Check against Delivery
Garda Commissioner, Chief Constable
Permanent Secretary, Secretary General Heads of partner agencies
Delegates, Colleagues and friends
I would like to extend a warm welcome to each of you here today to the Cross Border Conference on Organised Crime.
This is the 17th annual Cross Border Conference. 17 years is a substantial period of time by any measure. And when we consider the landscape in which this Conference began in 2003, it is a lifetime.
The continued success and relevance of this Conference is a tribute to the 7 organisations and agencies represented in this room, who continue to work collaboratively every day, to combat criminal activity, North, South and in the border region:
- An Garda Síochána and the PSNI,
- The Revenue Commissioners and her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs,
- the Northern Ireland Department of Justice and my own Department of Justice and Equality
- and of course the National Crime Agency.
I know that I am looking at a group of the most dedicated and committed officers.
But I am under no illusions about the demands placed on you, on multiple levels:
- In your day-to-day work, you deal with the most serious and sensitive issues and many of you and your teams do so in personally dangerous circumstances, to protect us all.
- Added to the pace and challenge of modern policing, you are operating in a wider context in which we are all acutely aware of the risk that dissidents and criminals may seek to take advantage of Brexit to undermine peace on the island or to engage in other illegal cross-border activities.
- And in the case of An Garda Síochána, you are facing these challenges while serving as senior managers in an organisation undergoing far-reaching organisational change.
I admire and commend you all for your ongoing service. I have full faith in your performance of these roles, under the able leadership of Commissioner Harris and the newly appointed Chief Constable Simon Byrne, especially in the very challenging circumstances we face.
Cooperation and information sharing
‘Information Sharing and Cooperation’ are the twin themes of this year’s conference.
And they are at the very heart of this close partnership.
We all know that it is not possible to build relationships of trust quickly, or, indeed, on the basis of sporadic contacts. It is the long-term commitment to these relationships by each agency that continues to yield successful outcomes in terms of crime investigation and prevention.
I am conscious, for example, that earlier this month, An Garda Síochána and the National Crime Agency conducted a successful joint operation resulting in the seizure of heroin valued at approximately €1 million and that 3 people were arrested.
Other recent successes include the joint response by An Garda Síochána and the PSNI to the spate of ATM thefts this year, on both sides of the border. Both services have been successful in securing arrests on foot of these crimes - only recently, An Garda Síochána arrested 3 men in relation to the attempted theft of an ATM here in Cavan.
Most recently still, 3 members of an organised crime gang were imprisoned for assisting illegal immigration into the UK of Georgian nationals via the Common Travel Area. Again, this successful outcome was the product of bilateral collaboration.
I don’t wish to unduly single out one aspect of your work – and of course these details represent only one small part of your achievements in recent months – but these examples do serve as an example of the impact which your interventions have on countless communities nationwide. And I know there is a huge amount of painstaking analysis and background work that is vital to these successes.
The level of cooperation between our services was probably beyond the most optimistic imaginations of our predecessors when they sat down for the first cross border conference in this very hotel in 2003.
I am struck that on the list of objectives for that conference was a very tentative sounding item – to examine arrangements and mechanisms for exchange of information. But just look at the position today –with an estimated 60,000-70,000 cross border exchanges annually in the law enforcement field.
And the Joint Agency Task Force, now almost 4 years in operation, continues to build on existing law enforcement frameworks and increase the collective effectiveness of inter-agency operational law enforcement actions. I look forward to the Task Force’s progress report on the implementation of recommendations arising from last year’s conference. This annual focus on driving progress and providing accountability is a real strength of this Conference.
And so for these and other reasons I think it is fair to say that law enforcement cooperation between us is now better than ever – and perhaps more important than ever.
Policing the border region
Because as you all know, much better than most, policing of border areas poses unique challenges. Criminal organisations form connections and associations across borders and seek to exploit differences in national legislative and enforcement systems.
To take a recent and particularly horrific example, last week the island was shocked at the abduction and vicious assault perpetrated on Kevin Lunney, a decent family man going about his daily work as Chief Operating Officer at Quinn Industrial Holdings, giving employment to people in this locality.
