I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I wish to share my time with my colleague, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, who will deal with the wildlife aspects of the Bill.
Vol. 522 No. 1
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I wish to share my time with my colleague, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, who will deal with the wildlife aspects of the Bill.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I am pleased to present the Bill to the House. When enacted, it will replace the temporary legislation in this area, the Firearms (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1998, which came into effect on 14 July 1998 and which will cease to operate on 14 July 2000. The Bill provides for the amendment of the provisions of section 3 of the Firearms Act, 1925, governing the granting of firearm certificates to persons ordinarily resident outside the State, whether for hunting or sporting purposes or for shooting species where such shooting is not prohibited by law, for example, vermin, or for other purposes. It also amends the Wildlife Act, 1976, primarily in regard to the granting of hunting licences for persons ordinarily resident outside the State.
Under section 3(2) of the Firearms Act, 1925, the granting of firearm certificates to non-residents is a matter for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Under Section 29(2) of the Wildlife Act, 1976, a non-resident who wishes to hunt protected or exempted wild ani mals or protected wild birds in Ireland must obtain a separate licence to hunt from the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. There are two types of licences to hunt, a licence to hunt exempted wild mammals other than hares – in practical terms this means deer – and a licence to hunt protected wild birds and hares.
A firearm certificate will not be issued to a non-resident applicant who intends to hunt unless he or she has been granted a licence to hunt from the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, whether it authorises the hunting of deer or protected wild birds and hares. The position of residents of the State differs in that, under section 3(1) of the Firearms Act, 1925, the issue of firearm certificates to residents is a matter for the local Garda superintendent in the area in which the applicant resides. As in the case of non-residents, a resident who wishes to hunt protected wild mammals other than hares must satisfy An Garda Síochána that he or she is the holder of a current licence to so hunt from the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands before he or she can get a firearm certificate. However, under section 29(5) of the Wildlife Act, 1976, the superintendent can grant a combined firearm certificate/hunting licence to a resident who wishes to hunt hares or protected wild birds.
The Bill amends the provisions of the Firearms Act, 1925 to allow the Garda authorities, after an initial transitional period during which the Minister will continue to be responsible, to grant firearm certificates to non-residents for hunting or sporting purposes and to process those applications in a similar way to the arrangements which apply in the case of residents of the State. For the first time, a combined firearm certificate/hunting licence will be available to non-residents for the purpose of hunting hares or protected wild birds. A separate hunting licence from the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands will still be required for non-residents who wish to hunt deer as is the case for residents of the State at present.
The Wildlife Act, 1976, is amended by the insertion of a new section 29, provided for in section 4 of this legislation, to allow this new scheme for non-residents to operate. The new scheme, when fully operational after the initial transitional period, will establish a level playing field in the matter of the granting of hunting licences to residents and non-residents alike with some minor modifications to reflect the different position of non-residents.
For instance, many non-resident hunters only come here for short periods and may not return for several years, if ever, unlike residents who are entitled to hunt here for entire seasons and possess their firearms throughout the years. Non-residents, like residents, will have to be 16 years or over to obtain a firearm certificate, will only be able to use the firearm for the purposes specified and can have their certificates revoked for, among other reasons, failure to comply with the limitations as to use and will have to comply with the obligations under the Wildlife Acts to get a hunting licence.
As Members will be aware from the debate on the Firearms (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1998, the background to the Bill is that the High Court decided on 12 June 1998 following a judicial review sought by the National Association of Regional Game Councils, which represents domestic shooters, that the procedures adopted to enable the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to discharge adequately the obligations imposed by the Firearms Act, 1925, in granting firearm certificates to non-resident hunters were ineffective and insufficient. The High Court found also that the procedures followed by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands in granting hunting licences to non-residents, which they must first obtain to be granted firearm certificates, were also ineffective and insufficient. The effect of the judgment was that both Ministers were precluded from issuing hunting licences and the consequential firearm certificates to non-residents. The granting of licences and firearm certificates ceased with effect from the date of the judgment.
As time did not permit an extensive overhaul of the Firearms Act, 1925, having regard to the fact that the Dáil was due to go into recess on 2 July 1998, I decided that a two stage response was essential to deal with the matters raised by the High Court judgment. First, I decided that the public interest required that interim legislation should be introduced as quickly as possible to enable hunting licences/firearm certificates to be granted and to protect the State against potential liabilities. The interim legislation, the Firearms (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1998, came into effect on 14 July 1998.
Second, I decided to establish a review group comprising representatives of the relevant Departments, the Garda and the relevant interest groups to examine the implications of the judgment generally for the granting of firearms certificates to non-residents. The group was charged with bringing forward proposals in this sensitive but complicated area following a full review, having taken account of the views of the major sectional interests involved. The group reported in November 1998 and its report formed the basis for the preparation of the Bill.
