I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time. I am glad the Government decided to provide time to discuss this Bill. Yesterday the Taoiseach animadverted on our attitude with regard to another Private Bill and it would be as well to state here that, in our opinion, when a member of the House takes the trouble to prepare a Bill for consideration by the House, the minimum courtesy he is entitled to expect is that he will be facilitated in having the Bill printed and circulated to his colleagues so that a decision can be taken on the merits of his proposal.
I am well aware that it is open to the Government to restrict discussion to a short statement from both sides and that seems to me to be a procedure which normally is a mistaken procedure. From the point of view of good Parliamentary procedure, all Deputies should be treated on a basis of equality and receive from the House the courtesy of permission to have a Bill they want considered, printed and circulated so that people can consider it and subsequently the Government can allow it to be accepted or rejected by the votes of Deputies. I hope the Government will reconsider their general attitude with regard to that matter and, where a reasonable proposal is submitted, that they will refrain from exercising their prerogative of opposing the First Reading and reserve the statement of their attitude for an occasion when the House will have a opportunity of seeing what the Deputy wishes the House to consider.
In regard to this Bill the Government have provided time for its consideration. It is quite a simple Bill. Its main purpose is to provide a means of getting a clear picture for the people at large of the problem—if such problem exists—of the acquisition of agricultural land in this country by non-nationals. For several years from these benches we advocated a departure from the original policy of Fianna Fáil in regard to the control of manufactures. We urged on them that the time had come when the country required the admission of foreign capital, foreign know-how and foreign marketing methods into our economy, so that we would be given access, ready access, to foreign markets into which it was extremely difficult for a new industrial economy to break a way. I think the Government were right in virtually abandoning their original policy of control of manufactures and not only admitting but welcoming the arrival of foreign capital or investment and the establishment of branch factories which would build up Irish production and provide their marketing organisation for its disposition in foreign markets.
As that policy began to operate, a new situation began to develop. That was that, in addition to factory sites being acquired by foreign interests, we read every day in the newspapers of large tracts of agricultural land in various parts of the country being acquired by foreign interests and non-nationals. In addition it is pretty well known that an operation is being conducted of a quasi-secret character whereby foreign interests acquired pre-1947 companies and under the cover of these companies began to buy agricultural land. That development has been referred to by the Minister for Finance in his financial statement of the 19th April, column 681, of volume 182, No. 5 in which he said:
The Government have had under consideration the question of acquisition of agricultural land by non-nationals, and the desirability of exercising more control over these transactions. It has been decided to include provisions in the Finance Bill to strengthen the existing 25 per cent. stamp duty legislation so as to bring within its scope certain procedures which at present enable, or may enable, non-nationals to acquire land without incurring liability to the duty. In particular, I have in mind purchases of land by pre-1947 companies with non-national shareholders.
That is evidence in itself that the Government are aware of this problem and have realised its implications. In a recent leading article in the Government-kept newspaper, on the 23rd February, 1961, the following paragraph appeared:
The Swiss authorities have had to impose rather stringent conditions on land purchase by foreigners because of the enormous influx of wealthy foreign settlers into the attractive Alpine cantons. There land prices have been inflated and local people have come to feel that their traditions are being seriously endangered.
I would draw the attention of the House to that sentence —"and local people have come to feel that their traditions are being seriously endangered." It is well known that in Jersey similar restrictions have had to be imposed to prevent excessive acquisition of land there by foreigners.
On the 17th February, 1961, the Minister for Lands is reported as having said:
No situation has yet arisen which would give genuine cause for concern, but the matter was being closely watched for any unreasonable or excessive developments. There was in operation a heavy tax designed to restrict and discourage such transactions.
In a leading article in the Irish Times of the 14th January, 1961, the following statement appeared:
The tradition of Irish hospitality is a very proud and strong one; but we must draw the line somewhere. As the Farmers' Journal points out, we are the only country in Europe that allows the unrestricted purchase of land by foreigners. It would take the strongest evidence of an alien influx to disturb our liberal attitude towards the stranger; but one must ask whether the time has not now come to call a halt to a movement that may eventually mean a social and economic upheaval of the first order. The Farmers' Journal suggests a variable purchase tax of 25 to 50 per cent. depending on the farming ability of the purchaser and his willingness to live here. It is, perhaps, too early to impose such a drastic control; but it is not too much to ask the Minister for Finance to supervise more closely the loophole provided by the pre-1947 company or, indeed, to require of our new landholders from abroad that they should make a minimal gesture by playing their full part in the rural community. It would be the greatest pity if the Germans or any other Continental people who feel the understandable need to “get away from it all” were to parody the outworn slogan that “England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity” by acting on the basis that Ireland's economic difficulty was their opportunity.
