I move amendment No. 10:—
To add to the section the following new sub-section:—
( ) Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in Section 23 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1951 (No. 20 of 1951), the powers conferred on the Government by the said Section 23 shall, in relation to offences under this section, be exercised by the Minister.
I put down this amendment because I feel this Bill should make a concrete effort to right any of the existing wrongs in regard to fishery offences. As I pointed out when speaking on the Second Stage of this Bill, we all hoped the Minister at a very early date would come into this House with more comprehensive and up-to-date legislation. We all realise that the framing of legislation takes a considerable time, and the general public are a little uneasy at present with regard to the manner in which fishery offences are being dealt with.
I am raising this matter because I gave an undertaking even on the Fisheries Estimate that on every possible occasion I would avail of the opportunity in this House of contributing in a constructive way on the question of fishery offences. That is why, after consideration, I decided to table this amendment in the hope that, having regard to recent criticisms by boards of conservators, the Minister would not wait for the long-planned fisheries legislation but would avail of the earliest oportunity to end for all time the criticism which, I am sorry to say, is well founded, in relation to fishery offences.
I know the Minister's views in this regard. He stated them in the House time and again, and even when addressing boards of conservators and fishermen in the country, he expressed the views which I re-echo in relation to the manner in which those found guilty of illegal fishing should be dealt with. The very lowest and meanest offence of which any citizen could be found guilty is maliciously and wilfully attempting to destroy our fisheries. We have organised gangs of poachers in many parts of the country who are earning their living out of nothing else. They are equipped with transport and they have even made attempts to bribe water-keepers. Now we are getting back again to the question of paying the water-keeper, and the water bailiff, well so that he will be independent and will have sufficient wages or salary not to succumb to the temptations and bribes of organised poachers.
When the Minister looks up the files in his Department he will find that there are those organised gangs of poachers in a number of areas. They seem to be so well organised that they attract people of different political views and, no matter what Government is in power or what Minister is in charge, they always have some members with sufficient pull to have the fine either wiped out completely or considerably reduced. There is no use in the Minister coming here and saying that he stands for the protection of our fisheries and that he is sincere in his efforts to end the poaching of our precious and prosperous rivers, because when offences under the fishery laws are committed the courts, I feel, are the proper places to decide. The view I always held was that the district justices were too lenient, in view of the seriousness of the offences that came before them from time to time.
I have known cases, and I am sure the Minister is also aware of them, where water-keepers were beaten up. We had one case I think in North or South Kerry, where a water-keeper was beaten up, had to receive medical attention and go to hospital for some time, merely because the man was doing his duty. If the courts deal severely with people who commit that kind of offence it is a disgrace that any Minister should show the hand of mercy and set himself up as a court of appeal. Poachers, or those found guilty of offences under the fishery laws, can always appeal to the Circuit Court if they are dissatisfied. Permitting them to organise themselves for the purpose of interviewing a local T.D. and coming to the Minister for Justice to have the fine either wiped out completely, or considerably reduced, is encouraging this business.
It is all very fine for the Minister for Justice to say that he will do what he likes, that the power is vested in him to reduce fines, or otherwise. You have boards of conservators up in arms against this system. On the other hand you have the Minister for Lands stating throughout the country that he has recommended no mitigation of fines for fishery offences. I accept the Minister's word and I feel that if the Minister recommended mitigation in any case he would be wrong and would not be discharging his duties, as Minister responsible for the Fisheries Section, to help boards of conservators to stop poaching.
I do not claim that I set myself up as one who deliberately and on every occasion attacked the poachers but I feel that there are members of boards of conservators and water-keepers who love their job and feel that they have the same obligation to protect our fisheries as the Garda Síochána have to maintain law and order. It would be wrong to discourage them in any way in that view. I have always found the officers of the Department of Fisheries very cautious and careful in the advice they gave to any Minister or Parliamentary Secretary in charge of Fisheries, in that respect. During the three years I was Parliamentary Secretary I do not think I recommended the mitigation of a fine to the Minister for Justice in one single case. I can remember being criticised very much by the Cork Board of Conservators at the time and I also know of a case where a board of conservators passed a resolution asking for the mitigation of a fine. I can remember, too, distinctly turning down the request that came to me from a board of conservators asking that representations be made to the Department of Justice for a reduction in a fine. I refused to do it because on principle I think it is wrong to encourage that kind of thing. The Minister for Justice and the Minister for Lands may work in close co-operation in this matter, but it would be more satisfactory I think if the Minister for Lands had power vested in him either to uphold or reduce fines imposed for fishery offences.
I wonder is the Minister fully aware of the seriousness of this matter and of the amount of public uneasiness that exists in regard to the manner in which fines are reduced? A leading article appeared in one of the leading daily newspapers recently from which I shall quote. It appeared in the Irish Independent for May 5th last and stated:—
"A question of grave public importance was raised at a meeting of the Ballyshannon Fishery Board. It concerns the practice of the Minister for Justice in reducing fines imposed by the courts of justice on persons convicted of poaching. It was stated that there had been no fewer than five recent instances of the mitigation of fines in the Ballyshannon board's area. To what extent the same leniency is extended to poachers elsewhere in the country we do not know."
We must bear in mind that that is from the leading article of what I suppose is the most popular and widely read newspaper in Ireland to-day. I should like to know if it is a fact that in the Ballyshannon area there have been five instances of reduction of fines for fishery offences in recent months and, if so, have those fines been reduced by the Minister for Justice without consultation with the Minister for Lands. I should like to know if the Minister for Lands was asked to express an opinion whether or not those fines should be reduced, did he agree that they should and if he was not asked, why should the Minister for Justice take it upon himself to set himself up as a judge or an appeal board on fishery offences? That is the reason I propose this new sub-section, so that mistakes made in the past will be avoided in the future.
The leading article goes on to say:—
"This makes nonsense of the pleas made by another Minister to preserve and extend the inland fisheries as a source of potential wealth and as an attraction to tourists. The fishery boards spend large sums in paying men to patrol and watch fisheries, night and day; and their reward is this strange attitude of the Minister for Justice. The poacher is, of course, the meanest type of petty thief. The mischief he does is by no means confined to the fish he takes; very often he does immensely more damage. Everybody knows that having regard to the possibilities of the industry which is jeopardised by poachers the maximum fines for offences of the kind are nowadays quite inadequate. Yet the Minister chooses to abate the only penalties that the courts are permitted to impose. As was said at the Ballyshannon meeting, the price of one fish would pay the fine."
In the Sunday Independent of the 4th May, 1958, we find the heading: “Minister making Government ‘laughing stock’.”
The paragraph continues:—
"Ballyshannon Fishery Board consider the Minister for Justice is making a laughing stock of his own Government.'
After a stormy meeting—at which criticism of the practice of mitigating fines imposed in the District Court for breach of fishery laws was voiced —the board decided to write to the Minister for Lands setting out their views."
One member of the board said it was "against all law and justice" and made the functioning of the board impossible. I should like to hear what the Minister for Lands proposes to do to co-operate with boards of conservators. There is no use in the Minister proposing, as he has told us on the earlier sections of this Bill, to give boards more money from the Salmon Conservancy Fund for protection when the price of one fish will pay the fine for such an offence.
In the Irish Independent of 7th May, we find:—
"Mitigation of Fishery Fines is Criticised:
Protests against the mitigation of fishery fines by the Minister for Justice were made at Ballyshannon Fishery Board.
A resolution said the Minister was making a laughing stock of district justices and of the board."
I am sure the Minister reads, or at least, gets a copy of The Kerryman and there have been——