The State requires new powers to seize the gangs' money
Published 16/02/2016 | 02:30
It took the murder of a journalist, Veronica Guerin, for this State to stand up to the threat posed to our society by organised gangs. In the immediate aftermath of that murder, the political parties recognised that new powers were needed to face the threat of criminal gangs who were prepared to murder a young mother simply because she reported on their criminal activity.
Those new powers resulted in the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) and the introduction of the Proceeds of Crime legislation.
That legislation enabled CAB to identify and seize assets of persons which derived, (or were suspected to derive), directly or indirectly, from criminal conduct.
During the past two weeks, this State has again been forced to sit up and consider how to respond to a crime problem that is reminiscent of the past. Gangs that walk into hotels to execute people or drive through the city to carry out assassinations believe they can operate with impunity and without the interference of the State.
The fact that they then brazenly threaten journalists who are simply performing their job reveals that these gangs do not regard the State as posing any serious threat to their criminal operations.
It is now time to review and extend the powers available to the State under the Proceeds of Crime legislation. Although a review into that legislation commenced in 2011, no legislative proposal has been advanced by the current Government to give greater power to CAB in its fight against criminal gangs. At present, the State can freeze the assets of criminals but cannot seize those assets for seven years. This needs to be changed so that criminal assets can be handed over to the State no more than one year after they have been frozen.
The legislation also needs to be extended so that receivers are given the power to deprive criminals of the use of their properties immediately.
The law should also be amended so that criminals cannot move their assets to avoid them being seized under the Proceeds of Crime legislation. This could be achieved by introducing a new mechanism, whereby short-term seizure of assets can occur pending a court ruling.
It is also now apparent that criminals are operating openly through many different jurisdictions, particularly Ireland and Spain. This requires a European response.
We need greater harmonisation of EU laws, so that all countries will accept seizure orders based on non-criminal convictions, as is the case in Ireland. This would enable CAB to seize the assets of Irish criminals across Europe.
Finally, the Mahon Tribunal recommended that there may be merit in having a single, conviction-based, asset-recovery regime, rather than three separate regimes for drug-trafficking, terrorist financing and other indictable offences, as is currently the case. This recommendation also should be implemented.
Fighting organised criminal gangs is difficult. Prosecutions are difficult to initiate because there are very few witnesses who are prepared to expose themselves to the threats associated with giving evidence against dangerous men who would have no hesitation in killing a witness in order to avoid a conviction and prison sentence. That is a difficult obstacle to overcome.
Consequently, it is important that new approaches are considered.
The primary motivating factor of criminal gangs is the accumulation of wealth from criminal activity. It is unrealistic to think that if drugs were fully legalised, criminal gangs would no longer operate. They would, as their smuggling of cigarettes, which are legal, proves.
A more coherent approach would be for the State to start targeting their accumulation of wealth.
The Proceeds of Crime legislation was the most effective piece of legislation introduced in recent times in the fight against organised crime. Criminals have moved ahead of it, however. It no longer poses the threat to them that it posed in the past. CAB requires new powers and increased resources.
Many people in Ireland may believe that no further measures are required to combat this threat.
They may suggest that although there have been a couple of horrific murders, in fact there is no great crime problem in this country and it is exaggerated by sections of the media, who use it to sell papers.
That is an inaccurate assessment and an unfair criticism.
Gangs that make their fortune from drugs do so on the back of young and vulnerable men and women, mainly from disadvantaged areas of the inner cities. Thirty years ago, parts of inner-city Dublin were devastated by drugs. Many young men and women became addicted and died from heroin.
That was a vicious attack on those communities, but through a combination of effort by the local communities, gardaí and politicians, that problem was greatly reduced.
Today, we need to ensure that another young generation is not exposed to the same level of danger from drugs. That can be achieved, in part, by education about the consequence of drugs, investment in areas of disadvantage and enabling young men and women to have greater self-esteem.
We cannot, however, get away from the fact that part of the solution must also include a strong and forceful response to the gangs that make their money on the backs of the misery of young people addicted to drugs. They need to be targeted relentlessly, so that they can never rest to enjoy the proceeds of their criminal activity.
This can be achieved by giving greater legislative powers to CAB and then ensuring that those powers are used aggressively against all members of crime gangs.
Jim O'Callaghan is a Senior Counsel and the Fianna Fáil candidate in Dublin Bay South