I have referred to the whole question of introducing foreign capital because I think there is very grave danger that if the impression spread about in this country that there was, associated with the introduction of that foreign capital for industrial purposes, a certain drive to buy up the agricultural land of this country by wealthy non-nationals a fully understandable and violent reaction might arise in this country which would be most unhealthy and undesirable. It is to prevent such a development that we are bringing this Bill before the House.
In the absence of certain knowledge in matters of this kind all sorts of rumours are liable to circulate. A purchase of land in one particular area will give rise to rumour and that rumour spreads. It is then confirmed by a purchase of land in another area and the thing spreads and grows until an atmosphere of panic and unrest spreads through the country. I have the feeling that precipitate action to impose heavy taxation or restrictive legislation might well be premature. I am glad to see that the German Ambassador, when on a recent visit to his own country, exhorted his fellow-countrymen to proceed with their industrial adventures in Ireland but warned that excessive purchases of agricultural land would certainly be misunderstood in this country and would give rise to sentiments which would do no service to the improvement of German-Irish relations. In sounding that note of caution he was very prudent.
It is certainly true that we ought to be solicitous to ensure that we shall not present a chauvinist appearance of resenting the arrival of any non-nationals who intend to permanently reside here. It would ill become our people, who have gone to reside in such great numbers in Great Britain, the U.S.A. and, indeed, all over the world, suddenly to declare that they will not extend reciprocal hospitality to people who elect to come here and make their living amongst us. There is a very fundamental difference between that attitude and appearing to be indifferent to the wholesale purchase of agricultural land by non-nationals with the danger of there creeping back on us unobserved a new landlord system which it took us a great deal of effort and sacrifice to get rid of.
One of the great dangers in which each generation lives is that, in proportion to the sacrifices of the generation that went before it in abating evils, the succeeding generation may lose sight altogether of the evil that has been abolished because their forefathers had done the job so well. A great many Deputies in this House will remember that we are not now for the first time dealing with this problem of the ownership of land resting in people other than those who live and get their living on the land and what we have got to try to remember is how insidious are the problems in this regard.
I think it was Mitchel Henry who came to Donegal in 1879 or the '70's. He came with the best intentions in the world. He was a radical liberal. He wanted to demonstrate that if people ran their estates well there need be no conflict between the landlord and the tenant. He was not very long here until he was involved in one of the most savage land wars that ever took place and the people he wanted, I believe with the best of intentions, to help and serve resented his presence and after a long and bloody battle he left this country and the land ultimately vested in the tenants who lived and got their living on it.
It was earlier than that that Lord Lucan, who was the landlord of the greater part of West Mayo, believed that he could best serve the interests of his tenants by evicting all of them and after a suitable sojourn in the workhouse dividing up their farms into large holdings and re-employing them, not as tenants, but as employees on the large farms that it was his purpose to create in the belief that he could provide them with a larger monetary income by installing Scotch factors who, as he thought, would operate the land more economically. Our people resisted that and, in a long and bloody encounter, they drove Lord Lucan out of West Mayo instead of Lord Lucan driving them out.
The great danger of closing Pandora's box too firmly is that those who subsequently look at it forget its contents and in an unwary moment will open it and let loose its contents, only to discover then that they have not the means to confine back in that box the evil spirit which they have released and which their forebears wrought so powerfully effectively to confine.
I have not the slightest doubt that if, in a misguided moment, non-nationals came to buy Irish land for the purpose of operating it as a commercial proposition, displacing tenant proprietors by agricultural labourers, we would very quickly drift into a situation which would give rise to the gravest social disturbance in this country. In that social disturbance there might be involved many valuable industrial enterprises which are at present assured of public goodwill but which, if once associated in the public mind with a large-scale movement to purchase Irish agricultural land, would share the hatred of our people for any attempt to dispossess them of the land on which they depend.
There are analogies for this to be found all over the world. In the new emergent nations in many parts of the world, where colonial power has never sought to transfer ownership of the land to colonists, when the time came to introduce an emergent nation to freedom there was none of the bitter racial hatreds that existed in those ex-colonies whose colonial history had been characterised by a large-scale transfer of the people's land to colonists who were brought in. Where colonial powers in the past had confined themselves to industrial and mercantile activity and had not interfered with people's right to their land, there was no bitter resentment left between the colonial powers and the people who were charged with the responsibility of taking over the new emergent nation but, where land problems existed, as they do exist in many parts of South America and elsewhere, they have confounded and maddened the masses of the people and have given rise to grave social unrest which has been, of course, promptly exploited by the powers of evil in the world.
We have made it so much a rule of our life here in Ireland that no Irish person aspires to be a landlord that it is really unnecessary to take any precautions over and above the continual existence of the Land Commission to ensure that that domestic evil would not arise again. I cannot imagine anybody born and bred in this country setting himself up as a landlord again because it is in the blood to know that our people will not have it and do not like it but it is quite possible for a well-intentioned stranger coming here, ignorant of our past history, to stumble into that very error and generate the very kind of social problems that we are concerned to avoid by a Bill of this kind.
In all human affairs prevention is better than cure. Probably, from the point of view of politics, it might be more dramatic to introduce a Bill proposing to prohibit absolutely the acquisition of Irish land by non-nationals but we are not concerned with politics in regard to this Bill; we are concerned to prevent the growth of an evil before it assumes dimensions which might impose upon us the necessity to take drastic action of a disturbing and positively difficult kind. So, this Bill is designed to prevent the emergence of a land problem in Ireland. It provides that a register should be set up in the Land Commission and that any non-national who proposes to acquire agricultural land in this country, in order to make the transfer of the land to him valid, should register the intention to make the conveyance at least seven days before the execution of the instrument of the particulars set out in Section 4 of this Bill relating to the land intended to be conveyed, transferred or leased.
The only effect of his not doing so, in accordance with this proposal, is that the transfer would be void and have no effect. His failure to do it would create a grave flaw in his title to the land. It is unthinkable that any man would part with his money and take a title to land which could be impugned under the terms of this Bill in any future transaction relating to it.
It is sought to build up in the Land Commission, therefore, a register of all transfers of land to non-nationals so that anybody who is concerned about this problem will have free access to full information in regard to it. It is also sought by the terms of Section 3 (2) to ensure that if a person sets up a company or acquires a company by taking shares in it and is himself a non-national, that company shall be under the same obligation to register a transfer of land with the Land Commission for the information both of the authorities and of all other interested parties in the State.
It might be necessary on the Committee Stage of this Bill to introduce a further provision that, where a pre-1947 company or any other had been established without foreign participation and acquired land, in the event of part of its equity being acquired by a non-national, that company will then have the obligation to register any acquisition of land for which it was responsible in the register stipulated for in this Bill.
We believe that prevention is better than cure. It may very well be that legislation of the character in this Bill would prevent any serious problem arising and would constitute full notice to non-nationals that it was the firm intention of the Oireachtas to prevent any large-scale transfer of land to non-nationals. If we can prevent the problem, it is a very much better way to go about it than to wait for this problem to mature and then be driven to extreme and drastic legislation in an effort to cure the evil that has been allowed to arise.
There is the possibility, if the present trend continues, of a very serious evil developing. There is undoubtedly abroad in the country a considerable degree of apprehension that such an evil is developing. It is very necessary to prevent such an evil developing and to persuade the public, if in fact no serious evil exists, that there is clear evidence that no situation exists calling for restrictive legislation.
I agree that one must be extremely circumspect in placing any restriction on the free sale of land but you must not allow yourselves to be dazzled or misled by some of the fundamental aphorisms with which we have all grown up. The three F's were undoubtedly a very precious war cry of the Land War. Remember what they were: free sale, fair rent and fixity of tenure. Fair rent has ceased to be a problem. There are no rents left because we got rid of them all. Fixity of tenure is no longer a problem since we amended the deplorable Fianna Fáil legislation of 1932 which sought to undermine everything and which did destroy many a decent farmer by robbing him of his birthright. Free sale meant that a farmer should have the right to get the value of his holding. We provided under the 1951 Land Act that even where the Land Commission acquired a man's holding, he was entitled to get the full value of the holding, and he has got it ever since.
