I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The purpose of this Bill is to dissolve the Irish Land Commission and to provide for attendant matters.
The Land Commission is an ancient institution that has played a notable part in our history. Its passing therefore is an occasion of significance and to mark it a brief historical sketch seems appropriate.
By the middle of the 19th century the land of Ireland, through confiscation and plantation, had passed into the hands of landlords. Their tenants were tenants at will, who held their farms, not on contract, but at the pleasure of the landlord. They could be envicted on a whim, without compensation for disturbance or for any improvements which they had carried out. This situation led to the vigorous campaign for agrarian reform about which we have all read at school. The campaign bore fruit in 1881 with the Gladstone Act — which could be described as the tenants' charter. Under it they got what were known as the 3 Fs — that is fixity of tenure, fair rent and free sale. The act also created a new tribunal — the Irish Land Commission — which was to deal with applications for fair rents. After some years, however, it became clear that the ills inherent in the system could only be cured by the abolition of landlordism altogether and its replacement by a system of tenant proprietors.
Accordingly in the series of Land Acts which were passed between 1881 and 1921 the emphasis was on the tenants buying out the landlords' interest with the help of money advanced by the State. The Land Commission was given the responsibility for this operation. It was also given power to purchase and acquire land for distribution among small farmers with a view to relieving congestion. By 1921 over 316,000 holding covering an area of 11 million acres had been brought out and 750,000 acres had been distributed among 35,000 allottees either by way of enlargement or by the creation of new holdings. Despite this progress the land problem was far from being completely solved. There were still 100,000 holdings, comparising three million acres, to be brought out. In addition, a dynamic programme of land settlement was required to relieve the worst congestion. These were the tasks facing the new Government. In 1923 the first Land Act under a native government was passed. This had two objectives, namely, to intensify land purchase and to relieve congestion: it also compelled landlords to furnish to the Land Commission particulars of their tenants' holdings. These holdings were then vested in the commission and later revested in the tenants to make them the full owners. Payment to the landlords was made in land bonds. This task was completed in the thirties.
The abolition of landlordism, while of immense psychological value, did not, however, do much to improve the material conditions of the smallholders. On the whole, these were grim. To meet the situation the Land Commission embarked on a vast programme of structural reform which aimed, through the acquisition and distribution of land, to enlarge and re-arrange small holdings and, generally, to relieve congestion. One of the constraints in achieving the latter aim was the fact that in areas where the problem of congestion was most acute there was often little land available for acquisition. In such circumstances, the only way of getting land, therefore, was through migration. This meant that a landholder gave up his home holding and was given a new holding elsewhere. The land given up was then used to enlarge and re-arrange the remaining holdings. The biggest group to migrate under the aegis of the Land Commission was from Connemara when 27 families were settled at Rathcarn in County Meath. That was in 1935. In subsequent years other families were brought from Kerry, Donegal, Mayo and Galway and settled in adjoining townlands. An interesting feature of this settlement is that the cultural heritage, including the Irish language, which families brought with them has survived.
From 1923 1.25 million hectares were distributed among beneficiaries and over 2,000 families migrated and were given new holdings. In addition, the Land Commission carried out extensive improvement works. It built dwellinghouses and out-offices; carried out drainage; reclamation and fencing; and provided roads and water supplies.
In 1976 the Government set up an inter-departmental committee to examine the whole land question and decided at the same time to amalgamate the Land Commission with the Department of Agriculture. The committee found that on the whole the existing policy of acquisition and re-distribution had outlived its usefulness. In the first place the pool of large estates available for acquisition had declined considerably. Accordingly, the Land Commission found itself acquiring smaller unused properties the acquisition of which, in general, proved long and tedious as owners availed of their statutory rights to oppose proceedings to the limit. In view of the small areas involved the contribution of this activity to the land settlement programme was minimal and it was questionable whether the effort and costs involved in the necessarily long drawn out acquisition procedures could be justified in terms of results. Another most important factor was the rise in land prices. These were far in excess of what the Land Commission could recover on resale and the subsidies involved were putting an increasing strain on the taxpayer. There was also the growing unacceptability of land bonds as a means of payment. Accordingly, the committee recommended in 1978 that the policy of acquisition be terminated and that the land on hands be disposed of. Between that time and 1983, when acquisition was terminated completely, the amount of land acquired progressively decreased each year.
As the work of the Land Commission was wound down staff numbers in the Commission were reduced, both through natural wastage and redeployment to other tasks. The availability of Land Commission staff has proved to be most useful, particularly for the expeditious discharge of other important and urgent work which arises from time to time. An example of this is the redeployment of Land Commission staff to the task of assessing the eligibility of land with a view to implementing the Government's proposal to extend the disadvantaged areas. In determining the staff numbers to be redeployed outside the commission it is necessary to be mindful of the importance and indeed the urgency of disposing of the commission's land bank as quickly as possible. Where work in this respect is proving difficult or has fallen behind schedule, staff are redeployed, within the Land Commission, from other areas. I am determined that there will be no unavoidable delay in disposing of the land bank, so as both to reduce the costs involved and to place land quickly in the hands of those who need it.
The Bill is designed to give statutory effect to the position which has obtained since 1983. In short, the Bill provides for the dissolution of the Land Commission; the revocation of the power of the State to take over land, except by exchange, for land settlement purposes; the transfer to the President of the High Court of the jurisdictions vested in the Office of the judicial commissioner and in the appeal tribunal; the transfer to the Minister for Agriculture and Food of certain functions of the commission and the four lay commissioners, mainly to allow for the disposal of land on hand and for the continuation of controls in the purchase of land by non-qualified persons; the transfer to the Minister of all land and other property vested in the commission, with the exception of fishing rights and fisheries which will be transferred to the Central Fisheries Board; and the payment of compensation to the lay commissioners.
I should like to make clear that the enactment of this Bill will not affect the continuation of certain work and functions of the commission. These are: the disposal of land on hands; the revesting in the names of the new owners of land already allotted and of land yet to be allotted; the exercise of statutory control over the subdivision of farms and the purchase of land by non-qualified persons, mainly companies and non-EC nationals; the promotion of group purchase and leasing of land as well as provision of assistance for schemes of rearrangement and commonage division; and miscellaneous statutory and other obligations such as the collection of annuities, custody of title documents, the management of lands awaiting disposal, responsibilities of the offices of Examiner of Title and of Public Trustee.
Before concluding, I would like to express my gratitude to and admiration for the work carried out by the staff of the Land Commission. Their dedication to Irish agriculture and in particular, to improving the lot of the smallholder is well known and appreciated in every parish in the country. The demise of the Land Commission is due essentially to the completion of their task. That task was both a noble and historic one and was carried out effectively, often in the face of most difficult human circumstances and always in accordance with necessarily cumbersome legal procedures.
The Land Commission has often been criticised in the past for the speed with which it brought individual redistributions to a conclusion. Such criticism ignored the major problem confronting the commission in settling upon a just redistribution. I emphasise the word "just". The need to achieve justice in the face of many competing, and often incompatible, demands was of paramount importance. For this reason, the procedures followed were necessarily complex and led to long delays. That so many redistributions were harmoniously achieved is a tribute to the dedication of the staff to which I already referred and indeed to their tremendous patience and wisdom. Irish agriculture, and indeed the entire Irish nation, owe the Land Commission staff an immense debt of gratitude.
I commend the Bill to the House.