The main recommendation of the firearms legislation review group was that the Firearms Acts should be amended to provide for the granting of firearm certificates to non-residents by the Garda authorities which is also the authority that grants firearm certificates to residents. The group recommended that for the first two years the legislation was in force there would be a parallel right to apply to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Thereafter, such firearms certificates would not be granted by the Minister "except where circumstances warranted it". The group's report admitted that recommendation was less than ideal but that it would ensure that tourism interests were not damaged. It also recommended that the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands should include a provision in the Wildlife Bill, "whereby firearm certificates will be deemed to be hunting licences also." In addition, the review group recommended that the certificates be granted for a period of one year and that the combined hunting licence and firearm certificate should specify the lands available to the tourists for shooting purposes.
While I accepted the main recommendation of the review group, that the Firearms Acts should be amended to provide for the granting of firearm certificates to non-residents by the Garda superintendent in charge of the district visited, I was concerned that the recommendation for two parallel routes for applicants, the Minister and the Garda Síochána, could give rise to administrative difficulties and confusion and, therefore, prove to be impracticable. I was also concerned about the essentially open-ended aspect of the recommendation whereby, even after the two year transitional period, applications might still be made to the Minister in certain unidentified circumstances.
My proposal, therefore, is for a slightly different and more clearcut arrangement under which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will continue, on a transitional basis, to grant certificates to non-resident shooters for a further two years after which period the granting of firearm certificates in such cases will be a matter for An Garda Síochána. However, this is qualified by a provision under which any time after the commencement of the legislation in July, the Minister may, by order, relinquish that function to the Garda. This I would do if I was satisfied that the Garda Síochána was organisationally ready to assume full responsibility for granting firearm certificates for hunting and sporting purposes to foreign shooters.
An amendment of the Wildlife Act, 1976, will allow firearm certificates issued to non-residents for the purpose,inter alia, of hunting hares or protected wild birds, to be deemed to be hunting licences for the purpose of the Wildlife Acts, that is, it will provide for a combined firearm certificate/hunting licence to issue in these cases as already applies in the case of residents of the State, as soon as the Garda Síochána assumes responsibility for the grant of firearm certificates to non-resident shooters.
The Bill provides in section 2(7) that a firearm certificate will operate from the date of its commencement until the next following 31 July, which is the date on which hunting licences expire, or for such shorter period as may be specified in the certificate.
Turning now to the other main provisions of the Bill, it is important to emphasise that, in practical terms, the provisions of the Bill do not change the procedures which have been followed for some years under different Governments in granting firearm certificates to non-residents. While the Bill does propose to amend the statutory provisions governing the limitations and restrictions for the granting of firearm certificates to non-residents, in real terms it gives effect to the existing procedures in recognition of the fact that the statutory obligations were, prior to the 1998 Temporary Provisions Act, in practice, difficult to meet and, in some instances, impossible.
In the granting of firearm certificates to non-residents, regard has always been had to the preservation of the public safety and the peace. This was always the overriding consideration. The measures proposed in the Bill will in no way change this. In fact, two additional restrictive measures are introduced. These are in section 2(10), which allows the issuing person to attach conditions to a firearm certificate, and also in section 2(13), where provision is made to allow the issuing person to revoke a firearm certificate where he or she is of the opinion that the holder of the certificate cannot, without danger to the public safety or to the peace, be permitted to have a firearm in his or her possession or that he or she is using, or has used, such firearm for purposes not authorised by the certificate or has contravened a condition attaching to the firearm certificate. These are new permanent provisions. Up to now there has been no provision in permanent legislation permitting the attachment of conditions to, or for the revocation of, a firearm certificate granted to a non-resident.
I also want to emphasise that the policy, which in the main has been in existence since 1972, of restricting the granting of firearm certificates to certain categories of firearms, is not changed by this Bill. That policy, which is among the most restrictive in Europe, provides that firearm certificates will only be granted for shotguns and rifles in certain limited categories. I am currently reviewing certain aspects of this policy, but that is not a matter covered by this Bill.
Quite apart from what might be described as new restrictions, the Bill provides in section 2(8) that, before granting a firearm certificate, the issuing person, whether it be the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform during the transitional period, or the Garda authorities, shall be of the opinion that the application is bona fide and that there is no good reason to refuse to grant the certificate. For the purpose of establishing that there is no good reason for refusing a firearm certificate, the issuing person may seek evidence of a European firearms pass, where the applicant is resident in an EU member state, or any other documents relevant to firearms issued by an appropriate body outside the State. Or, indeed, the issuing person may make such inquiries as he or she considers appropriate. Such inquiries could be made to the Garda Síochána in the transitional period, or to other police forces, if it is considered necessary to do that to determine suitability in any particular case.
The European firearms pass is a document which is issued by the authorities of a member state of the EU to a person lawfully entering into possession of, and using, a firearm. The pass contains information about the holder's identity and is a non-transferrable document on which are entered details of the firearm or firearms possessed and used by the holder of the pass. The pass is required to be always in the possession of the person using the firearm and changes in the possession or characteristics of the firearms must be indicated on the pass, as well as the loss or theft of a firearm.
