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Northern Ireland: Cross-Border Police Co-operation

Volume 713: debated on Thursday 29 October 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in reducing the delays and complexities affecting investigations and the bringing of suspects to trial in Northern Ireland when witnesses or evidence are in the Republic of Ireland or vice-versa.

My Lords, to address the complexities referred to by the noble Lord, officials in both jurisdictions are preparing draft procedural manuals for their respective police forces and prosecutors. This work is due for completion before the end of the year. In respect of delays in the processing of letters of request, all mutual legal assistance requests are processed and responded to as quickly and as comprehensively as possible.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, particularly for her recognition of the importance of these issues for proper policing either side of the border. Will these procedural manuals mean that a policeman taking a statement on either side of the border will find that it can be used in both jurisdictions in court, as evidence in court in pursuing a trial? We were told that the procedural manuals would be available in the autumn, but we seem to have reached autumn and now it has moved to the end of the year. What is the reason for that delay?

The reason for the delay is to ensure that the procedural manuals are the best possible manuals that they could be. There is no other reason, and they will certainly be available by the end of the year. Work is still continuing. As for witness statements—I do not want to get this wrong, so I shall read it—a witness statement recorded by a member of An Garda Siochana may be used in committal proceedings in Northern Ireland, providing that it complies with certain requirements of Article 33 of the Magistrates' Courts Order 1981. Evidence of a confession made to a member of An Garda Siochana may be admitted in proceedings in Northern Ireland, unless the court considers that this would have an adverse effect on the fairness of the proceedings. That is the clear position. The procedural manual will ensure that people are better able to implement the law as it stands.

My Lords, will the Minister give us an assurance that this issue will be resolved before the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly? There really has been a great deal of procrastination by Dublin and London on this issue. My noble friend Lord Alderdice raised it over a year ago and the noble Lord, Lord Cope, did so again in June. I should like an assurance that it will be done before it is given to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

My Lords, if the noble Lord is referring to delays in mutual legal assistance requests, a lot of work has been done on that since it was raised in June this year. Discussions have taken place between the two authorities, and both authorities are adamant that there are no longer any delays due to bureaucratic problems. Any delays are only the result of the complexity of the information requested.

My Lords, given the very good co-operation at the moment between the PSNI and the Garda Siochana, am I right in thinking that some of the difficulty posed is that information has to be sent via London to Dublin or via Dublin to London rather than directly from one police force to another? If not, the process could be speeded up much more.

My Lords, the process is according to the law. Information goes from a unit in the Home Office to a unit in the respective department in Dublin, but that is not the reason for the delay. There are no delays due to bureaucracy, postbags or whatever. The delays are due only to complexities in the information requested.

My Lords, after devolution of criminal justice powers to Northern Ireland, will this problem be devolved with it? Under what authority will the Northern Ireland Executive negotiate with the Irish Government?

My Lords, I do not believe that the devolution of policing and justice will have any impact on this. There is not a problem at the moment, and with the devolution of policing and justice there will continue to be no problem. As I understand it, the Home Office will still be involved. However, if I am wrong, I will certainly come back to the noble Viscount in writing.

My Lords, it has already become clear in this discussion that the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, is connected to the issue of devolution of policing and justice. One of the most remarkable things that has happened in Northern Ireland over the past 15 years is the way in which north-south co-operation, which was previously very controversial, is now uncontroversial and largely accepted on both sides of the community. The one exception is this area where we have not been able to demonstrate mutual benefit. Therefore, does the Minister accept that, in view of the controversy surrounding devolution of policing and justice, it is vital that both Governments redouble their efforts to ensure that we deliver to citizens on both sides of the border real progress in this area?

My Lords, I entirely accept what the noble Lord says. It is clear that there is a perceived problem. However, from my discussions with Northern Ireland officials and everybody else to whom I have spoken, it is a perceived problem. In reality, there is no problem in getting information from one side of the border to the other. However, I will certainly look into this again.