Both I and the Taoiseach have utterly condemned this abhorrent attack on behalf of the Government, as have the police forces on both sides of the border. My thoughts are with Mr Lunney and his family, as they begin the process of trying to recover from this traumatic event.
In practical terms, a crime such as that perpetrated on Mr Lunney can only be investigated on a collaborative basis. Abducted in Fermanagh and abandoned in Cavan, the PSNI and An Garda Síochána are working together very closely to investigate this very serious crime and I know you are determined to bring those responsible to justice. Incidents such as this remind us all how critical it is to actively and continually work at deep cross-border cooperation in policing.
That is the real life challenge of day-to-day policing in a border region.
In the aftermath of Brexit, the policing of the UK’s only land border with the EU will pose new and additional challenges. The reality is that Brexit will provide new opportunities for organised crime and for subversives to increase their activities. We cannot afford to underestimate these risks and we will not do so.
There is no question about the continuing lethal intent of paramilitary groups – I remember today Ian Ogle and Lyra McKee, tragically murdered this year.
These paramilitary groups present a persistent threat to security, including in particular the very real danger of attacks on PSNI officers and Northern Ireland’s prison personnel. The recent upsurge in attacks and attempted attacks by dissident groups is a matter of grave concern to me. But dissident criminals will not be allowed to undermine peace on the island, to threaten people or their livelihoods or to engage in other illegal cross-border activities.
I know that there has been extensive engagement between all of the agencies represented here today over the past 3 years, preparing Brexit contingency plans in relation to policing and security.
Indeed my Department has been examining these matters since before the Brexit referendum took place. Extensive work has taken place to mitigate the effect of a UK withdrawal from the EU as much as possible, including examination of approximately 700 legal instruments as well as ongoing engagement with criminal justice agencies and sectoral experts.
This work is continuing – and today’s conference gives us another opportunity to tease some of these challenges through together.
For my part, as Minister for Justice and Equality, I am aware that effective policing and police cooperation is dependent on sufficient resources. I am pleased to say that increased Garda recruitment over the past number of years coupled with significant investment has bolstered the essential front-line presence in the Garda Northern region and across the country.
- the Government has increased the budget for An Garda Síochána to €1.76 billion for 2019 as well as capital investment of €92m this year, including a particular drive in ICT investment.
- Garda strength in the Northern Region has increased to approx 1,500, an increase of 150 Gardaí since the end of 2017. These Gardaí are supported by approx 150 Garda Staff in the region, which is an increase of almost 30% over 3 years.
- in the event that a “no deal” Brexit gives rise to additional requirements in border areas, the Commissioner has confirmed that further resources can and will be provided through redeployment.
I also welcome the Garda Commissioner’s decision to move to establish another Armed Support Unit in the region here in Cavan which will further bolster the numbers of ASUs all round the country.
And, of course, the new Garda Operating Model announced recently by the Commissioner will reduce bureaucracy and put more Gardaí into communities to protect and support us all.
These and other measures will enable Gardaí to continue to play their crucial role in all communities, across the full field of their operations - whether that be tackling the issues we are discussing today, or dealing with more private tragedies you respond to on all our behalf, including the road traffic accident which occurred locally on Saturday, and which sadly claimed the life of a young man in his 20s.
But moving back to our purpose today.
There is a detailed agenda in place for your discussions over the next two days. The topics agreed on represent real and current challenges in the area of organised crime.
These are complex issues, with myriad links. For example:
- The illegal drugs industry remains a significant driver behind the activities of organised crime gangs in Ireland and Northern Ireland; and of course it goes without saying that there are strong links between these organised crime gangs and paramilitary groups.
- And while part of our conference will examine the use of digital technology by law enforcement, I am glad to see that you are not forgetting the use of the internet and in particular the role of Dark Net in organised criminal activity, including in relation to drugs.
I encourage you all to please take advantage of this opportunity to engage with each other fully, in this plenary setting as well as in the break-out groups organised later in the day and no doubt late into the evening.
I wish each of you a fruitful and enjoyable two days. I look forward to hearing your insights and recommendations and to continuing deep cooperation in law enforcement across the island, now and in the future.