In the interests of further improving public safety, section 3 of the Bill makes it an offence to give false information when making an application for a firearm certificate, or to alter a certificate with intent to deceive, or to use a certificate with intent to deceive. Those offences are punishable by a fine of up to £10,000 or imprisonment for up to five years, or both. Any other problems with firearm misuse by a non-resident can effectively be dealt with by the enforcement of existing firearm legislation in the same way as it applies to residents of the State. This new provision along with other provisions will ensure that the scheme I am putting in place will be among the most stringent and restrictive in Europe.
In summary, this Bill maintains our traditionally strict controls over the use and possession of firearms by non-residents while safeguarding the jobs and incomes of those engaged in our tourist industry and rural economy generally. The Bill does not lessen the measures taken to safeguard the public safety and the peace; all checks previously undertaken will continue in force. In addition, two additional permanent safeguards have been introduced – the power to add conditions to certificates and the power to revoke them.
In conclusion, I hope that the proposals contained in this significant and somewhat technical Bill will meet with the approval of all Deputies. I commend the Bill to the House. It is appropriate for me now to hand over to the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy de Valera, who will deal with the wildlife provisions of the Bill.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to support my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, in presenting to the House the Firearms (Firearm Certificates for Non-Residents) Bill, 2000. The Bill amends both the Firearms Act, 1925, which is the responsibility of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and the Wildlife Act, 1976, which is my responsibility. Our two Departments have, therefore, collaborated on the preparation of this Bill.
This legislation will implement a valuable rationalisation of the arrangements for the licensing of hunting with firearms and will improve the co-ordination between the authorisation of the possession of firearms, which falls to my col league, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and licensing of the hunting of wild species, which comes within my remit as the Minister responsible for wildlife conservation.
At present, anyone wishing to hunt protected wild species in Ireland requires both a hunting licence for the relevant species under the Wildlife Acts, 1976, and a firearm certificate under the Firearms Act, 1925. Those who wish to hunt exempted wild animals – deer in effect – must first apply to my Department for a licence to hunt this species and, having obtained it, go to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for a firearms certificate.
Those ordinarily resident in the State and non-residents are treated in the same way. This Bill will make no change to these arrangements. However, it is proposed to change the arrangements that apply to non-residents who wish to hunt protected wild birds and hares. As of now, persons ordinarily resident in the State may apply to the Garda Síochána for a firearm certificate which the Garda endorses so that it can also serve as a hunting licence.
Those ordinarily resident outside the State first apply to my Department for a hunting licence and then apply to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for a firearm certificate. This Bill will change that procedure.
Section 4 provides that for a maximum period of two years from when this legislation is passed, all applications for firearm certificates from non-residents will continue to be processed by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. During this period, non-resident hunters will also require a hunting licence from my Department. This system will continue in relation to deer. However, in relation to protected wild birds and hares, there will, after two years, be a complete handover to the Garda, which will issue firearm certificates to residents, as is already the case, and to non-residents.
These certificates will be endorsed to also serve as hunting licences in the case of resident and non-resident hunters. The two year interim period will allow the Garda to prepare appropriate systems and procedures for performing the functions that will ultimately fall to it regarding non-residents while ensuring an efficient service continues to be provided to all hunters.
In addition to the changes I have outlined, I wish to deal with other aspects of section 4. For example, the Bill continues the position already provided for under the Wildlife Act, 1976, where, in considering an application for a hunting licence, regard must be had to the conservation requirements of the species to be hunted.
As will be the case with firearm certificates, hunting licences may be granted only to non-residents where the applicant is bona fide and where there is no good reason to refuse. In this context, a European firearms pass in the case of an EU resident or, in any other case, a permit, licence, authorisation or other document issued by an appropriate authority that I, as Minister, consider acceptable will constitute satisfactory evidence of suitability. I may also make such inquiries or request such information as is considered necessary to assess the suitability of an applicant. An applicant who has been refused a licence may appeal the decision to the courts whose decision shall be final and binding.
A number of amendments are included that had already been separately proposed in the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, 1999. These include powers to enable me, as Minister, if I think fit, to require the payment of fees for hunting licences; a specific provision allowing for the attachment of conditions to such licences; and an enabling provision to allow for the introduction, by way of regulations, of a requirement for the tagging of captured or killed wild animals or wild birds. This is particularly relevant to the hunting of deer. I am delighted to join my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in commending the Bill to the House.
(Mayo): I wish to share my time with Deputy Ulick Burke.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
(Mayo): The late arrival of this legislation is yet another example of the Government's tardiness in meeting deadlines for delivering long promised legislation. On 2 July, the House dealt with all Stages of the Firearms (Temporary Provisions) Bill, 1998. As the Minister said, it was an emergency measure for one year only, designed to allow the issuing of firearms certificates to foreign visitors coming to Ireland for shooting holidays. While there was a time limit of one year on the Bill, luckily there was also provision for a further 12 months extension.
