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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 24 Mar 1943

Vol. 89 No. 11

Private Deputies' Business. - Adjournment Debate—Waller Estate (Offaly).

On the 4th March I addressed the following question to the Minister for Lands:—

"To ask the Minister for Lands to state the reason for the failure of the Land Commission to divide the lands on the Waller estate, Moystown, Belmont, Offaly, this year; the total acreage of land involved; whether the lands were recently let by public auction for tillage and grazing purposes and the conditions, if any, attaching to the lettings, the total acreage let for tillage and grazing purposes, respectively, the net profit to be derived from same by the Commissioners for the period of letting, and whether any undertaking has been given that the persons to whom the land was let will be given first preference for portions of this estate whenever same is being divided."

The reply was:

"As the Land Commission only took possession of the Waller estate (comprising 597 acres) on the 2nd of February, 1943, it is not possible to have a scheme prepared for the division of the lands this year. A portion of the lands was recently let by public auction for tillage and grazing on the usual conditions of auction for such lettings — approximately 100 acres for tillage, 349 acres for grazing. The balance of 148 acres of callow land will be let for meadow in due course. It is not possible to state the net profit (if any) derived from letting the lands until the various items of debit and credit are accounted for, but the aim of such lettings is to provide income as a setoff against the interest payable from the appointed day on the land bonds representing the purchase money of the estate. No undertaking has been given that the persons to whom the lands are let will be given preference for allotments on this estate when it comes to be divided."

Then I went on to ask the acting Minister if he could state definitely whether the lands were actually let by public auction, and he was unable to give a definite assurance that that had been done. I also asked him, in a supplementary question, whether there was any report of any unauthorised interference with the activities of the Land Commission officials endeavouring to let the lands by public auction as previously advertised. The acting Minister was unable to give satisfactory answers to these supplementary questions. Consequently, I felt bound to raise this matter on the adjournment, whenever the Minister himself would be available, and I gave notice of my intention to do so, as will be seen from the Official Report, page 952.

As stated in the reply, the lands were advertised to be let by public auction. I hope the Minister will agree with me that it is very desirable that lands coming into the possession of the State, when advertised to be let by public auction, should be so let in the way in which an auction is usually held. Following the information that this land had come into the possession of the Land Commission, on a particular day, or very shortly after that, a Fianna Fáil Deputy for this constituency proceeded to the area concerned. He secured possession of the local school and invited a number of selected persons to meet him there.

A body was set up and styled locally as a committee for the purpose of endeavouring to purchase the lands that were advertised to be let by public auction on the 24th February. This self-styled committee held three or four meetings. On each occasion, they were lucky enough to be able to get the local schoolhouse for the purpose of the meeting. The Minister for Education, who is also the Minister for Lands, will be surprised to know that, on one of these occasions, by carrying on their meeting all night, they prevented a public lecture being held, which was advertised to be addressed by an inspector of the Department of Agriculture. That inspector, who had travelled a long distance by motor car, had to return to the place from which he came, without being able to deliver his public lecture, because this self-styled committee set up to secure these lands remained in session until midnight.

I would ask the Minister quite definitely—and I am certain he will give me a straightforward answer—if a public auction was, in fact, held in the way that he knows a public auction should be held in a case of this or any other kind.

I am reliably informed, that on the date for which the public auction was advertised, three Land Commission officials, accompanied by the auctioneer, arrived there. The committee previously selected by the Fianna Fáil Deputy made transport arrangements to bring the Fianna Fáil Deputy concerned, to see that he also was present at the public auction. The three Land Commission officials, the auctioneer, and the Deputy had some private consultation, which nobody but the members of the committee and those concerned are aware of in the district; and, at a certain stage of the proceedings, the Fianna Fáil Deputy—I am informed, at any rate—in the hearing of a sergeant of the Gárda and three or four Gárdaí, the auctioneer and the Land Commission officials, publicly stated—though I am not able to give the reason for it—that: "If the committee do not get the place at their terms to-day, there will be no sale." It is quite evident that the committee, in consultation with the Deputy, had agreed to offer a certain price per acre for these lands, and a warning had been issued by the members of the committee previous to the date of the public auction, that nobody in the district who had any respect for himself should bid against the committee or outbid them.

