Extract of Speech in Seanad Éireann 23rd January 2018
This is a very simple Bill that seeks to introduce a new specific offence of interfering with life-saving equipment. The genesis of this Bill was December 2016 when we witnessed the incomprehensible acts of thuggery with the theft and destruction of a defibrillator on Abbey Street in Arklow, County Wicklow. I was struck by the comments from the chairperson of Arklow Community First Responders, Mr. John Summers, about the “mindless, senseless and savage attack.”The Arklow Community First Responders had put that defibrillator in place through community fundraising. John Summers said:
I can’t accurately describe my feelings at finding it but it was a mixture of anger, disgust, sadness, nausea and probably a lot more emotions that I can’t find the words for right now. I just can’t comprehend how someone can destroy a piece of very expensive lifesaving equipment paid for by the generosity of the local community.
The idea for the legislation came from CFR Ireland, the organisation representing community first responders, when in the wake of the incident in Arklow it called for stiffer penalties and custodial sentences to tackle the problem. It was then that I started this campaign, which has culminated in the legislation before us. I got to work when I saw its comments in the media. Working initially with my Fianna Fáil colleague, Deputy Pat Casey, from Wicklow and then with party justice spokesperson, Deputy Jim O’Callaghan, we got a Bill published and thankfully it has the full support of CFR Ireland and Irish Water Safety.
Much of the media focus in recent years has been on the destruction of or damage to defibrillators or AEDs, but this legislation covers items such as lifebuoys. Since starting to campaign on this issue, I have become even more convinced that the real heroes in Ireland are the ordinary women and men of our country, because their interest in and passion for their communities as well as the welfare of the vulnerable marks Ireland out as a great place. Volunteers who go out and patrol the riverbanks and bridges such as Wexford Marine Watch, or volunteers such as the mountain rescue teams, the Civil Defence, the community first responders and the water rescue units are the people who give me great hope for Ireland. This legislation is for them because despite our problems, Ireland is a great place to live and it is a place where I want my young children to grow up.
That spirit of volunteerism is something that inspires me; it is the concept of the meitheal. Cuireann sé i gcuimhne dom an seanfhocail Ghaeilge, “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine”. This is loosely translated as “Under the shelter of each other, people survive.” Perhaps it is only in times of tragedy in Ireland that we fully recognise the million small acts of kindness and volunteerism that make us who we are as a people.
For me, volunteers reflect a nation’s compassion. I often ask myself the following questions. What motivates a community first responder to rush to the scene of a medical emergency? What motivates a member of a mountain rescue team to leave their bed and join others on a misty morning, to go in search of an injured climber? What motivates a member of a river rescue team, which more often than not has the challenge of bringing a body home?
What motivated the sub-aqua teams from all over Ireland to come to north-west Mayo to help search for the missing crew-members of Rescue 116 last year? What motivated the local fishermen in Blacksod to spend up to six weeks at sea, searching, hoping for a sighting, assisting the naval service and the Garda divers? What motivated a small group of women and men in Ionad Deirbhile in Aughleam to open up Halla Naomh Bhreandáin to ensure that hundreds of personnel involved in the search and rescue operations around Blacksod were catered for?
For weeks they provided an incredible compassionate yet practical response to the tragedy in Mayo, providing hundreds of meals around the clock, providing a focal point for the families and friends of the missing crew. Last week it was announced that this group of volunteers, Comharchumann Forbartha Ionad Deirbhile, won the 2018 meitheal of the year award at the Mayo Association Dublin awards. Along with Fr. Kevin Hegarty I was immensely proud to nominate them for that award.
Volunteers and volunteerism are the social capital that holds our communities and society together. This is why acts of thuggery like the destruction of a defibrillator or a lifebuoy are an affront to spirit of volunteerism that exists across the country, something that as a people we are so good at. It is part of our natural psyche and perhaps that is why almost 18,000 people have signed my petition, urging the Government to support this law.
This legislation rightly recognises the emergency services, but it also recognises the emergency volunteers who regularly put their lives at risk without giving it a second thought. In my mind, this legislation is to honour the hundreds of volunteers from all over Ireland who took part in the rescue efforts off Blacksod for Rescue 116. It is also for every person in every parish, village, town and city who have donated or fundraised to put a defibrillator in place.
I have previously spoken about how a stolen lifebuoy is a stolen life. We have seen reports during the year that, for example, Cork City Council had to replace 300 lifebuoys in one year because of theft or damage. This is why I believe that a strong message needs to be delivered to individuals contemplating such irresponsible thoughtless acts of vandalism. Damaging or stealing a piece of life-saving equipment is not ordinary vandalism, such as graffiti or stealing a street sign. These acts directly impact on whether a real person survives an incident in their most critical hour of need.
As a doctor, I know that the availability of an AED can be the difference between someone surviving a cardiac arrest or not. The majority of these devices are put in place through fundraising by voluntary community and sporting organisations. Other organisations such as the GAA have been extremely proactive in this area, including the establishment of the Cormac Trust, which was set up after the sudden death of Tyrone GAA star, Cormac McAnallen in March 2004.
I will now outline the sections of the Bill. Section 1 is a standard section, setting out the various definitions used in the Bill.
There are two parts to section 2. This is the central part of the Bill as it sets out the details of a new offence of interfering with life-saving equipment. It shall be an offence to interfere with, cause damage to, alter, remove or modify a defibrillator or an automatic external defibrillator. In the second part I give notice of my intention to introduce amendments to the categories of items that are covered under the Bill.
There are two short parts to section 3. They both set out the financial and custodial penalties under the Bill, whether for summary conviction and conviction on indictment. The Bill proposes that the upper limits will not exceed a €50,000 fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or both. As I said earlier, these financial and custodial penalties are designed to signal how seriously the Oireachtas views the destruction or damage of life-saving equipment. It is no longer tenable to deal with these types of crimes under the Criminal Damage Act 1991. Section 2 of that Act covers the intentional damaging of property and it also provides that a person who, without lawful excuse, intentionally damages any property or is reckless as to whether any property would be damaged and who intends by that damage to endanger the life of another, or is reckless to such endangerment, is guilty of an offence.
Upon legal advice and consultation with a wide range of stakeholders I decided that the Bill needed to introduce a specific offence of damaging life-saving equipment. There can be no comparison between graffiti, damage to a park bench or kicking over a bin, with the wilful damage of or inference with a life-saving device.
Section 4 relates to attachment orders and has been introduced in order to ensure that any financial penalties by the courts are fully paid, or indeed linked to future earnings. Section 5 deals with the Title and commencement.
I look forward to hearing the Minister of State’s thoughts on the issues the Bill raises and engaging fully with other Senators throughout this debate.