One would imagine that, having consulted the various bodies and interested parties involved, it should have been possible to publish the resultant Bill in good time. However, typically, the Bill was published on 13 June, less than three weeks in advance of the deadline beyond which it would not have been possible for 4,000 tourist shooters to come to Ireland because of the lapsing of the temporary legislation. As with that legislation, we are expected to rush this Bill through the House and deal with all Stages on the same day. The Bill could, and should, have been published months ago to enable proper and detailed consideration.
The origin of the legislation was a successful High Court challenge, as the Minister said, which was brought by the National Association of Regional Game Councils against the manner in which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands had discharged their respective responsibilities imposed on them by the Firearms Act, 1925, and the Wildlife Act, 1976. In a withering 35 page judgment, Mr. Jus tice Quirke delivered a damning denunciation of both Ministers.
The Firearms Act, 1925, sets down exactly the same conditions for non-resident applicants for firearms certificates as for Irish citizens. In particular, section 8(1) of the 1925 Act sets down seven different categories of persons who are disentitled to hold firearms certificates. The High Court found that the sensible requirements and safeguards of the 1925 Act were being largely ignored. Instead of a proper check on the credentials and suitability of applicants, as required by law, the National Parks and Wildlife Service simply submitted to officials of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform the name and address of the non-resident applicant and a description of the person's firearms whereupon a firearms certificate and a hunting licence were issued.
Both Ministers maintained that public safety was well served by the manner in which the system operated. However, it was clear from Mr. Justice Quirke's comments that he did not share the Ministers' views. In his judgment, he was specific that nobody, either national or non-resident, should be permitted to have in his or her possession, use or carry a firearm or ammunition without an inquiry or investigation into the suitability of that person. There was no such investigation into the suitability of the person applying in the case of non-residents. I pointed out that such carelessness in respect of the possession of lethal weapons was reckless and irresponsible.
The Bill does not meet the strict requirements of section 8 of the 1925 Act. However, I acknowledge that it goes some way towards introducing an element of inquiry regarding the applicant's suitability. An application form must be completed which requires certain information to be furnished. The Garda superintendent or the Minister shall satisfy himself as to the bona fides of the applicant. A European firearms pass can be required of an EU national or, in the case of a non-EU national, a permit, licence, document or authorisation issued by the appropriate licensing authority within the applicant's state.
The Minister or superintendent may make inquiries as he or she considers necessary regarding the suitability of the applicant. The Minister or the superintendent may attach such conditions as he or she considers necessary. I am reluctant to accept that these new requirements are adequate or meet the required standard. It would be preferable and possible to put in place exactly the same requirements contained in the 1925 Act. There are too many instances of "may" rather than "shall" in the Bill. However, I am prepared to support the Bill, but its operation should be monitored closely to see how it is being enforced and implemented. I also ask the Minister to outline what checking processes exist to ensure that non-residents who bring guns into the country bring them out again when they depart.
Why was the Minister not consulted before the Garda Síochána issued a directive last week to change the security arrangements for the safe keeping of guns whereby specially designed steel cabinets are required? I acknowledge that the directive is well intentioned but it appears to be illegal and unconstitutional. The directive seeks to change the law and, as Members are aware, the Garda cannot change the law; only the Oireachtas can do so. The directive also discriminates between different categories within the State and treats non-resident EU citizens more favourably than Irish citizens.
It is obvious that proper legal advice was not sought in advance of the issuing of the directive. Perhaps the Minister could clarify if it is the case that the advice of the Attorney General was sought only after the directive had been issued. What is the view of the Attorney General on the validity of this directive? Apart from its legality and constitutionality, it is also obvious that there was a marked lack of clear thinking in the manner in which the directive was drafted and presented. The original directive from the Assistant Garda Commissioner stated that it would apply to all applicants for firearms certificates from 1 July next. However, the Garda press release modified the requirements, stating that all new applicants must have the security safe in place in just over eight days, on 1 July 2000, while the date for existing licensees is 1 July 2001.
The directive specifies that certain categories of guns must be kept in a special steel cabinet constructed of sheet steel not less than two millimetres thick. All seams must be continuously welded. Hinges must be internally fixed and, depending on the height of the cabinet, two such locks may be required. Fastenings must be by way of Rawl bolts and expansion bolts to brick and stone and screws and bolts to roof and floor joists. Consideration must be taken of the load bearing capacity of the floor. Locations near central heating ducts or chimney stacks should be avoided. The work must be carried out to the satisfaction of the divisional crime prevention officer.
It is a pity the gardaí did not consult the Minister and the Department who would probably have been advised that the directive is fraught with difficulty in terms of its legality, constitutionality and practicality and that it does not have a legal standing. The legal problems may be summarised as follows. The Firearms Act does not give the Garda Síochána an authority to implement the provisions of the directive as a requirement or precedent to obtain a firearms licence. Section 8 of the Act sets out the categories of persons who create a new category of disentitled person, that is, those persons who have not installed a gun safe. This is an amendment to the Firearms Act and a complete misinterpretation of section 4(b). Any amendment to an Act can only be effected by the Oireachtas.
