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Thursday 27 April 2017

EU criticism fuels fears Ireland could be weak link in fight against terrorism

Police officers of the Counter Terrorism Centre with sub-machine guns stand guard at Nyugati Railway Station in central Budapest, Hungary Photo: AP
Police officers of the Counter Terrorism Centre with sub-machine guns stand guard at Nyugati Railway Station in central Budapest, Hungary Photo: AP
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Worrying deficiencies in the international fight against terrorism have been laid at Ireland's door.

The Government has been criticised by the European Commission for failing to introduce information-sharing systems aimed at combating international terrorism and organised crime.

Formal infringement proceedings have been launched by the Commission after Ireland failed to put in place systems for sharing DNA, fingerprint and vehicle registration data.

The case, which could ultimately end up in the European Court of Justice, is deeply embarrassing for the Government at a time of heightened concern over Islamic extremist attacks on the continent.

The systems should have been put in place by 2011, but the Commission's migration and home affairs spokesperson Tove Ernst bluntly told the Irish Independent that Ireland was failing to comply on all three categories of data sharing.

The Commission's action will fuel fears that Ireland could be a weak link in Europe-wide efforts to combat terrorism and crime.

Justice officials have blamed a lack of resources as a result of the financial crisis for the failings and admit it could be another year before the anti-terror systems are operational.

But the deficiencies can be traced back much further, with decades of underinvestment leaving our security services lagging far behind many of their European counterparts in terms of technology.

A key concern is Ireland's inability to exchange DNA data with other EU member states due to inadequate facilities.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald informed Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe last September that the State Laboratory had "reached crisis point" and "an infringement letter from the Commission" was "imminent".

Mr Donohoe subsequently gave the green light for work on a new laboratory to begin during 2017, but it is still likely to be some time before Forensic Science Ireland is able to share DNA information with authorities in other EU countries.

Systems for sharing fingerprint and vehicle registration data have also been delayed due to underinvestment and the need for new legislation.

The anti-terrorism measures are contained in EU laws, known collectively as the Prüm Decisions, which were due to come into force in August 2011.

These set out a framework of rules allowing EU member states to search each others' DNA analysis files, fingerprint identification systems and vehicle registration databases.

The framework was widely adopted across the EU and has been heralded as a faster and more technologically advanced method for the sharing of vital information. Under the framework, DNA and fingerprint searches can be conducted using a 'hit/no-hit' approach, which means profiles can be compared with profiles held in the databases of other EU member states.

An automated reply reveals whether this profile exists in the requested member state. Additional personal information can then be requested separately if there is a match.

Hurdles

The Commission said Ireland was among five countries issued with formal notifications in late September for failing to comply with Prüm.

The others were Croatia, Greece, Italy and Portugal.

The Department of Justice responded to the Commission pledging to have the systems ready by the end of 2017.

But it admitted significant hurdles had to be jumped.

Forensic Science Ireland is to be given additional temporary facilities, pending the construction of a new complex, and more staff so it can share DNA data. However, testing of the data-sharing system will not begin until late autumn.

Meanwhile, the Garda automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) will require upgrades over the next nine months before it can be used to exchange information.

The department admitted it could also be autumn before a system for sharing vehicle registration data is ready because legislation is needed to deal with data protection rules.

Separately, a recent European Council report said more terminals would have to be installed at garda stations to generate outgoing requests for vehicle registration data.

The report indicated how far Ireland is lagging behind most of its EU counterparts.

DNA data exchange is taking place in 22 of the 28 member states, while fingerprint data exchange is occurring in 18 countries and vehicle registration data exchange in 19.

Despite the failings, the department said other systems were being used by gardaí to co-operate with foreign police forces.

These include ECRIS, a system allowing for the interconnection of EU states' criminal records databases.

Immigration officers at the country's international airports have been able to check passports via Interpol's stolen and lost travel documents database since last November.

Plans are also being put in place this year for the collection of advance passenger information for flights originating outside the EU.

Irish Independent

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