Firearms (Temporary Provisions) Bill, 1998: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I compliment the Minister on his efficiency in introducing this legislation following the High Court case last month. The granting of licences and firearms certificates ceased with effect from the date of the court judgment. In making his judgment the High Court judge made a number of important points, especially his finding that the statutory obligation under the Firearms Act, 1925, relevant to the granting of a firearms certificate to non-residents, imposed certain requirements on the Minister.

The Firearms Act, 1925, requires the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to be satisfied that non-residents seeking firearms certificates do not constitute a danger to public safety or the peace and that such persons are not persons to be declared disentitled. Those capable of being disentitled include people under the age of 16 years, a person of intemperate habits, a person of unsound mind, a person sentenced by the Irish courts in certain circumstances and a person subject to the supervision of the police or bound to the peace in certain circumstances. The court found that these obligations could be described as onerous and, in certain instances, difficult if not impossible to comply with.

The Bill provides that the Garda authorities undertake checks of non-residents convicted of crimes. It also provides that evidence of permission to shoot on land within the State be produced. Broad and significant implications arise from the judgment, not only for overseas visitors but also with regard to the issue of firearms certificates generally.

Key policy considerations need to be addressed in any proposal for change to ensure that firearms and their use remain under strict control. Given this, the Minister proposes the immediate establishment of a review group comprising representatives of key agencies in this area with a view to a comprehensive analysis of what is required and how it is to be achieved. The group is to be asked, as a matter of urgency, to produce proposals having taken account of the sectoral interests involved. The Minister is correct to allow for the inclusions of all such interests. As a member of the National Association of Regional Game Councils, I believe it is very important that it be part of the review. Detailed consideration of an area as complex and sensitive as firearms control will take much time before it bears fruit.

We are all aware of the tourism business. If this aspect of it were lost to the country in the immediate future, which would happen if the Minister had not moved so swiftly, it would be lost for a long time. Given that we have spent so long trying to get tourists to visit the country, every effort must be made to facilitate those who booked shooting holidays. Not all of them shoot wild birds. Senator Dan Kiely mentioned the significant numbers who travel here for clay pigeon shooting. The money they bring in must be recognised. They constitute a very important part of the tourism industry.

I noted the comments made by Deputies in the other House. It is clear they do not live in areas that need tourists who shoot. By contrast, my area suffers greatly from flooding by the River Shannon. There are significant numbers of game birds in the winter and the farmers and clubs welcome those tourists who shoot the game and wild birds. It is a very important activity for areas such as mine which may be described as disadvantaged.

The Minister said this is an interim measure to allow hunting licences and firearm certificates to be issued to non-residents pending the consideration of a more comprehensive proposal from the review group. The Bill provides that the legislation shall expire after 12 months, although it could be reviewed again. However, it is important that an expiry date is provided because, even if it is extended, it will concentrate minds on the development of more comprehensive legislation.

It has been suggested that the legislation will effectively allow non-residents to bring firearms into the country with virtually no checks. That is not the case because check and balances are in place to prevent it. However, we may have to ensure that those who bring people on shoots have a training in wildlife, including a knowledge of the different species. For example, it could be provided that they must be approved locally or vetted by the local gardaí. It is important to ensure that those accompanying shooters are trained, are aware of the legislation and of the areas in which shooting can take place. I welcome the fact that this legislation will only last for 12 months. I hope every effort will be made to ensure the new legislation will be in place by then.

The views of the National Regional Game Council must be taken into consideration here. It is does excellent work. When I started shooting in the 1960s there was a grant for the releasing of pheasant polls, partridge and grouse. We should make funding available to gun clubs to ensure they can increase the numbers of pheasant, partridge and mallard.

I thoroughly disagree with the statement that there are people who wait for birds to stand or alight before they shoot them. I have shot all my life and I have never seen anyone fire at a bird when it pitched on the water. Some people will come with two or three guns — that is the difference. Much has been made of the Minister saying that he granted firearms licences and another Minister granted hunting licences. I can see the discrepancy when some people bring more than one gun when coming on a clay pigeon shoot.

I welcome this legislation. If we can work together and get funding for gun clubs we can increase the number of tourists going to areas where their money is needed.

I thank Senators who have contributed to this debate.

I emphasise that this is a temporary measure in response to a critical situation in a growing area of our economy. Hunting licences and firearms certificates have not been issued to out of date shooters since 12 June 1997. If that situation was to continue indefinitely, pending consideration of the comprehensive measures needed, companies and individuals who have invested heavily in this area would suffer to an extent that their livelihood and those of their employees would be under threat.

Nowhere is this business more important than in the west and I am astounded that Deputies and one Senator from the west should object to this legislation being passed. It is an extraordinary state of affairs and it shows that some people are out of touch with how their constituents make their livelihood.

Let there be no misrepresentation of what I said.

Allied to this measure which I have brought forward, I have made it clear that I will be establishing a review group to begin work immediately to examine the broad implications of the High Court judgment for the granting of firearms certificates. The review group will consult widely. My intention is to ensure that a balanced approach is developed with regard to what needs to be done in the area of firearms and to take account of all interests, including domestic shooters, tourists and sporting concerns.

In the wildlife context, the provisions of this Bill which relate to the issuing of hunting licences from outside the State will be reassessed in the light of the forthcoming Wildlife (Amendment) Bill which is due to be published in the autumn. That draft Bill already contains amendments to the regime which has been operating in the area of hunting licences.