The directive is discriminatory in that it will be applied to new entrants for firearms licences this year and will apply to existing licence holders one year later. The provisions of the Firearms Act applies equally to all applicants without discrimination and, therefore, both categories of applicants are entitled to be treated equally by the legislation under the Constitution. The implementation of the directive will be contrary to European law as non-resident EU citizens will be treated differently from Irish citizens in so far as the assistant commissioners' directive applies to non-Irish EU citizens and non-EU citizens.
The requirement by the Garda Síochána to enter homes and inspect the installation of the gun safe requires each applicant to give a waiver of his or her constitutional rights to the inviolability of the home or to Article 40.5 of the Constitution. The home of an Irish citizen cannot be entered by the Garda Síochána save in accordance with the law. Under Irish family law a husband and wife equally hold joint ownership of the family home. A husband, therefore, cannot waive his wife's right under the Constitution to the inviolability of the home.
Large sections of Irish society live in rented accommodation. A firearms licence holder living in rented accommodation may not have sufficient proprietary interest in the property to allow it to be inspected by the Garda Síochána. A landlord, for example, may not wish to give his authority to have his property inspected by the gardaí. In addition, a tenant or leaseholder will in all probability be precluded from an installation of a permanent fixture or any modification of the rented premises under standard covenants in letting or lease agreements. In such a situation, the implementation of the assistant commissioner's directive would discriminate against such applicants or licence holders.
For the directive to be lawful and for a reasonable interpretation of section 4(b) of the Firearms Act, 1925, there is a clear inference that for 75 years the Garda Síochána has not applied the legislation as it should. This directive states that any person whose dwelling is not suitably secured and who does not have a firearms cabinet installed of a certain quality and standard cannot be permitted to carry, use or be in possession of a firearm.
Legal advice should have been sought on this issue in advance. The directive is not sustainable, although it is well intentioned. I know where the Minister is coming from – he is talking about public safety. There are practical difficulties which are too many to enumerate. The directive should be withdrawn and the issue revisited only after detailed legal advice has been obtained. I welcome the provisions of the Bill which tidy and streamline matters. I hope it will have the desired effect.
I thank Deputy Jim Higgins for sharing his time with me. I have three concerns about the Bill which has all the hallmarks of rushed legislation. Emergency legislation was introduced in 1998 but now, two years later, the Minister has admitted that time is not on his side. Given that this is a joint effort by the Minister and the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, I thought the position would have been tidied up and made bullet proof by now.
I am concerned that authorisation for licensing is in the Minister's hands while licensing is the responsibility of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. Many European shooting groups come to this country in the guise of tourists and wreak havoc on the wildlife in certain areas. However, the provisions of this Bill do not provide for the protection of the species. The activities of these hunting groups, who masquerade as tourists, in the Shannon callows from Portumna to Athlone are not acceptable. While the provisions of the Bill deal with authorisation for the provision of licences, they fall short in that they do not provide for such activities to be monitored. The licences do not restrict them from shooting wherever they want. They will shoot anything with feathers which flies. That is a terrible condemnation of the people who bring such groups into the country and give them free rein.
I am sure the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands agrees that many endangered species of birds have been shot by such tourists. Many people have protested to me about their activities. We are not allowed to say anything because we want to promote tourism in our areas. However, can we condone the activities of such groups?
I am sure the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands also agrees that continental tourist groups indiscriminately shoot deer in the forests in Slieve Aughty. The culling of the deer in the forests is controlled by Coillte. However, it is unacceptable that these people can seriously affect or wipe out deer herds by indiscriminately shooting them at night or during the day.
Under the Bill a European pass is part of the accreditation the Garda superintendent will accept before granting a licence. Will the Minister confirm that he is satisfied with the authenticity of many European passes? It is important to ensure that licences include restrictions on the lands people can access. They usually target commonages, forests and other areas for which no individual landowner has responsibility. I am certain a private landowner would not allow this to happen on his or her property. If it is possible to incorporate some restriction, I ask the Minister to do that.
I endorse what Deputy Higgins said. What guarantees are contained in the legislation, that the arms are being returned by the bearers who initially brought them into the country? I am certain that some people who became short of cash on their holidays, offered for sale many of the arms that were taken in. There was no registration involved and there is no actual proof that these arms were taken out by the bearer to whom the licence was initially issued.
The Minister must tighten up another area. When these people come in, they should be made to display the arms so that we can ensure they are leaving with the arms they brought into the country. It is important that the Minister carries out a root and branch examination of the area of arms ownership given the amount of illegal arms in the country. Can we trace the legitimacy of the arms used in many of the horrific murders committed here in recent times? I am sure many of those murders were committed using illegal arms which originated in the trade we are talking about under this legislation. They are brought into this country and sold without any identification having to be produced.
