Ahern not to make significant changes to legislation tackling gangland crime

 

NO SIGNIFICANT changes will be made to legislation to tackle the threat of gangland criminals by Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern despite the opposition of leading lawyers and Opposition TDs to some of its terms.

Mr Ahern has been strengthened in his opinion about the legislation following strong declarations of support from Fianna Fáil backbenchers in Leinster House this week, colleagues have said.

However, he rejected charges that the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009 was “a seismic change in the criminal law”, insisting that it would tackle those guilty of directing a criminal organisation or being part of a gang.

Further amendments are expected to be lodged by Fine Gael and Labour when the legislation returns to the Dáil tomorrow for its final two stages, but Opposition TDs have conceded that the Minister is not prepared to make any concessions.

Responding to concerns voiced by 133 solicitors and barristers, Mr Ahern said: “They are entitled to their opinion. I don’t agree with them when they say that this was introduced without any research without canvassing expert opinion.”

He rejected charges that he had driven the legislation through the Oireachtas too quickly, saying both he and Taoiseach Brian Cowen had issued a detailed statement on May 13th “indicating exactly the type of offences we were bringing forward”.

Following the latest gangland murders “the public mood is to assent to measures in the present crisis that they would not otherwise tolerate”, said Mr Ahern, who will pilot the legislation through its final Dáil stages tomorrow and in the Seanad next week.

However, the Minister’s last-minute amendment to his legislation that would allow former gardaí to give uncorroborated evidence at a trial that could lead to an individual’s conviction has caused considerable concern.

There were suggestions last night that the change has been made because so many gardaí with long service may have retired from the force by the time the courts return after the summer break in October, thus hampering use of the legislation as originally drafted.

Despite the views of some legal people, Mr Ahern pointed out that TDs, Senators, gardaí and others such as the Limerick State Solicitor Michael Murray were agreed that intimidation of jurors was taking place.

He accepted that the latest legislation developed powers granted by the Oireachtas in 2006 but used only once since, although he said the new law would make it easier to convict someone for being part of a criminal gang.

The “opinion evidence” acceptable from gardaí would allow an officer to swear that a gang existed in a particular area, but it would not allow the officer to make allegations about the “the guilt or otherwise of the actual defendant”.

“So it’s a scene-setter in order to allow the court to have established in the court that there is in existence in a particular geographic area a criminal gang. That garda can be cross-examined,” said the Minister.

Rejecting claims that opinion evidence should be restricted to senior Garda officers, the Minister said he preferred that the garda in the witness box would have “his own knowledge, not second-hand from a garda on the ground”.

Minister for Defence Willie O’Dea said laws expanding the use of the Special Criminal Court were justified because gangland crime posed a greater threat to the State than terrorism ever did.

Speaking after meeting UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon at the Department of Defence in Dublin, he said non-jury trials were now necessary because of the wealth now enjoyed by gangs. Limerick gardaí had told him that “certain lawyers” were passing information to people on trial and some of them would “use any method, even murder, to ensure that there’s a certain outcome”.