O’Callaghan: Knife-crime law was ‘in cold storage’ for years

McEntee rejects claim, saying committee worked on plan for ‘some time’

NEW legislation will introduce tougher sentences for knife crimes as a ‘preventative measure’, the justice minister has said. Cabinet yesterday approved a proposal from Justice Minister Helen McEntee to increase sentences for knife-related crimes after Taoiseach Simon Harris pledged to focus on law and order.

These include possessing a knife with intent to unlawfully cause injury, trespassing with a knife and producing a knife to unlawfully intimidate, from a maximum sentence of five to seven years.

The penalty for importing and selling knives is to be increased from seven to ten years. Crediting her colleague James Browne for his work with the Anti-Social Behaviour Forum and its subgroups, which resulted in these proposals, Minister McEntee said: ‘Knives are extremely dangerous and knife crime must carry significant consequences.”

However, Jim O’Callaghan, Fianna Fáil’s justice spokes-man, has complained that legislation he introduced to the Dáil a number of years ago sat in cold storage until Simon Harris confirmed Complaint: Jim O’Callaghan that new legislation would be brought forward on the issue when he became leader.

Ms McEntee said: ‘I think what’s clear from today’s Minister Browne is that he has actually been working on this for some time. This is a recommendation from a committee that he has been chairing since
the beginning of this Government.

“The committee has looked at a number of different issues in our community and the ways in which we can respond to them effectively. Knife crime is the next issue that they have been looking at as Minister
Browne has alluded to.

‘What they’ve done is actually taken the proposals by deputy O’Callaghan and, obviously, engaged with An Garda Síochána and with other community groups to see what was most appropriate here. That’s how we work. We are working collectively as a government. She added: “This is his Government colleague bringing forward ‘Preventative measures’ this recommendation, so I certainly don’t see it as a u-turn. I
see this as a positive step.”

There were 2,146 knives seized in 2019, 2,260 in 2020 and 2,186 in 2023, according to garda figures.
Asked whether she expected knife-related crime to decrease as a result of this change, she said: ‘What we always need to do is try and put in place preventative measures.

“Thankfully, we’re not in a situation where we potentially are in London or Glasgow, where we have particular gangs where knife crime is a really serious issue. “We have seen a small and incremental problem here in Ireland, and we need to make sure that it doesn’t get any worse.

‘So this is about making sure the punishment matches the crime at the moment. Simple possession for a knife is five years, possession with intent is also five years. So what is happening here is we’re increasing the sentence to match the crime committed.’ She said the measures were based on recommendations from the Anti-Social Behaviour Forum, to increase penalties on possessing or producing knives.

By Brian Mahon

F.E. Smith and Carson, Casement & Collins

O`Gorman has created blight with tent city says FFTD

" Tent City"

Integration Minister Roderic O’Gorman has been warned that he has allowed the creation of a “permanent blight” in central Dublin where a “tent city” of homeless asylum seekers is growing.

Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan said in a letter to the minister there had been exponential growth in the “tent city” of refugees outside the International Protection Office (IPO) in Mount Street.

It is an “appalling situation” that has been allowed to fester, he said, and was considerably worse than ever before.

“The number of people in tents is growing on a daily basis,” he wrote.

There are an estimated 1,000 asylum seekers homeless, with about 220 now in the encampment, where conditions have been described as appalling with no hygiene facilities.

There are now approximately 150 tents, he said. These were now blocking the public footpath “preventing wheelchair users and other members of the public” from being able to pass.

Mr O’Callaghan said the “whole area is now a complete mess with rubbish and detritus everywhere to a much more severe degree than in previous weeks”.

“It is now a permanent blight on our city — particularly as our national holiday approaches,” he said, referring to St Patrick’s Day.

It will also get worse, given the lack of space at the IPO, he said.

“There is a significant risk that there will be an outbreak of disease in the area,” Mr O’Callaghan warned.

“This will have very detrimental consequences, not only on the applicants in tents but also on the people in the surrounding vicinity.

Written by Senan Molony

Life sentences: What is the reality in modern Ireland?

With more than 500 life sentence prisoners, Ireland has reached its highest ever number of ‘lifers’. Security Correspondent Barry Cummins speaks to the families of victims and officials about the reality of life sentences in modern Ireland.

If a person is found guilty of murder, only one kind of sentence is handed down to them.

It is called ‘imprisonment for life’ but, in reality, most convicted murderers will one day walk out of prison.

Figures provided to Prime Time by the Department of Justice show that, as of 27 February, there are 117 male and five female life-sentence prisoners living in the community.

“Some people are currently out on supervision for longer than they served in prison,” former head of the Probation Service Vivian Geiran told Prime Time.

“They might be on release since the 1980s or 90s. The vast majority of those, in my experience, do go on to live productive and positive and pro-social lives.”

The next stage of the life sentence after leaving prison is in the community, where a prisoner is subject to recall to prison if they breach parole conditions.