The amendments proposed by Deputies Stagg and Higgins are of the greatest importance, particularly in the areas I represent in east Galway which attracts many continental visitors. I hope that area is specifically targeted by the Minister so that this problem will not continue. It is ironic that the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands is doing everything possible to encourage the protection of endangered species in these areas while the actions of tourists at certain times can undo all that work. Those people may not return here for several years. That is the problem. They come in here but they do not have any responsibility. They know they may not return here and therefore everything is fair game. I ask the Minister to take a stand on that issue.
The last time we addressed this issue was in July 1998 and it was in response to a successful High Court action brought by NARGC, the National Association of Regional Game Councils, against the Minister which successfully challenged the power of the Minister to grant firearms certificates and hunting licences to tourists or non-residents under the 1925 and 1998 Firearms Acts. In response to that court action, the Minister introduced the Firearms (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1998. At that time I was critical of the terms of the temporary provision and called on the Minister to bring forward a permanent comprehensive measure such as we are dealing with today.
The Minister at the time promised to set up a representative review group to advise on the best approach to the resolution of the problems that had been identified. At the time I took that promise with a pinch of salt but I want to give credit where it is due – I always seek to do that. The Minister set up the review group and it is representative of all identified interests from landowners, shooting organisations, three Departments and the Garda. It got down to work immediately, finished its work and published its report by the end of 1998. I compliment the members of the review group on the vigour with which they approached their task and on their findings and recommendations.
I note the Minister has had the report since November 1998. It might be said that it took him a long time to produce the legislation we are debating today. However, given the work volume and the urgency of the many other matters being dealt with by the Minister and his Department, I accept that this legislation has been produced in a reasonable time.
The Minister has accepted, by and large, the recommendations of the review group and that they are reflected in this legislation. As a result, we will have one of the best licensing systems for shooting and hunting tourists in Europe that will not be overly restrictive and which will allow for the necessary controls while encouraging the growth of this area of tourism. Again, I am giving credit where it is due.
This legislation is only one piece of the jigsaw which will be complete only when the regulations are in place and the Wildlife Act is enforced. I will deal with some specifics of the Bill later, but I want to first refer to aspects of the contribution I made on this subject in 1998. During that contribution I referred to the cowboy operators – Deputy Burke referred to the same section of this business – and early morning raids over lands on which the tourists or agents have no rights. There is no doubt that such occurs, and as someone who holds a licensed shotgun I have first-hand experience of same. I trust this legislation and the regulations to follow will help eliminate such unacceptable practices.
However, in concentrating on this aspect of the business in my contribution I inadvertently gave the impression that all operatives and agents were in this category. That was not my intention. Since then I have corresponded with Mr. John Flood of Ballypatrick, Clonmel, who is a major organiser of shooting tourists. I appreciate the points he made to me and that his operation is strictly controlled within the law and in the interests of sustainability, that a great service is provided by his operation to local landowners by controlling pigeons and rabbits and to the local economy by attracting tourists to the area. I also thank Mr. Paul Carberry, who is the chairman of the Association of Game Shoot Operators, for the advice and assistance he has given me. I commend the system of operation rules operated by AGSO for its members to the Minister when making the regulations under the Bill. These are the type of shooting tourist operations we need and which should be encouraged. They represent the bulk of shooting tourists and should not be confused with the minority who give shooting tourism a bad name. With adequate policing, the minority should be excluded or made toe the line. I hope that sets the record straight.
There is only one section of the Bill on which I have reservations, that is section 4, and my concerns centre around the duration of licences granted and the need to have licences applicable only to particular lands. If licences are issued to tourists for one year, as they are for natives, and if the shooting period over an operator's land is for a lesser period, and it is likely to be, that tourist would be free to shoot elsewhere for the remaining period of the licence. For example, if an Italian shooter is contracted to Paul Carberry's land for a period of three weeks, at the end of that three weeks he – and they are usually males – would be free to shoot wherever for the duration of his stay and may revisit several times during the year until his licence expires. There is a danger that such a tourist might be attracted from the mainstream regulated area of gaming into the minority cowboy country. Licences or certificates that are land and time specific would eliminate any such wildcat activity and would encourage shooting tourists to remain in the organised and regulated area. Perhaps the Minister will consider that aspect. I will table an amendment on Committee Stage along the lines I suggested. Perhaps the Minister will be able to satisfy me at that Stage that such an amendment is not necessary. I would like to record my thanks to Mr. Desmond Crofton of the National Association of Regional Games Councils for his advice and assistance leading up to this debate.
I wish to make a few other points related to this legislation but more specifically related to the Wildlife Bill. We have the farcical situation where we pay landowners large amounts of money to set aside tracks of the best farmland in the country, in other words, take it out of mainstream use, while at the same time we give grants to other landowners to destroy wetland habitats by draining those lands and poisoning them with large doses of phosphates. Why can we not reverse this crazy system and pay the wetland owners to preserve the habitats and leave the arable land in use?