That, if true, is a very serious interference with the rights of the citizens of the district in their desire—as many of them were desirous—to bid for this State property. I have here in my possession communications written to me from and on behalf of a number of smallholders, small farmers and landless men who, by threats of that kind, were prevented from bidding for that land. I would ask the Minister to state, when he is replying, whether he has any information in his possession that a threat of the kind referred to was made in the hearing of members of the Gárda Síochána, Land Commission officials and the auctioneer, and if he approves of that kind of activity on the part of any Deputy in this House, no matter with what Party he may be associated.

I received a communication from the secretary of this self-styled committee, advising me that I had been misinformed as to what took place on that particular occasion. I do not know how the secretary came to know what I had been told about this whole matter, but, at any rate, in his desire to give me some information, he makes a very candid admission. He states that "almost the whole estate was purchased by the committee" and then goes on to say that "the tillage was allotted to labourers and small farmers." I have information here— and I am sure the Minister has information to confirm it—that it was not let to small farmers nor to landless men, and that, on the contrary, it was let to very large farmers and graziers well known in the district.

I have here a list of a large number of people who were lucky enough to secure portions of this land, as a result of the intervention of this committee selected by the Fianna Fáil Deputy. Number one has already a holding of 150 acres of his own and grazes a good deal of land in the district, taking it by conacre; Number two has 100 acres of his own; Number three has 70 acres; Number four, who is a trader, has 50 acres; Number five has 70 acres; Number six has between 50 and 60 acres; and so on. Some of these people are of the same name: whether they belong to the same family clique or not, I do not know. The secretary of the committee who, apparently, was lucky enough to take control of these proceedings says that the tillage was allotted to labourers and small farmers. I have a list of names of smallholders and landless men who would not be allowed to bid, who were prevented by threats from doing so at this auction.

In the question that I addressed to the Minister on the 4th instant I deliberately asked him to state the revenue derived from the lettings, because I was anxious to find out if there was a likelihood of a loss on lettings of land which is the property of a Department of State. If there is any loss on such lettings it should fall on the graziers and big farmers in the district but, as a result of the activities of a certain Fianna Fáil Deputy, and the self-styled committee, the taxpayers will have to bear the loss. I think it is a scandal that any member of this House should be associated with activities of that kind. Certain smallholders, landless men and the public generally were deprived of their constitutional right to attend a public auction to bid for property of the State. I feel fairly certain that the Minister does not approve of that kind of activity nor do the Land Commission officials, a fairly large number of whom are engaged in work of this kind, although we are told day after day there is not a sufficient number now at the disposal of the Department.

In my opinion these three competent and fair-minded officials were deprived, by the intervention of this Deputy and the self-styled committee, of the opportunity of carrying out their duties in the manner in which, I believe, they would carry them out if they were not hampered by uncalled-for and, I believe, unauthorised interference. I regret the necessity of having to raise a matter of this kind in this House. In my 20 years' experience it has never happened in my constituency before and it is not unreasonable for me to ask the Minister, in view of what happened, for an assurance that it will not happen again as far as he and the Land Commission officials are concerned. I would not have objected if the auctioneer or the Land Commission officials, in view of the uncalled-for interference of the Deputy and the self-styled committee, had postponed the auction. I will be satisfied if the Minister will give an assurance that this kind of thing will not happen again.

In a supplementary question that I addressed to the acting Minister on the date in question I asked him to get a report from the Guards, who were at the auction, as to whether there was interference of an uncalled-for nature on this occasion. I should like to know if the Department of Justice was asked to furnish a report and, if so, will the Minister be good enough to give the gist of it? I appeal to the Minister— I doubt if it is necessary to do so—to put an end to this kind of activity. It is the first time that it has happened in my constituency. It is a constitutional right, and I will see to it, as far as I can, that citizens will be allowed to exercise their rights, and that in the case of a public auction of State property everybody who is anxious will be allowed to attend and be free from interference.

I do not think any useful purpose will be served by bringing in other matters that I have been asked to drag into this discussion. My purpose will be served if I get the necessary assurance of the Minister that he disapproves of what has been done by the Deputy concerned in this case and that, as far as he is able, nothing of the kind will occur again, at any rate in my constituency.

I am the Deputy to whom Deputy Davin refers in connection with the letting of land near Ferbane. I am sorry I did not hear all Deputy Davin's remarks. I heard a certain amount and for the information of the House I should like to give my point of view which, I think, is quite different from that outlined by Deputy Davin. I went to the area concerned at the request of a number of local people, small uneconomic holders and labourers, who wished to get portion of this land for tillage. I went to a meeting which was called to discuss the question and anybody in the locality who wanted tillage attended that meeting. It was not a political meeting. Everybody was free to attend. The people there considered that they had a right to get a portion of this land for tillage, as well as a large portion for grazing. It was decided that I should attend the auction in conjunction with four others whose names I can give to Deputy Davin if he wishes. They are representative people from the locality and none of them wanted any land for tillage, grazing or for any other purpose. Very reluctantly I agreed to attend the auction and to make a bid on behalf of the uneconomic holders in order to get as much as possible of the land for tillage and the remainder for grazing for the benefit of people in the area.

I attended the auction with a very representative committee, and the auctioneer put up the lands. I told the auctioneer that the amount he was offering for tillage was not sufficient to meet the requirements of people on whose behalf I spoke, and pointed out that if he extended the area for tillage I would make a bid on behalf of the uneconomic holders. After some time he agreed to give 100 statute acres for tillage purposes, which I took on behalf of the local people at £4 an acre, a price with which the Land Commission inspector said he was perfectly satisfied. It was intended to divide the land amongst about 60 people, some getting one acre, and the remainder two acres, and to put the land into cultivation. That has since been done, and the money due on the land paid to the Land Commission, with the result that there are now about 100 statute acres under wheat. The remainder of this farm adjoins the River Shannon, and during a great portion of the year is subject to flooding. The Land Commission had about 200 acres there divided into 50-acre lots, and on behalf of the local people I took about 200 acres for the grazing of cattle of everybody in the parish who wants grazing without any discrimination whether a man was a small farmer or a labourer. Large farmers were not to have the option of putting cattle on these lands. A fair price was paid for the land, £3 per acre for one lot, £2 10s. for another lot, and for the portion adjoining the river, that is subject to flooding, £2 an acre. There was no intimidation at the auction. About ten Civic Guards were at the auction. I did not use intimidation on behalf of anybody. The sale was a perfectly open one, at which anybody who wished could bid. As a matter of fact, when 100 acres were got for tillage, and 100 acres for grazing, I went back to the crowd that had collected at the auction, and told them that they were free to bid for the remainder of the land.

I would be sorry to do anything which was not fair and honourable. The Minister for Lands might possibly have a grievance, because it might be said that more money could be got for the land only for my interference. But, apart from that side of it, I think there could not have been a better day's work done than to take a practically derelict farm, put 100 acres of it under wheat cultivation and the balance of about 300 acres in grazing for the people in the locality. I offer no apology to Deputy Davin for anything I have done. I will meet him anywhere in the constituency to discuss the matter. He mentioned that there are other aspects he was asked to deal with, but would not. I challenge him now to make any allegation he wishes and I will meet him any place he wishes to discuss it.

You admit you conducted the auction.

