President, General Secretary, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to address you here this evening and to respond to some of the issues raised by your President.

Highest ever membership and resources

I am pleased to be able to do so at a time when the Force has its highest ever level of membership and the resources available to you have never been greater. Last week I attended the latest graduation ceremony in Templemore at which a further 261 new Gardaí passed out of the Garda College. There are now 13,900 attested members and over 1,300 in training. We are well on the way to achieving the commitments in the Programme for Government.

As well as the increased Garda members, the ongoing civilianisation programme presents the opportunity to free up your members for policing duties. Civilianisation is also bringing new skills into the Force, in areas such as administration and management and specialist areas such as telecommunications and crime analysis. It is clear to all that there is genuine and significant support being given to An Garda Síochána by civilian staff.

Resources

Your President has very fairly acknowledged the major investment that has been put into Garda transport. Indeed, sustained investment is taking place to support Gardaí in their work across the board.

Recent years have seen continued growth in the level of resources available to An Garda Síochána.  The Garda budget for 2008 totals over €1.6 billion, an 11.6 per cent increase on 2007.  This is a very significant level of funding which underlines my own, and the Government’s, ongoing support for Gardaí on the frontline in their day-to-day duties.

Digital Radio Service

Let me assure you that I share your desire to have a secure radio service in place for members as quickly as possible.  So, I am particularly pleased to inform you that today the Government approved proposals from the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance that the contract with Tetra Ireland be placed. I understand that the formal contract signature ceremony could take place as early as this Thursday.  I know that detailed planning has been underway for quite some time in An Garda Síochána. This will enable the service to be commenced in the DMR later this year and then be rolled out nationwide over the following two years.  I commend all those involved for their work to date and look forward to the co-operation of all concerned in the deployment of this essential service.   

Accommodation

On accommodation, I recognise that more needs to be done, but significant progress is being made. For example, a number of major projects will be completed this year, including stations at Ballymun, Trim, Claremorris, Leixlip, Irishtown and Finglas.  In addition, work has commenced on the provision of a new station at Kevin Street in Dublin which will address policing needs for the south inner city and also be the new Headquarters for the Division. I am told that this will be the largest Garda station to be built since the foundation of the State.  

Under the National Development Plan €260m is available for the Garda Building Programme and this will enable very significant improvements to be made. In addition, an annual maintenance budget is provided and this amounts to €9.5 million for this year. 

Firearms training

Last week in Templemore I saw the new live firearms training facilities which are now operational and I know that a second facility is currently being installed in a Dublin location.  These prefabricated Modular Firearms Ranges are newly designed products and will facilitate live fire shooting in a carefully contained environment which adheres to all range safety requirements. 

An Garda Síochána have also acquired two mobile Virtual Firearms Training Systems which are used for tactical training throughout the country.  In addition, a facility consisting of approximately 250 acres of land has been purchased near Templemore and a project team is working to progress this facility to cater for various tactical training requirements for the Force, including firearms training. This is real evidence of the major investment programme for An Garda Síochána. 

A time of change – the Garda Act

I realise that a lot of change has taken place in An Garda Síochána in the last few years. Your President spoke about some of the changes introduced by the Garda Síochána Act. These changes have been overwhelmingly good for the Force and the way it operates. The Garda Act clarifies the role of the Commissioner relative to my role as Minister and the relationship between the Force and my Department. It sets out in clear terms the functions of An Garda Síochána and of the Commissioner, and gives him direct control of the resources which are needed to do the job. This is a good thing.

Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission

The independent Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission was established under the Act to increase public confidence in the complaints system and ultimately in the Force itself. I welcome the acknowledgement by your President that such oversight is desirable. Perhaps some individual points of friction were inevitable in the initial steps of such a major new independent system of investigation. I firmly believe, however, that the Ombudsman Commission is totally committed to a professional and fair system of investigation of complaints which commands the support of the public and the Force alike.

Joint policing committees – boundary changes

Another one of the innovations introduced by the Garda Act was the establishment of Joint Policing Committees. I believe that these have great potential to bring Gardaí closer to the local communities which they serve. They will be an opportunity for the exchange of views on local policing. They will allow local representatives to bring issues to the attention of local Garda management and enable the Gardaí involved not only to outline what they are doing to address local issues but also to raise issues in which believe the local authorities can be of assistance. The Joint Policing Committees are a major factor in the realignment of Garda divisional boundaries which I believe will be beneficial overall. I approved the Commissioner’s plans for this in his 2008 Policing Plan. I know that Garda management is working hard on the implementation of this realignment in consultation with the Garda Associations, and I am confident that the issues raised by the Association can be worked through, both at local management level and by the Project Team headed at Assistant Commissioner level.

Garda Inspectorate

Another source of change in your work has been the reports of the Garda Inspectorate, the recommendations of which are currently being implemented. For example the new arrangements for dealing with barricade incidents which the Commissioner is implementing will provide improved capabilities in this area around the country which will be to the benefit of all your members.