The amount of time spent in prison depends on what decade a murderer was convicted. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the average time a life sentence prisoner spent in jail was around seven-and-a-half or eight years.

However, in recent years, time spent in prison has dramatically increased for those convicted of murder.

The Department of Justice told Prime Time that the eight life sentence prisoners released ‘on licence’ last year had spent an average of 24 years in prison. That is the highest ever yearly average recorded in Ireland.

The previous year was the second highest average time spent in prison for ‘lifers’ released. The four ‘lifers’ released in 2022 spent an average of 22-and-a-half years behind bars.

Over the past 10 years, the average time spent in custody for released prisoners was 20 years.

In line with the experience of many other western countries, the amount of prison time experienced by life sentence prisoners has increased in this century.

In Ireland, the 2010s has seen consistently high averages for time spent in prison compared to the 2000s.

For example, the four ‘lifers’ released in 2012 had spent 22 years in jail; while the three ‘lifers’ released in 2002 had spent 11 years in jail, on average.

Purpose of a life sentence

“Imprisonment in the first instance is about punishment,” said Mr Geiran.

“It’s about holding the person to account. In a life sentence there is the punitive aspect. How long is an appropriate time for an individual to serve in custody on the basis of the gravity of the offence? At what point can we say they’ve done enough time and they are a reasonable prospect for rehabilitation and re-integration?”

The longest serving life sentence prisoner in Ireland is John Shaw who, along with his now deceased fellow Englishman Geoffrey Evans, abducted, raped and murdered women in Co Wicklow and Co Mayo in 1976.

Shaw and Evans hid the body of their first victim off the Wicklow coast; they weighed the body of their second victim down in a lake in Co Galway.

Shaw is a prisoner at Arbour Hill Prison and very occasionally is brought into Dublin city centre in the company and custody of prison officers on escorted released.

That is the extent of his release into the community. He has sought parole but this has been rejected on many occasions.

Reoffending rates

Statistically, life sentence prisoners are less likely to re-offend than other released prisoners.

The Central Statistics Office provided Prime Time with figures which show that, in 2021, 20 people were released from prison for homicide-related offences.

This included 13 life sentence prisoners convicted of murder, and seven who served determinate sentences for manslaughter; a specific period of years imposed by the sentencing judge.

Of those 20 convicted killers who left prison, four committed another criminal offence within a year. That’s a 20% re-offending rate.

By comparison, 41% of all other prisoners released that same year re-offended within 12 months.

The statistics across other years show a similar picture. The vast majority of life sentence prisoners released into the community are not detected for further offences.

The problem, however, is that of the smaller number that do re-offend – sometimes it can be in the most horrific manner.

Richard Kearney was just 17-years-old when he murdered a 72-year-old woman who he beat to death after breaking into her home in Finglas in 1998.

He was convicted of murder following a trial and given the mandatory sentence of ‘life imprisonment’.

Kearney had been released on licence, having served 19 years of a life sentence in jail for murder.

Kearney was ‘crime-free’ for a number of years after being released on licence. But five years after being released, he attacked another woman at her home, as well as two elderly priests in their home. He also accosted a prison chaplain in her home.

Kearney was jailed for eight years for those offences in 2023, and his life sentence will now continue within a prison cell.

The crimes of Thomas Murray will live long in the minds of those who know what he did.

Murray murdered a man in 1981 and was jailed for life.

However, it was while on day release from that life sentence in 2000 he murdered a second elderly victim, an 80-year-old woman, in Co Galway.

It is still shocking to consider that the evening Murray murdered his second victim he returned to Castlerea Prison as arranged to continue serving his first life sentence.

A short time later Gardaí identified Murray as the killer. He is now serving two life sentences.

Minimum tariff

Both Murray’s life sentences were mandatory; in neither case did the judge have the discretion to impose a minimum tariff by which Murray should have remained in prison before parole might be considered.

It is a source of much ongoing debate that when it comes to the most serious crime on the statute book – a judge is nothing more than a rubber stamp once a trial has concluded.

All the judge can do is formally impose the mandatory sentence. The judge cannot bring their legal nous to bear on the case, cannot mark the severity of certain crimes, cannot give a guide for generations to come that a particular offender has committed particularly stark and shocking crimes which warrant particularly punitive sanction.

This issue was highlighted recently by Mr Justice Tony Hunt as he sentenced Josef Puska to life imprisonment for murdering Ashling Murphy in Tullamore.

Puska attacked his victim at random as she walked along the pathway of the Grand Canal outside the town.

Despite strong evidence, including Puska’s DNA found under the victim’s fingernails, he pleaded not guilty and a jury was asked to determine guilt or innocence.

The jury found Puska guilty. As Mr Justice Hunt imposed the mandatory sentence, he said it was long past time when Irish judges should have a say in the minimum term served.

The judge said that while every murder is grave, not every murder is the same. Those in court were left in no doubt that if he had the power, the judge would have imposed a lengthy minimum tariff on Josef Puska to accompany his mandatory ‘life’ sentence.

As things stand, Puska is entitled to begin engaging with the parole process once he has served 12 years in prison.

The Parole Act of 2019 states that every life sentence prisoner must serve 12 years in prison before seeking parole, where it had previously been seven years.

It is quite likely that Puska will serve much longer in prison than 12 years but the absence of a minimum tariff in life sentences in Ireland means it is not clear how much time he might serve, or if he ever might be released.

Gráinne Dillon murder

Judges have long expressed opinions on murder cases that come before them.

In March 2003, Mr Justice Barry White described the murder of Gráinne Dillon as the most vicious, brutal and callous murder he’d ever encountered.

He made those comments as he sentenced Paulo Nascimento to life imprisonment after he had pleaded guilty to the murder of Gráinne Dillon, a fellow worker at the Jurys Inn hotel in Limerick.

Nascimento had only been working at the hotel a few days when he used a stolen shotgun to rob €3,000. Gráinne was working in the restaurant area in the early hours of the morning when Nascimento struck.

“He had a shotgun, a single barrel shotgun,” Gráinne’s mother Pat told Prime Time.

“He shot her once, and then he frog-marched her out into a dry cupboard, a pantry area and shot her a second time. He then left her and went upstairs, changed his clothes and came down, got the shotgun again. Remember, he reloaded it, came down and shot a third time.”

Nascimento was a former soldier in the Portuguese army. On the day of his scheduled trial at the Central Criminal Court he suddenly pleaded guilty. This meant that only a short summation of the evidence was given before the automatic life sentence was handed down by the judge.

“I was furious,” recalled Gráinne’s sister Clíona. “I wanted the facts to come out as to how callous the murder had been, how prolonged Gráinne’s death was. Gráinne didn’t die instantly, Gráinne bled to death.”

“He had immobilised her after the first shot. He could have taken his €3,000 and left. I wanted everybody to know it wasn’t a spur of the moment killing, it wasn’t,” she told Prime Time.

The Dillon family soon discovered that their engagement with the Irish justice system would continue for decades.

Firstly, they successfully fought attempts by Nascimento to be allowed return to Portugal to serve his sentence.

Next, the Dillons discovered that Nascimento was entitled to apply for parole after seven years in jail.

Gráinne’s loved ones then found themselves writing to the Parole Board every two years objecting to attempts by Nascimento to be given release.

Nascimento is currently in Shelton Abbey Open Prison in Co Wicklow, having now served 22 years and almost 2 months in jail.

He is one of 380 life sentence prisoners in jail, but is getting occasional periods of release.

He was granted release last Christmas and is seeking further releases.

“As far as we are aware he has never expressed any remorse,” Clíona told Prime Time. “It’s hard to accept they are letting someone out who is not remorseful.

“He murdered my sister. Every one of my family’s lives, all our lives were affected by it and continue to be to this day. It’s all about the prisoner’s rights, but where’s Gráinne in all of this?”

“People do not realise that this does not end on the day someone is found guilty.”

Watch the full report by Security Correspondent Barry Cummins and produced by Sallyanne Godson on Prime Time tonight, RTÉ One at 9:35pm.

By Barry Cummins

Security Correspondent, Prime Time

FF welcomes promise on tough sentences for knife crime

By Brian Mahon

Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan has welcomed a commitment by Simon Harris for tougher knife-crime sentences, three years after the former brought forward legislation on the matter.

At Fine Gael’s Ard Fheis on Saturday, Mr Harris made a number of commitments on law and order, designed to tackle the perception that the party is weak on the issue. He said: “This year, we will bring forward new measures to increase penalties for knife crime and new measures on anti-social behaviour, which has become too dominant in communities.’

Welcoming the move, Mr O’Callaghan, pictured, said “Three years ago I introduced legislation to increase the maximum sentence for carrying a knife with intent to cause injury to another.

“The purpose of that legislation was to increase the maximum sentence from five to ten years. This proposal had been in Fianna” Fail’s election manifesto but for some reason did not make it into the Programme for Government.’

He said the Firearms and Offensive Weapons Bill 2021 that he had introduced was approved by Dáil Éire-
ann at the second stage in July 2021, but never proceeded any further because his proposal did not
receive the support of Justice Minister Helen McEntee.

He added: ‘Part of the explanation for it not proceeding was that increasing penalties for knife crime was not part of the Programme for Government and was viewed by the minister as unnecessary. ‘Simon Harris said that “this year we will bring forward new measures to increase penalties for knife crime”. I welcome this change of approach. It is interesting, however, to observe how a good idea that was ignored by Government can be resurrected when promoted by a different politician.’

Mr O’Callaghan said he has written to the chair of the Oireachtas Justice Committee asking that the committee stage of his legislation be ‘progressed immediately’.

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