The Minister will be aware that wetland owners are usually the poorer sector of the farming community and should not be further disadvantaged by being required to provide for the preservation of wetland habitats out of their own pockets. Similarly, the position on commonages, to which Deputy Ulick Burke also referred, needs to be clarified. Who has and who has not rights to such land? For example, I saw an advertisement in a shooting magazine a few years ago inviting tenders from shooting syndicates for rights over the 3,000 acres of Bloomfield Bog in County Mayo, a place I know well. The man who placed that advertisement has even fewer rights there than I, as my family have turbary rights on that bog. He did not even have those rights, yet he placed that advertisement. I would like the position on commonages regularised. I would also welcome the opening up of State lands to local and tourist shooters. That would lead to a management regime for such lands that would enhance the habitat for wildlife generally and create an income from tourists in the off peak season. The Minister and his colleagues might examine this area.
With regard to pest control, magpies, who wreak havoc on other birds, including songbirds, are rampant in all parts of the country and in our towns and cities. There were 14 magpies' nests in trees along the side of the Liffey from Kingsbridge Station to O'Connell Bridge last year. When caught in tragic jams in the mornings, I was tempted to get out of my car and knock down the nests. The songbirds have virtually disappeared from the city because of the abundance of magpies. They eat the eggs in other birds' nests and when other birds do not have chicks those species are wiped out.
It is a case of the chicken and the egg.
It is. It is a matter for the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands to deal with. I am sure she must be conscious of it. Magpies do much more damage to songbirds not only in the city but in the country than all of the cowboy operators to whom Deputy Ulick Burke referred on the last occasion we spoke on this matter. They need to be seriously culled and incentives need to be put in place to achieve this objective. Great crows are in a similar category, but the problem they pose is not as widespread.
Cormorants are in a different category and pose a problem to our inland fisheries. Since they became a protected species, their numbers have greatly increased and this has led to relatively large numbers moving inland from the seaside to feed in fresh water. They do serious damage to fish stocks, especially to artificially stocked waters where the fish are not as wise as their wild cousins. Because of its poor digestive system, a cormorant will eat its own weight in fish every day. I have seen 30 cormorants flying over a small lake in the evenings, near where I come from in County Mayo. Their weight in fish would nearly sink a boat. They are doing serious damage to our inland fisheries. The angling organisations and the gaming clubs should be allowed and encouraged to deal with this new menace to our inland fisheries. I urge the Minister to talk to his colleague on this matter.
I thank all concerned in reaching the point we are at today, particularly the Minister for presenting the Bill in its present form.
(Mr. O'Donoghue): I thank all the Deputies who contributed to this interesting debate. Given the time constraints that apply, I will deal directly with the matters raised. Deputies Jim Higgins and Ulick Burke referred to the delay in bringing this important legislation before the House. I agree that the control of firearms is an important issue but, as Deputy Stagg graciously acknowledged, my Department is involved in the preparation of a great deal of important legislation and this Bill was prepared as quickly as other competing priorities allowed. This will be the thirtieth piece of legislation enacted since I came into office for which I am responsible. That gives Members an idea of the amount of legislation emanating from my Department. There are 11 other Bills at various Stages in the Oireachtas and many more are under preparation.
The control of firearms is a complex area that requires careful legislation and a coherent, sensible and balanced approach. We have brought those elements together in this Bill. Deputy Higgins argued that the Bill did not go all the way towards assessing the suitability of non-residents. When a resident applies for a firearm certificate, the Garda, using local knowledge, can make reasonable inquiries as to the fitness and suitability of that person to possess a firearm. Because of different procedures in other countries, it is not possible to make the same inquiries, as a matter of routine, in the case of non-resident applications. That means we allow no non-resident hunters into the country or we provide a separate scheme. The former option is a non-starter for obvious reasons and this Bill provides for the latter.
I have already explained what is provided for in the Bill and I will not repeat myself. I am fully satisfied that the differences between the provisions of this Bill and those applying to residents are allowable under European anti-discrimination laws which,inter alia, preclude discrimination against tourists exercising the rights to travel and to avail of services unless differences of treatment were capable of objective justification. That being said, the Bill does not give extensive powers to the Garda or the Minister during the transitional period to scrutinise applications for firearm certificates from non-residents. The issuing person must be satisfied that the application is bone fide. The type of documentation referred to in section 2(8) will suffice as prima facie evidence of suitability. However, the issuing person does have power to make further inquiries if he or she is not satisfied with some aspect of the application. In addition, the certificate may have conditions attached to it and it may be revoked.
Section 3 makes it an offence to give false information regarding an application for a firearm certificate. Such an offence can be charged on indictment where it would attract a penalty of £10,000 or five years' imprisonment or both. I am fully satisfied that the powers available to ensure that applications from non-residents to hunt here or to use firearms for sporting purposes are sufficient to prevent firearm certificates falling into the wrong hands.