The usual practice of the Land Commission, in cases where estates remain on their hands which they find they will not be able to divide in a reasonable time, is to set the lands by public auction. It is the usual procedure, and I think it is a very satisfactory way of letting land. It ensures that the State gets a good return, that the matter is regulated according to supply and demand, and most people will agree that it is the fairest way. I have sufficient experience as a Minister to know that you will have cases of dissatisfaction on the part of the smallholders. As a matter of fact, I gave instructions to the Land Commission inspectors to facilitate smallholders as much as possible.

In this particular case, representations had been received from another Deputy in the area before the auction intimating that he wished, in regard to the estates in the constituency in the hands of the Land Commission, that they should be let in small portions so that the larger farmers who were bidding would not secure all of them. His object, as he states here in his letter, was that the land should be let to small farmers for tillage, for meadow, and to have them stocked with calves, cows, and young horses the property of smallholders who have put nearly all their own land in tillage. He recommended that, as far as possible, this practice should be adopted. It was as a result of his suggestion that the Land Commission inspector tried to facilitate the local people.

I think there is no question but that the lands were let by public auction. What actually happened was that Deputy Hogan, as he has explained, made an offer. At the suggestion of the auctioneer, the matter was discussed with the inspector and it was finally agreed that a larger proportion of tillage should be made available than was originally intended, and this was done at a rate of £4 per acre. The remainder of the land was then set by public auction. I have not the particulars of the persons who got it, but I understand they were local people. I have no evidence that there was any interference. In fact, the police report would go to show that the proceedings passed off in a very orderly manner. The police state that there was no intimidation and no incidents, so that I do not think there is any evidence, so far as I am acquainted with the position, that any interference of that kind took place. No doubt there was an organisation there, as Deputy Hogan has explained.

It is not an unusual thing, as I think Deputy Davin knows, for smallholders to approach Deputies and ask them to try to secure land for them for tillage. I am not conversant with the local conditions, and I have not a list of the persons to whom the land was set. But the object of the Land Commission inspector in facilitating the arrangement that was come to to let a larger area of the land for tillage was to ensure that every smallholder in the area who needed tillage should get it. If smallholders were excluded, I think it is very unfortunate. If that is the case, it would appear that those persons who sought to get the land for themselves, and I would have a good deal of sympathy with them as smallholders, excluded other persons who were presumably entitled. Deputy Davin says that is so. I have no proof that it is so, but he says that it is so. I do not think that we can go back on the fact that the land is now let and I hope that nobody will think that the Land Commission could be in any way privy to any intimidation of bidders or to any arrangement which would prevent the public who attend auctions from bidding in the ordinary way.

I did not suggest that.

I am only explaining that we like to facilitate smallholders. Smallholders are generally very difficult to handle. It is difficult to know how you can arrange theoretically for a public auction which is supposed to be free. It may not always be free. There may be no threats, no open intimidation, but so long as there is an organisation there, no doubt some people may not wish to come forward and bid. I do not know to what extent that has been the case but, as I have said, the police report is to the effect that the proceedings on that occasion were carried out in an orderly manner. I do not think there is anything further than can be usefully said on the matter.

Were these lands let before?

No; they had only been taken over early in February.

Can the Minister say what price similar land in the district was let at?

I could not say at the moment. I have no doubt that land was let in the district at a higher price than £4 per acre.

To that extent the Land Commission have not got the full value of the lettings.

As the person responsible for the policy, while I have to safeguard the revenue, I think it would be a definite hardship and deprivation if an effort were not made to facilitate local people. When they are bona fide smallholders and there is a reasonable case, we try to meet them, because undoubtedly a good deal of discontent and possibly more serious trouble might occur if land were parcelled out in very large parcels, possibly to persons living outside the area. I think it is good policy to try to accommodate the smallholders to some extent and possibly even to let land to them at a somewhat lower price. However, I can see that there is a lot to be said in another direction and the matter has to be balanced up in a particular case. I had no knowledge of this matter except that one Deputy had written in the terms I have stated and, acting on his advice, the local inspectors were prepared to facilitate the local people and the arrangement was come to.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.30 p.m. until Thursday, March 25th.