Thursday 21 November 2019

Justice in crisis as public in fear of rampant gangs

Crime fears: FG TDs demand more gardai

Strained relations between the two most senior security figures in the State come at a time when there is also an outcry over perceived increased crime, particularly violent burglaries in rural areas
Strained relations between the two most senior security figures in the State come at a time when there is also an outcry over perceived increased crime, particularly violent burglaries in rural areas

Jody Corcoran, Philip Ryan, Meave Sheehan and Jim Cusack

The relationship between the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner has become strained at a time when crises related to crime and security threaten to engulf the Government.

The Sunday Independent has learned that there is unease in Garda Headquarters over the manner in which the Minister turned the spotlight on the Commissioner last week.

Minister Frances Fitzgerald asked the Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan to liaise with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to carry out a fresh assessment of the operations of the Provisional IRA.

Yesterday, a source close to the Justice Minister said there was "no question" of a disagreement between the Minister and the Garda Commissioner about the desirability of a review and insisted the request for a review was "clearly a sensible and measured step."

But a source in Garda HQ said the belief was that Ms Fitzgerald "threw the Commissioner under a bus" on the controversy which has since developed into a full-blown crisis for the Northern Ireland Executive. Last night, the Ulster Unionist Party voted to formally withdraw from the executive.

Strained relations between the two most senior security figures in the State come at a time when there is also an outcry over perceived increased crime, particularly violent burglaries in rural areas.

Four prominent Fine Gael TDs, including Regina Doherty who had her home burgled recently, yesterday demanded more gardai and resources to tackle what some fear is a rural crime wave.

Meanwhile former Fianna Fail defence minister Willie O'Dea has called for the Criminal Assets Bureau to launch an investigation into the source of Sinn Fein's seemingly "endless" source of funding.

He and other politicians are "very, very concerned" that €400m in funds amassed by the IRA is being "used for political purposes".

He said he has always questioned how Sinn Fein seems to have a bottomless pit of resources when it comes to mounting an election campaign.

"I've been taken aback in every election about the amount of money and resources they have. It seems to be endless," he told the Sunday Independent last night.

"There are questions to be asked if it's coming from that source," he said of the €400m pool.

"I'd like the matter to be thoroughly thrashed out and I think a targeted investigation into this by the CAB is needed to see if there is any link."

Also yesterday, Tipperary hurling star Lar Corbett, a publican in Thurles, said that he would be "taking the law into my own hands" if he found those who had broken into his premises and made off with a week's takings.

Vintners' Federation chief executive Padraig Cribben said: "I receive calls on a weekly basis about violent assaults from Donegal down to Cork. Publicans and their staff are being left with serious damage, both physical and mental, and premises are being significantly damaged on what has now become a regular basis. "It isn't just publicans who are under attack; it is ordinary people going about their daily lives."

Fine Gael TD Kieran O'Donnell said current sentences were not a strong enough deterrent to criminals.

The Limerick TD said that colleagues were facing a backlash from constituents who believe the Government's policy of Garda station closures to be at the root of the crime crisis.

Garda cutbacks have led to the closure of 100 stations since 2012 - most in rural areas.

Meath East TD Regina Doherty, who returned from holiday when her home was broken into two weeks ago, yesterday called for more Garda recruits: "I'm no different to the rest of the people in my community who have been burgled; it's happening far too often and the fact is we need more gardai," she said.

Cork East TD Tom Barry also called for more gardai and said there should be longer sentences. Galway East TD Paul Connaughton revealed he had written to the Minister and Commissioner on behalf of his constituents seeking clarification on the legal standing for someone seeking to defend their home from burglars.

The Garda Commissioner is responsible for the general direction, management and control of the Garda. The Garda Commissioner is responsible to the Government and accountable to the Dail for Garda performance.

In a surprise move last week, Ms Fitzgerald asked Ms O'Sullivan to liaise with the PSNI to carry out a fresh assessment of the operations of the Provisional IRA.

The Justice Minister's call came after the PSNI said current and former Provisional IRA members continued to engage in a range of criminal activity. Chief Constable George Hamilton also said: "At this stage, we assess that some Provisional IRA organisational infrastructure continues to exist."

However, in a controversial letter to Sinn Fein TD Padraig Mac Lochlainn last February the Garda Commissioner said gardai had "no information or intelligence" to support an assertion by Sunday Independent journalist Jim Cusack that the Provisional IRA still maintained a military structure and was involved in criminal activities.

Following the Justice Minister's belated intervention last week, the Garda Commissioner took the highly unusual step of issuing a statement to insist that the gardai had "not indicated at any time" that the Provisional IRA no longer existed.

Yesterday a senior source at Garda HQ told the Sunday Independent that the letter to Sinn Fein should have stated the Garda belief that the Provisional IRA still exists.

In relation to the Justice Minister's intervention, he said: "This is what politicians do, they look after themselves first." He added Ms Fitzgerald "should have kept her cool and waited" until after she met with the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, before calling for the report.

Now the Garda Commissioner must report back to the Minister on the status of the Provisional IRA.

Also last night, Renua leader Lucinda Creighton insisted there was a "power vacuum" in both the Garda force and the Department of Justice.

"We have a Justice Department flying blind into the future without a full-time secretary general for a year now," she said.

Several Government and Opposition politicians have called for the report to be submitted before the general election.

The key question for the Commissioner is whether any Provisional IRA criminal rackets are "directed at an organisational level by a Provisional IRA hierarchy," an informed source said.

In 2005, the Department of Justice estimated the IRA's global assets at €400m. Since then it has been 'privatised', with individual IRA members holding property portfolios and businesses in Ireland, Britain, Europe and the US in trust.

Ms O'Sullivan's assessment will include key intelligence from the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB), which has frozen assets worth €1m linked to a one-time Provo IRA leader and his IRA associates. The gang is heavily involved in fuel smuggling and counterfeiting.

The CAB has also pursued a number of former Provos for un paid taxes, including most recently a man convicted for possession of explosives. He was served with a €500,000 tax demand by the CAB, which he settled in January.

However, the Government has shelved a report calling for a joint police, revenue and environment task force to tackle the issue of IRA diesel smuggling and its associated deadly waste pollution in the Border area, according to reliable political sources.

The report, which recommends an urgent joint 'task force', was produced by the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in March. It was accepted by both governments but no action has been taken.

Although the IRA was not specifically mentioned in the report, sources said: "There was no doubt the IRA is involved. Police on both sides and other authoritative sources were able to name the people responsible and the IRA families who are still running this trade."

Another report last November, by the Garda Inspectorate, painted a picture of a force in crisis, hampered by a lack of resources and a heavy workload. Those difficulties were compounded by unhealthy practices, incompetence and poor management, the 500-page report revealed.

The report concluded that while the top priority of the Garda should be on crime prevention, this area of policing appeared to have slipped down the list of priorities.

Sunday Independent

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