Deputy Higgins inquired as to the directive by the Garda Síochána regarding the requirement for licensed firearms holders to install gun cabinets. Under the Firearms Acts, 1925 to 1998, it is not lawful for any person, with some exceptions – such as firearms dealers – to have in his or her possession, use or carry a firearm, unless authorised to do so by a firearm certificate granted under the relevant Act. The power to grant or to refuse to grant a firearm certificate to any person resident in the State is vested in the superintendent of the Garda district where the person resides. Therefore, I have no statutory function in the matter.
I understand from the Garda Síochána that for some time it has been increasingly concerned about the consequences of insecure storage of firearms. The number of firearms stolen from the homes or motor vehicles of licensed holders is of particular concern. In 1999, 153 licensed firearms were stolen. During the first three months of this year in excess of 50 licensed firearms were stolen. Some of those stolen firearms were used in the commission of other serious crimes. The level of larceny of licensed firearms and the use to which they are subsequently put are matters of serious concern. A significant factor in the vulnerability of licensed firearms to larceny is the security or insecurity of the conditions under which they are stored. The view of the Garda Síochána arising out of their investigation of the circumstances surrounding these larcenies is that carelessness on the part of the owners of the firearms has in many cases been a contributory factor. In some cases the security arrangements for the storage of the firearms were non-existent and in other cases firearms were left unattended in motor vehicles overnight or stored in outhouses. Carelessness over the secure storage of firearms can have other serious consequences apart from larceny. If children and young persons can play and experiment with unsecured firearms often there are tragic results. There is also the consideration that access to unsecured weapons can facilitate suicide.
I understand from the Garda authorities that there were 23 cases of suicide involving licensed firearms in 1999 and 50 the previous year. This is of serious concern to the Garda Síochána. The report of the national task force on suicide urged improved controls on the safe storage of firearms aimed at reducing their availability for suicide. This is the background to the decision of the Garda Síochána to require the holders of firearms certificates to take measures to secure and store their firearms. There is nothing new in the concept as the Garda Síochána has long advised the holders of firearms certificates on the appropriate measures to take. Garda guidelines on the matter were issued for the information of holders of firearms certificates. However, the view of the Garda Síochána is that their advice on the security and safe storage of firearms has not been adhered to by the majority of holders of firearms certificates. This clearly is a very serious concern to the Garda Síochána who have an obligation to ensure that adequate security arrangements are in place for the safe and secure storage of lethal weapons. In particular the Garda Síochána is concerned to ensure that every effort is made to prevent dangers to members of the public arising from larceny or misuse of firearms.
One of the conditions for granting a firearms certificate is that the superintendent must be satisfied that the applicant can be permitted to have the firearm in his possession without danger to the public safety or to the peace. It was with all these issues in mind that the Garda Commissioner recently issued a directive with the following effect. New firearms certificates will not be issued by the Garda Síochána unless the applicant has installed a security cabinet for the safe storage of the firearm; current certificate holders will be informed when collecting new firearms certificates this year that their firearm will not be licensed for the year 2001-2 unless they have provided a security cabinet for it; the Garda authorities are considering the application of the directive to non-residents also. These are the security arrangements decided upon by the Garda Síochána for the reason I have outlined in the discharge of its statutory function of granting firearms certificates.
Deputy Burke complained about the activities of foreign shooters. From the point of view of the firearms certificate, there have been no incidents in recent years concerning foreign shooters. The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands is introducing new storage measures in the Wildelife (Amendment) Bill, 1999, including a separate new provision to regulate the activities of tourist shoot operators. Recently she appointed over 30 new rangers to police the protection of wildlife. That will be welcomed by everybody.
Deer numbers in the State have not been higher for a long time. They are restricted to lands on which the holders of firearms certificates have permission to hunt. It is illegal under the Wildlife Act, 1976, to hunt on lands without permission. Deputy Stagg referred to his doubts over the period of the licence and the lands on which non-residents can shoot. I shall deal with that matter when discussing his amendment. He mentioned also cowboy operators and tourist shoot operators. The Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, 1999, will introduce new provisions to regulate the activities of tourist shoot operators. The Minister has been complimented on these provisions. All important habitats are protected either by SAC or NHA designation and landowners are compensated for any losses they may have.
On the other point raised by Deputy Stagg, a review is currently taking place on the issue of shooting on State lands. The Deputy will accept that one cannot deny a person a right to seek permission to hunt on another person's land. That is something we cannot do anything about.
I thank Deputies for their contributions. Before moving to Committee Stage I should refer to Deputy Stagg's comments on magpies and cormorants. I shall refer these matters to the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. The Deputy's contribution was an informed one for me as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I certainly would not feel qualified to comment in any detail on what he had to say. I understand there are provisions in the wildlife legislation to allow for pest control. I shall bring the Deputy's learned views to the attention of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands.