Adjournment Debate. - Russborough House Art Robbery.

Deputy Power has been given permission to raise on the Adjournment of the House the matter of a Private Notice Question.

My question was to ask the Minister for Justice to make a statement on the disappearance of priceless paintings from the Alfred Beit Foundation at Russborough House.

Our country was never at such a low ebb. National morale has plumbed the depths of despair. The words of the Napper Tandy song were never more true: "Tis the most distressful country that I have ever seen." That was written when Ireland was part of the British Empire and there might have been an excuse for our situation then. But I see no excuse today because we have been a sovereign independent State for so long. The Government have done nothing to help the situation. In fact, the Taoiseach advised the young people as to the measures they should take before emigrating. He has obviously thrown in the sponge. The weather is bad but we will not blame him for that. However, it is no help to the farming community, together with super-levies and cutbacks in quotas which affect all our people. Parnell once said that no man has the right to set a boundary to the onward march of the nation. But in the case of the agricultural industry we have capitulated already in Europe. We have accepted boundaries and we have accepted guidelines and we have mutely witnessed the emasculation of the Common Agricultural Policy.

The Deputy seems to be very far away from the subject matter of the Private Notice Question.

I am coming to it now. Despite all that adversity we tried to keep our heads up and retain our sense of dignity and our respect and our standing among the other nations. It has not been easy. Then, to cap it all, we learn of the robbery from Russborough House of 17 paintings of the Alfred Beit collection, some of the finest paintings in the world and probably the greatest private collection in the world. The fact that several of them have been recovered near a stolen vehicle by some fishermen near Manor Kilbride is poor consolation. Apparently the ones that were found were the least valuable and the robbers kept the ones they wanted, among them the Vermeer, the Goya, the Gainsborough and a Reubens or two. They are priceless treasures and they cannot be properly valued at all. The fact that the discovered pictures were left out in the open beside the stolen vehicle is an indication of the lack of care afforded the paintings. One must be concerned that some of the recovered art treasures were already torn and damaged so that we must all be concerned for the safe return of the remainder. Our country was very fortunate to be the recipient of this collection.

Twelve years ago the nation was shocked by the first robbery in Russborough House. It was then classed as the greatest art robbery ever. Thankfully the paintings were recovered and the pseudo-patriots were brought to justice. But the response by Sir Alfred Beit was a very generous and heartwarming one. He handed over the house and all his priceless paintings and the estate to an art foundation working on behalf of this nation. It was a wonderful gesture and the paintings were on view to the nation not alone in Russborough House but on loan to the National Gallery. After today we must ask ourselves were we worthy of these treasures. They were stolen before and recovered after a long period. Luckily, on that occasion, they were not damaged, apart from some rubbing off of varnish. I sincerely hope we will be as lucky this time.

We must compliment the Garda for their prompt answer to the alarm. A squad car was in the area and they were assured by the administrator then that no harm had been done. Apparently the sophisticated alarm system did go off the first time but must have been by-passed subsequently when the real raid took place. It appears that the thieves were able to drive across two fields, break a window and a shutter and back in the car or cars to the french window which provided a ready-made platform for them, load up with the paintings and leave at their leisure. That is simply not good enough. Did we deserve this gift at all? There is an old saying: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me".

Indeed the Irish nation is shamed. We are trying to promote investment in our country and we in Kildare are particularly involved in the bloodstock industry where millions of pounds are involved. Many people from outside the country have invested huge sums of money here and many more are anxious to do likewise. But they need to be reassured. Russborough was burgled in 1974 and Shergar was stolen later, and then Russborough again in 1986. This is no help to encouraging investment here. Last March there was a huge art robbery in Ardsallagh House near Fethard and there was another nasty incident in our own county where valuable thoroughbreds got loose or were allowed loose in their boxes in the nearby stud and had to be put down because of injuries. One wonders if the Coalition Cabinet itself is safe at Barretstown Castle because this is only a stone's throw from Russborough.

We are in no danger at all. That is a peaceful quarter of the country.

Any time I have been there I have seen great security precautions but I suppose that is only right.

Including the occasion when Deputy Power saw it from the inside.

(Interruptions.)

Would it not be a catastrophe if anything did happen the Coalition Cabinet? I am just comparing values. I suppose the Minister could compare himself with a lute player of Franz Hals and the Minister, Deputy Hussey, might be as valuable as Goya's Don Antonia Zarate.

This is a serious matter.