Free sale is a very important thing but you should not carry that fundamental right to free sale to the point of saying that we as a people would be prepared to stand idly by and see all the agricultural land sold to speculators from outside. That would be carrying the doctrine of free sale to a point that nobody who understands its true significance would ever concede as being correct. Free sale means that the farmers should be free to sell their holdings on the open market but it does not mean that farmers should be free to sell their land to landlords in order to re-establish a system which the whole Land War was fought to put an end to.
One of our perennial difficulties in this country is to get people in this part of Ireland to be constantly conscious of the difficulties of their neighbours west of the Shannon, in Cavan, Monaghan and other areas where the holdings are small and, in very many cases, manifestly uneconomic. One of the difficulties frequently pointed out is that if you wanted to give every farmer in Ireland a fully economic holding of 50 acreas, there probably is not enough land on this island to do it. However, there still remain among us a very large number of Irish farmers who urgently need land in order to make their holdings economic and there also exists and I hope will exist in greater numbers in the years that lie ahead, a number of young men who have a bit of capital, who have acquired agricultural know-how and want an opportunity to settle on the land in their own country. It would become an intolerable abuse if there were many of these eager and willing to take up moderate holdings of land and they saw the land on which they could get their living being alienated in large tracts to non-nationals who were buying it for the purpose of commercial exploitation or for the purpose of selling it to tenants as a financial investment.
None of us in this House, I think, would tolerate the alienation of the land of Ireland on a large scale from Irish ownership. We know that, but there may be people from abroad who do not fully appreciate that situation. It is a matter of very urgent importance that no crisis should be allowed to grow out of this development of the acquisition of land by foreigners. I believe that a Bill on the lines which we now submit will operate as an effective check on that tendency, and it will do more; it will prevent panic movements spreading throughout the country, founded on inadequate information. I know of no other means by which accurate information of the kind necessary to inform public opinion can be made available, except through some such machinery as this Bill proposes.
It is necessary and important to emphasise that one of the reasons this Bill is brought before the House is to ensure that public misunderstanding of the trend towards the acquisition of agricultural land by non-nationals will not create a public movement against the acquisition of industrial sites by foreign entrepreneurs coming in here on their own, or in association with the Irish associates, to establish industrial enterprises.
I want to make it perfectly clear and manifest that this is a situation which all Parties in the House approve and desire to promote. We understand how easily these two things could become confused in the public mind. It is very understandable that foreigners who are not familiar with our historical background might overlook the fundamental difference the Irish people see between the acquisition of industrial sites and the wholesale acquisition of agricultural land by non-nationals.
This piece of machinery is designed to warn them. It is designed to keep our people fully informed of the true situation, and perhaps most important, it is designed to keep the Government and the Oireachtas fully informed as to the true situation, so that if the necessity for bringing in effective restricting legislation on the acquisition of agricultural land by non-nationals should ever arise, we might rest assured that we would have the opportunity of acting in time, and avoiding the creation of a very serious social problem, with all the grave repercussions of legislation which might be requisite to correct it.
Many people will find fault with this Bill on the ground that it does not go too far. We firmly believe it is very much better to prevent an evil rather than to be forced into a course which might be requisite to cure it. The primary purpose of the Bill is to prevent, at this stage, the development of an evil which would certainly call for drastic remedy. I urge on the Government that they should accept the Bill, at least in principle, so that we will not have to return to this problem in much more difficult circumstances hereafter.
In conclusion, I want to remind the House that, in drafting a Bill of this kind, the Opposition have not access to the services of the Parliamentary Draftsman. The Opposition have not access to the various organs of administrative experience of the Department of Lands. Therefore, the Bill in its present form expresses the general intention, and any lacuna in it can very readily be cured on Committee Stage by suitable amendment. We are not married to the letter of this Bill. We are concerned with its spirit, and we believe that a Bill entitled Land (Regulation of Acquisition) Bill, 1961, will in itself be a very useful deterrent to evil.
I hope the Government are prepared to accept the Bill. I undertake to collaborate with them in its amendment, in so far as amendment may be necessary for drafting and administrative convenience, on Committee Stage, in the confident belief that in enacting a Land (Regulation of Acquisition) Bill, we may prevent evil and avoid the necessity of other Draconian legislation at a later stage. We have serious apprehensions that unless we act in that sense now, we will be confronted in three or four years' time with a most difficult situation which may give rise to endless misunderstanding and serious economic damage to the State, which we all want to avoid, and which we think can best be avoided by acting in time on the lines suggested in this Bill.