I look forward to the outcome of the Garda Inspectorate’s report on resource allocation. Work on this has commenced recently and I expect to see the results before the end of the year. I think it is important that systems are in place to focus resources on when and where they are most needed to serve and protect the public.

Garda Reserve

Your President spoke about the establishment of the Garda Reserve. As far as I am concerned this is now water under the bridge. The Garda Reserve is now a reality and there are over 200 Reserve members working with your members around the country. I would hope that your Association will welcome these people who are trying to help you in policing their local communities. You should also remember that the Reserve is operating as a recruiting ground for future full-time Gardaí. Fifteen Reserve members have already gone on to become full-time recruits and will one day become your fellow members. The Reserve is also helping to form links with the minority ethnic communities in Ireland.  I would call on you to accept the reality and to help to capitalise on what it can bring to policing in Ireland.

Enhanced legislation

Of course, as well as increased resources, An Garda Síochána has received enhanced powers through legislative reform.  Recent years have seen a vast amount of change in our criminal law to help equip you to deal with the challenges from criminality which you face.

Inevitably these changes take time to bed down and have full effect.  Since my appointment as Minister I have been conscious too of the dangers of what I might describe as legislative overload. 

Nevertheless, I have been prepared to look at specific areas of our criminal law where changes might be made which would help shift the balance against those involved in criminality, particularly the type of gangland crime that gives rise to such death and destruction.

I indicated some time ago that I had asked the Garda authorities and my Department to examine the issue of using the results of Garda surveillance as evidence.  You will appreciate that the issue is not straightforward.  On the one hand, while the use of such evidence may in some cases help secure convictions, on the other hand we have to avoid as much as possible Garda techniques for intelligence gathering being compromised.

I can tell you that I have, in consultation with the Garda Commissioner, come to the conclusion that we should legislate to allow for the use of such evidence in particular cases, subject to satisfactorily resolving the complex legal issues involved.  Accordingly, my Department, in close consultation with your authorities, has begun drafting the heads of a Bill in this area.  Its essential aim will be twofold: to provide a clear statutory basis for certain forms of surveillance and to deal as appropriate with issues arising in relation to the use of the results of surveillance as evidence.  As I say there are complexities involved and it is important that we get the drafting of any proposals right.  Nevertheless I hope it will be possible to bring forward legislative proposals in this area later this year.

International Co-operation

With improved resources and strengthened legislation, An Garda Síochána is doing tremendous work in the fight against serious organised crime. We all recognise that is not something this country can tackle on its own.  It is vital that An Garda Síochána also has the means to work very closely with law enforcement authorities in other countries.  This is certainly the case when it comes to tackling cross border crimes such as trafficking in persons and drug trafficking.  Close links have very successfully been built up with other police forces, especially within the European Union, which has greatly facilitated police cooperation.  In particular, the capacity of police and other enforcement agencies to cooperate within the Union has been significantly strengthened through the adoption of a series of EU legal measures enabling information and material to be exchanged.  Further developments, which will allow police forces to obtain information from fingerprint and DNA data bases in other Member States, are currently in the pipeline and are expected to be agreed in the near future.

When it comes to international co-operation at European level, I am also very conscious of the contribution An Garda Síochána has made, and is continuing to make, to Europol.  Europol is an agency established by and under the aegis of the European Union.  It provides practical support to national police forces throughout the Union and it has proved to be a very successful body.  Arising from the experience gained, the mandate of Europol is being strengthened by way of a new Union instrument.  This is a process which is currently close to completion.

The European Union has also been very active when it comes to fighting terrorism.  Within the last fortnight the Justice and Home Affairs Council reached agreement on a new measure to combat terrorism.  This is a measure which extends the scope of an earlier instrument and it is specifically designed to prevent the use of the Internet for the dissemination of terrorist information and propaganda.  It also requires Member States to address related issues such as recruitment and training for terrorism.

Practical cooperation among the Member States of the European Union in police and law enforcement matters is not only desirable; it is vital and necessary if we are to effectively counteract the cross border activities of criminal organisations. I believe there is scope for enhancing and strengthening such cooperation and the Lisbon Reform Treaty, on which the country will be asked to pass judgement in a few weeks time, provides specifically for the adoption of measures to further develop police cooperation.  The Government has made a strong declaration, which was published with the Treaty, underlining Ireland's firm intention to participate to maximum extent possible, in particular, in police cooperation proposals. 

Conclusion

The increased resources of An Garda Síochána, the enhanced legislation, the improved international co-operation and all of the recent organisational changes have one fundamental underlying objective: to strengthen and support An Garda Síochána in its vital work.  I aim to do everything in my power to see that An Garda Síochána continues to be well resourced, continues to grow in strength, continues to improve its capacity to fight crime and confront criminals, and continues to command the trust and respect of the public.  I want to assure you that you have my support, my trust and my respect in your work on behalf of the whole community.

Thank you again, Mr President, for your kind words of welcome and I wish your conference every success.


29th April 2008