Home > Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate. Drug and Alcohol Task Forces.

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate. Drug and Alcohol Task Forces. (01 Oct 2020)

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Deputy Maurice Quinlivan: I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and I have not interacted with her in this new Dáil as of yet. I know that she is relatively new to the role and I hope she will have a better impact than those who preceded her in dealing with the issue of drugs in Limerick city. It truly needs a cross-departmental response. Drugs, as the Minister is aware, crosses many Ministries, health and justice, to name just a few.


The drugs crisis in parts of my own city is worsening daily, it seems. It is an indictment of the priorities of previous governments that the funding for drugs and alcohol task forces was cut each year between 2008 and 2014. I am also a director of the Mid-West Regional Drugs and Alcohol Task Forum, which I have been a member of for a great number of years. Despite the escalation in the drugs crisis, funding for many groups has effectively been frozen since 2014. This lack of proper funding has severely affected the delivery of services for communities and we need to restore that funding to 2008 levels as soon as possible.


I wish to return to an issue in my own city of Limerick. In recent drug seizures in the city crack cocaine was among the drugs seized. Crack cocaine, as I am sure the Minister is aware, is a devastating drug. It has destroyed communities across the world. It is extremely addictive and is regarded as the most addictive form of cocaine. There really is a special place in hell for anyone who sells, distributes or benefits from the sale of crack cocaine. These dealers really are the scum of the earth. I attended the AGM yesterday, via Zoom, of the Mid-West Regional Drugs and Alcohol Task Forum. Among issues of concern raised, I was specifically asked to raise the issue of drug dealing in Limerick and the devastating effect it is having on some of our local communities. After that meeting I wrote yesterday to the Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for the national drug strategy, Deputy Feighan, and in fairness his office responded quickly to that correspondence. I thank him for that and I will be following this matter up with him.


In particular, I mentioned to the Minister of State a Limerick estate which I do not wish to name publicly but which needs urgent intervention from the Minister of State with support from the Minister’s Department of Justice and Equality, the Garda Síochána, and additional resources from the Criminal Assets Bureau, Limerick County Council and other agencies.


I wish to focus my comments on that one estate in Limerick. This is an older, very settled housing estate with many wonderful working families living there for generations. Unfortunately, drug dealing operates in the estate on an almost 24-7 basis. Taxis often form queues while people from all over the region purchase their drugs. Many people simply walk into the estate. It is like a non-stop, 24-7 supermarket. The vast bulk of the people purchasing the drugs do not live in the area. This is ongoing 24-7. It is non-stop. Many elderly people who worked all their lives are living through this constant criminality.


While the Garda, in fairness to the force, has made a significant number of arrests and seizures, the local community feels utterly abandoned. Will the Minister prioritise the work of the courts to ensure that those recently charged are before the courts as soon as possible? It has been said to me on numerous occasions that the most vulnerable can be brought to court for often minor offences but the drug dealers, many of them facing serious charges, can swan around our city selling their filth while ruining lives and communities. I have spoken to senior gardaí about that. They are deeply concerned that they are charging people, bringing them to court, but because the courts are not sitting properly, they are out selling drugs on a 24-7 basis.


The local drugs gang regularly gives two fingers to everybody. The Defence Forces were redeployed recently to assist the Criminal Assets Bureau. The Defence Forces should be called on again, if necessary, to deal with this ongoing problem. The two fingers from these drugs gangs are not just to me, the local community, An Garda Síochána or Limerick council. They are two fingers to the Minister and definitely two fingers to the entire State. The Minister is the Minister for Justice and Equality and I am asking her to intervene personally. I am happy to speak with her in private, if she wishes, at a later time.


Minister for Justice (Deputy Helen McEntee): I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. As he clearly outlined, this is an issue and an area of concern that falls under a number of Departments and Ministers. The Deputy mentioned particular groups and funding and, unfortunately, while I cannot help in that area, I will outline the area that falls under my remit, which is the work of the Garda, and I certainly would be happy to speak to him afterwards if there is further work that we can do.


I am very conscious of the impact of antisocial behaviour caused by this type of issue and the impact it has on the quality of life not just of residents within local communities but also of those working in those communities and visiting our towns and cities. Gardaí are working very hard to try to tackle this and all forms of criminality in our communities and urban areas to try to make them safer for all members of society. I am assured that the occurrence and the prevalence of crime and antisocial behaviour, including drug dealing, is constantly monitored at national and local level by Garda management to ensure that appropriate policing responses are designed and delivered, as appropriate, given the area or considering what is happening in the area.


I am informed by the Garda authorities that the specific area of interest to the Deputy is policed by three Garda stations, all located within the Henry Street division. It has Henry Street, Roxboro Road and Mayorstone Park. As at the end of August 2020, there are 453 gardaí assigned to those three stations. That is an overall increase of 7% since 2015, up from 422. In addition, these Garda members are supported by 60 Garda staff members representing an increase of almost 67% since 2015, again up from 36. The Garda staff levels support the redeployment of gardaí from the administrative posts to the more operational policing duties where their training, expertise and ability to engage with the communities on the ground is used to best effect.


In addition to that, the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau leads in tackling all forms of drug trafficking and the supply of illicit drugs in Ireland. It is supported by the divisional drugs unit, which tackles drug-related crime on a local basis throughout the country. I am informed by the divisional drug units that they are now established in every Garda division.


An Garda Síochána also remains committed to tackling the supply of drugs by supporting local communities through various preventative and detection initiatives and engagement with local and regional drug and alcohol task forces. There are also the Garda youth diversion programme and projects, the Garda schools programme, the joint policing committees and the community policing forums. It is not just about the number of gardaí we have but how they engage with the different forums and, in turn, with the communities. There should be a whole-of-community approach.


I am pleased to say that, overall, these Garda measures have continued unabated during the Covid-19 pandemic, the additional demands on policing, and the range of the public health restrictions we have seen over the past six months. The Garda Commissioner emphasised at the very outset of the Covid-19 pandemic that An Garda Síochána's policing measures to respond to Covid-19 would not affect Garda resources assigned to special units, in particular and including the drugs units.


The Deputy might also be aware that the Central Statistics Office, CSO, published its recorded crime statistics for quarter 2 of 2020 earlier this week. Increases in simple possession and drugs for sale or supply have contributed chiefly to the overall increases in certain drugs-related offences recorded by the CSO. That is the reason the multi-strand Garda response I outlined previously is so important in all of this. The uninterrupted policing of organised crime at a national level and the strength of divisional drug units at a local level during the policing of Covid-19 has undoubtedly contributed to the recent success in seizing controlled drugs and in the apprehension of those involved in the sale and supply of the substances involved.


I take the Deputy's point and acknowledge the challenges that the courts have been facing, in particular in recent months. They have made every effort to try to deal with the more severe cases but a backlog has arisen and, since September, there has been a concerted effort to try to reduce that backlog. There is always a place for me, as Minister, to try to improve the overall structures and the way the courts operate, including the criminal courts. I will be bringing forward further criminal justice legislation throughout this term to allow us to try to improve the overall ability of people to go through the court process and to speed up that process. I might come back to the Deputy on that.

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