Bill tips balance of justice in favour of law-abiding


OPINION:The public has for years been crying out for the anti-gang reforms currently before the Dáil. Where were the letter-writing lawyers when innocent people in Limerick were being gunned down? writes STEPHEN O'BYRNES.

IN 2003, in a trial in Limerick involving six members of a notorious gang for murder, it was impossible to recruit 12 jurors for the 729 people called for jury service, and the case had to be moved to a Dublin venue.

In December 2006, apprentice plumber Anthony Campbell, just 20 years old, was murdered in Finglas, Dublin, because he was a potential witness of the killers of a gangland figure in the same house. In April this year, Roy Collins was murdered in Limerick because he was a relative of a State witness in a murder trial involving a gangland criminal.

In May, when thousands of people in Limerick joined Roy Collins’s family in a peace march, people associated with the city’s notorious gangs stood on the pavements and filmed the marchers on their mobile phones.

Turning to the wider gangland blight bedevilling this country, over the past 4½ years there have been a reported 102 gun murders but only four convictions. Yet in all the cases where gangland people are the victims, the gardaí can immediately brief the media on their criminal activities.

Furthermore, when major crimes, like bank robberies, are committed, the gardaí are again able to brief the media on the likely suspects and their involvement in previous criminality.

So while it is clear the gardaí have the intelligence, they find it impossible to bring prosecutions because people are terrified to assist them and/or to offer witness evidence in court. Where witness statements are secured, these are often withdrawn in court, due to intimidation of these witnesses or their families. And if there are individuals brave enough to come forward and give evidence, other gang members will sit in the court intent on intimidating jury members.

Over the past 15 years or so, as each criminal atrocity faded from public memory or was overtaken by another more vicious gangland killing, decent law-abiding people despaired at the failure of government to tackle effectively this glaring deficit in our criminal justice system. Yet we have been there before; in the 1970s when IRA members were brought before the courts, they got away with murder and other major crimes because of witness and jury intimidation.

In 1972 the then government decided they had to dispense with jury trials and, under the Offences Against the State Act, established the three judge Special Criminal Court for all subversive trials.

It was a move that drew trenchant criticism from leading lawyers who, then as now, deplored the abandonment of trial by jury etc. But the court played a vital role in holding the line against the IRA threat to the security of the State in the following two decades, especially as convictions were secured on the sworn, expert evidence of senior Garda officers.

For years now, the vast majority of decent law-abiding people have cried out for similar action to be taken to combat gangland criminals, the drugs godfathers and their hired killers. This cry went up especially after the murder of Donna Cleary, Anthony Campbell, Baiba Saulite, and the Limerick trio of Brian Fitzgerald, Shane Geoghegan and Collins. And it was the murder of Collins that finally tipped the balance. Belatedly, in the eyes of most citizens, the Minister for Justice last week brought forward a new Criminal Justice Bill transferring various “organised crime” offences to the Special Criminal Court where the gardaí can offer expert evidence on the activities of the defendants. Clearly the gardaí will also be greatly assisted by the new Surveillance Act which will allow for the admission of surveillance evidence, and convictions can be secured on that basis, without having to rely on witnesses.

Yet, notwithstanding the growing criminal mayhem of recent years, and the scandalous level of non-prosecutions in gang murders, this vital reform has been roundly condemned by bodies that profess concern for human rights.

The Irish Human Rights Commission, whose website opens by declaring solemnly that “the protection and promotion of human rights is [its] core value”, states that the new Bill is “not human rights compliant”. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties proclaimed that Ahern’s Bill “tramples on the rule of law”.

A search of the websites of these august bodies, however, reveals no public statements following the murder of Campbell, or Cleary, or Collins; nor was there any chain letter from the Four Courts. The Collins murder was the particular atrocity that put the human rights of every law-abiding citizen under threat, and which the Minister admitted was the tipping-point for the new legislation. Such selective concern for the human rights of citizens engaged in criminal activity from human rights and civil liberties bodies nauseates most right-thinking people, and does serious damage to the reputation of these organisations.

But what did the Oireachtas make of the new Bill which, if it operates as envisaged, should, at long last, tip the balance of justice in favour of law-abiding society and away from the gangland criminals whom it has heretofore clearly favoured? After all the special debates of the last atrocity of the past decade, with Opposition parties pleading with the Government to take effective action, here surely was the time for virtual unanimity.

Sadly, when the Bill was debated in the Dáil last Friday this did not happen. Echoing a lot of the media commentary to date, various Opposition politicians extolled a jury system that is demonstrably incapable of functioning in the exceptional circumstances of today’s criminality. Deputies suggested witness protection programmes (is that where law-abiding citizens want to end up), and repeated daft and impractical proposals from the Human Rights Commission, such as having an anonymous jury (whatever that is), screening the jury from public view, or linking the jury by video to the court.

And there were repeated protests about the time allocated to consider the Bill, which is set to pass all stages tomorrow.

As if the case for this reform has not been debated up and down the land for at least the past decade, in the Oireachtas, the media and among the public.

Stephen O’Byrnes is director of MKC Communications and a former director of policy with the Progressive Democrats

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