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Ahern denies introducing new gangland bill too quickly

JUSTICE Minister Dermot Ahern last night insisted he did not introduce new anti-organised crime legislation too quickly.

President Mary McAleese has summoned the Council of State to discuss the legislation, which will allow for non-jury trials of individuals on organised crime charges.

It remains unclear whether the President will refer the new bill to the Supreme Court.

Last night, Mr Ahern rejected suggestions that he moved too fast with the legislation -- and stressed that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the President's move.

"I can't really comment -- as I said, it is entirely a matter for the President. That is her prerogative," he explained.

"I said in government that we needed to get this legislation passed so that from the minute it is passed people can be charged with directing criminal organisations and participating in criminal organisations.

"You only have to listen to the family of [Limerick shooting victim] Steve Collins who said that 'we cannot wait three months'. That is my view and it is the view of the Government."

Legislation

Mr Ahern also said he was optimistic the legislation would be found to be constitutional.

"I said in the Dail and the Seanad that the Attorney-General is confident and that I am absolutely confident that it (the bill) is constitutional. But I am not the decider on that -- it is the Supreme Court.

"Whether it is referred by the President or not to the Supreme Court, ultimately it is the Courts (that decide) -- that is the democracy that we live in. You have to accept that -- no Government can guarantee the constitutionality of legislation that it puts through the Oireachtas.

"(But) I would be hopeful in this respect because I believe this legislation is necessary, particularly in the context of the type of events that the Garda Commissioner referred to even today."

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President McAleese has asked the Council of State to meet next Wednesday evening to discuss the constitutionality of the controversial gangland crime legislation and the Defamation Bill.

Although she was expected to have concerns about the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009 to curb criminal gangs, there was widespread surprise when she included the Defamation Bill on the agenda.

The President contacted the 22-members of the Council of State yesterday and convened the meeting for 6.30pm at Aras an Uachtarain on Wednesday after receiving both bills for signature on Thursday night.

And while she is obliged to consult the Council of State before referring a bill to the Supreme Court, she can ignore their advice, as the decision to refer it is the President's alone.

If she chooses to test the constitutionality of the two bills, the court has 60 days to consider them, but if the Supreme Court rules that the bills are constitutional, the legislation cannot be challenged on those grounds again.

After the President's decision became known yesterday, Mr Ahern came under a barrage of criticism from the opposition and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

Mr Ahern steered the controversial bill through the Oireachtas until late on Tuesday night when two Green senators unexpectedly abstained.

The Criminal Justice Amendment Act would permit alleged gang members to be tried in the non-jury Special Criminal Court and makes it a crime to direct or be a member of a criminal gang.

Lawyers and civil liberties groups who campaigned against the gangland crime bill describe it as the most draconian criminal law proposed in recent years and 133 of them condemned it in a public declaration.

Although all 22 members of the Council of State have been asked to attend the meeting with the President, it will still go ahead if some members are missing. The Council of State has met 26 times since first convening in January 1940 and not all of them have been able to attend the last three meetings called by President McAleese, including the most recent to discuss the Criminal Justice Bill in 2007.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen; the Tanaiste Mary Coughlan; Chief Justice John Murray; former President Mary Robinson; former Taoisigh Liam Cosgrave, Garret FitzGerald, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern sit on the Council of State alongside seven presidential nominees.


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