising zero tolerance with crime, having savaged the outgoing Government in the wake of Veronica Guerin’s murder. This was the first of a series of promises on which it had failed to deliver. It is perfectly legitimate to ask how the Government was able to introduce legislation to help banks and property speculators within a matter of days but took almost a dozen years to propose this legislation to cope with organised crime.

In the last 11 years the conviction rate for the 171 shootings has been just 11%. It was absurd that hard evidence collected by electronic surveillance was not admissible, because the laws had not been updated in line with technology.

Criminals were using this technology and gardaí used it to monitor them. This facilitated the gardaí in learning who were responsible for various crimes, but they, and the prosecution service, were not permitted to use such evidence in court. This was a crazy anachronism.

Gardaí should, with the help of the legislation, be able to deal more effectively with criminal gangs. Evidence gathered by surveillance will henceforth be admissible as evidence on criminal charges, or as the basis for a charge of criminal conspiracy. This should facilitate the State in protecting against crimes like witness intimidation, assault, murder, extortion, money laundering and the importation of firearms and drugs. Maximum sentences for intimidation of witnesses and juries are to be increased from seven years to life. It is, of course, necessary to ensure against the abuse of these powers. In a republic there is no right to commit crime, but the civil rights of citizens must be paramount.

The legislation introduced stipulates that a judge must provide authorisation for secret surveillance, except in “limited emergency situations,” according to Justice Minister Dermot Ahern. A district judge may authorise gardaí to carry out surveillance under strict conditions for a period of up to three months, or in urgent circumstances a senior Garda officer will be able to authorise such surveillance for up to 72 hours.

Strict provisions must be made in relation to the retention and disclosure of information gathered by such surveillance, with serious criminal sanctions for breach of confidentiality.

The minister also announced his intention to introduce legislation to make membership of, or participation in, a criminal gang schedule offences to be tried before the Central Criminal Court. The definition of a gang will have to be carefully determined, but such legislation had operated effectively against gangsters posing as republicans.


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