It appears that the Cabinet think more of themselves as far as security is concerned than they do of the paintings. We are making headlines in the world press but for the wrong reasons. We have murders, sectarian violence in the Six Counties, kidnappings, muggings. The Minister's own wife was an unfortunate victim on the very day he became Minister for Justice. We have ransom demands, and robberies are a daily happening down here. We need to restore the image of Ireland in the perception of the world. There is great goodwill in the outside world for this country.

When Shergar was stolen I raised this matter in the House and there were sniggers from some of the Members. I think at this stage even the ranks of Tuscany can appreciate what losses like this mean to Ireland. Shergar's owner, the Aga Khan, reacted manfully to his frightful experience. He sent his next classic winner to stand at stud in Ballymanny. He installed his own highly sophisticated security system at the stud giving around the clock security and around the clock employment and he continued to invest millions in upgrading Sheshoon and Ballymanny. I must compliment him on adopting that attitude. He has shown his true colours in the midst of difficulty and I am glad he is having lots of winners too. That is the type of pragmatic patriotism we need and he is not an Irishman.

Sir Alfred Beit reacted in the very same way after his first robbery. He handed over the collection for Ireland's benefit and even tonight he is the first person in the field to offer a reward for the return of the paintings. He has not offered a ransom but a reward for the safe return of our property which he presented to us as a gift. I heard some smart alec say here that it was wrong for any man to have valuables worth millions hanging on the wall. They are the idealists who are anxious to divide up the world's wealth. I did not see too many of them rush in to compliment him when he made the generous gesture to the nation which he did. Now, we do not appear to have the capacity to look after this ourselves. When I see Ministers with Garda drivers, extra protection and round-the-clock patrols I wonder if we have our priorities right.

The Deputy never sent someone away?

We all want to see these treasures recovered quickly and intact and there must be no submission to any demands for ransom or blackmail.

(Interruptions.)

We want to show the world that we are worthy of this responsibility. In this case the gardaí answered the alarm call promptly. They were doing their job. We can be assured of that.

(Interruptions.)

Instead of heckling me it would be no harm if the Minister asked himself what went wrong.

I am not heckling the Deputy.

Can the Minister assure us that it will not happen again?

There is nobody in the House, and very few people outside it, who would not agree that we have cause to be concerned about this robbery, not just because of what was taken or where it was taken from but for a number of other reasons which I will not go into.

It has been pointed out by Deputy Power that in this case there is, and I use his own phrase, a sophisticated alarm system in place, an alarm system which is connected to the local Garda station and a security system in place around the House. I think, quite honestly, that Deputy Power is not doing anything to assist the situation or to prevent a recurrence by making what I regard as totally inconsequential remarks about the level of security the Garda authorities think it appropriate to provide for members of the Government, Members of this House or anybody else. That has nothing to do with this case and I am very disappointed that my constituency colleague should feel that he has to drag these red herrings across the case.

Let me say, a Cheann Comhairle, with the greatest respect that I find it a little surprising that a Private Notice Question having been disallowed today we find ourselves discussing this matter on the Adjournment.

The Minister is not the Ceann Comhairle. This is very serious.

I am not being critical of the Chair's decision.

I hope the Minister is not.

I am not being critical of the Chair's decision but I would like to point out in the interest of proper parliamentary debate ——

Is the Minister above the rules of this House?

——that parliamentary debate should be that and not the kind of knockabout roustabout comedy Deputy Power was talking about earlier. Parliamentary debate should be about matters that are within the proper competence of Parliament ——

We have a duty as Members of this House ——

——not matters which are within the operational competence of the Garda force. Otherwise I suggest, with some trepidation, Sir, that we could find ourselves here every day of the week talking about the latest incident, the latest transgression of the law.

I have an amount of information from the Garda authorities about today's incident which, with your permission, I do not intend to reveal to the House because it would be counterproductive to the activities of the Garda. I will limit myself to noting the facts that the security arrangements are as they have been described by Deputy Power and I think he has drawn some conclusions which are not justified about the security arrangements. He brought in some considerations which are not relevant to the question.

I personally find it offensive that a robbery of this kind should have taken place. I hope it will not be long before those who carried out this crime are found, brought to book, that whatever punishment is appropriate is meted out to them and that we can recover this property which has a particular value to our community, both intrinsically and because of the way it was transferred to the community. The House can be assured that the Garda will do everything in their power to bring that about.

Will the Minister ensure that they have the resources?

The Dáil adjourned at 11.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 22 May 1986.