I have made it clear that the temporary provisions contained in this important legislation can in no way be construed as liberalising our controls on firearms. To say otherwise is to scaremonger for purposes of political opportunism. Procedures followed under different Governments will continue to operate. This is important because there has been a suggestion that the law in this area is being changed. The reality is that the law had to be changed following the High Court judgment. The procedures which operated under the Firearms Act, 1925, and the Wildlife Act, 1976, are the same procedures which are in place now with the exception that there are two additional restrictions. One empowers the Minister to revoke licences and the other empowers the Minister to impose conditions. How can it be said that the law is being liberalised when precisely the same procedures will be used with additional restriction? That baffles me.

Considerable play has been made of the fact that the High Court held that the statutory obligations contained in the Firearms Act, 1925, and the Wildlife Act, 1976, were not being adhered to by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. The High Court held that in respect of successive Ministers. It is instructive to note that the High Court proceedings were initiated on 3 March 1996 when the same people who are critical of this legislation were in office. It was possible at that time for the previous Government to amend the legislation in question but it never bothered. It is extraordinary to hear members of that Government criticising the situation as it now obtains when they had the opportunity to amend the legislation when it was brought to their notice. One would have thought that, if they were that concerned, they would have taken action once the High Court proceedings were initiated but they did not. It is difficult to say that their protests today are genuine. They smack of crocodile tears and have no basis in reality.

I have taken the opportunity to impose additional restrictions in this legislation and there is no question but that the same procedures will be operated now. The temporary provisions in this legislation will maintain our controls over the use and possession of firearms while protecting jobs. This Bill does not reduce the existing measures in any way and will expire when more comprehensive measures are introduced following the report of the expert review group.

Many Senators concentrated on the wildlife and conservation aspects of the legislation. In this context the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands is introducing a wildlife Bill in the autumn. This legislation is a temporary measure designed to meet a given situation. It is necessitated by urgent demands and I have taken a second major step by announcing the immediate establishment of a second review group to look at this matter. All interested parties will be carefully listened to, including the National Association of Regional Game Councils.

Following the High Court judgment it is of considerable importance that there be a comprehensive review of the law governing firearms certificates and hunting licences. The judgment has implications for all aspects of the granting of firearm certificates.

Is that not what should be before the House today?

The figure of £21 million has also been questioned by those who did not want this legislation brought forward. That figure is not mine, it was given to me by the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, who obtained it from Bord Fáilte. I am sure Bord Fáilte did not pluck the figure out of the air. The source is quoted as an independent survey carried out by UCD.

A number of prestigious establishments have invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in stocking and there are serious implications for the viability of these establishments and their employees. A number of major estates are dependent on this business, as are a number of hotels and guesthouses, particularly in the west, where most of the objections to this legislation arise. My objective has always been to marry the need to protect wildlife with the need to ensure that jobs and businesses are saved.

Has the Minister no thought for the protection of wildlife?

I find it difficult to understand such constant and vigorous opposition to the legislation. I have made it clear that I am establishing an expert working group to examine the entire situation. I have also indicated proposals to introduce the most comprehensive legislation to address the entire firearm certificates and hunting licences issue. It is difficult to understand the criticism when one considers these facts.

It is also unrealistic for Senators or Deputies to say that comprehensive legislation should have been prepared and brought before the Houses since the judgment on 12 June. Such complex and comprehensive legislation requires consultation and a considerable amount of deliberation before being brought before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The Protection of Wildlife Act was proposed in 1990.

The choice was stark — do we do nothing and let jobs and businesses go to the wall or do we do something? I am sure that those involved in these businesses will be pleased that the Government responded to their plaintive calls for help.

Senator Costello referred to 25 shoot operators; these are involved full-time in bringing tourists to Ireland. Overall, licences are issued to about 70 operators each year, some of whom are part-time operators. The licensing of tour shoot operators is under consideration in the context of the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill which will be introduced in the autumn.

I do not believe that.

Some Senators commented on the number of licences issued and the perceived difference between my figures and those of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy de Valera. Approximately 3,200 hunting licences were issued in the 1997-8 season. The number of firearms certificates issued is normally greater than the number of hunting licences. Senator Moylan correctly pointed out that each gun requires a firearms certificate and this is the reason for the discrepancy. It is extraordinary that spokespersons on this important and sensitive subject would not know such basic information. This says much for the premise on which they are basing their criticisms of the legislation. The forthcoming Wildlife (Amendment) Bill will include consideration of the powers of search, forfeiture and seizure and offences and penalties. These matters will also come before this House for consideration.

There have been many allegations concerning tourist shooters and the alleged indiscriminate killing of protected species. If there is evidence of such behaviour, it should be brought to the attention of the authorities who will respond swiftly.

They do not have the resources to respond.

Such abuse will not be tolerated. I call on Members who have evidence to report it to the authorities. There is no point in people keeping such evidence to themselves because we are anxious to ensure that such things do not occur.

Non-game birds are protected under the Wildlife Act, 1976. This Bill does not affect that position. It has nothing to say about delisting protected species as it only concerns the consequences of the High Court judgment. If people feel that tourists are shooting protected species, the National Parks and Wildlife Service would be more than interested to hear of it.

Wildlife rangers have told me that they do not have the resources to deal with this abuse.

They have searched homes in my county.

Acting Chairman

The Senator must stop taking pot shots at the Minister.

There are only two wildlife rangers in County Roscommon.

Perhaps we will send ours to County Roscommon for a while.

We need more than two.

Acting Chairman

The Senator should stop sniping.

I am not sniping. These are the facts, and I resent your calling a fact a "snipe".

Acting Chairman

The Minister without interruption.

There has been a shortage of rangers. There was also a shortage of rangers under the Rainbow Coalition.

I am happy to admit it.

Approval for the recruitment of additional rangers and the filling of existing vacancies has been received by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands and recruitment will commence shortly.

I am glad to hear it.

I would have thought that this illustrates the Government's commitment to the enhancement of wildlife and underlines the futility of Opposition attempts to carp and criticise legislation which is necessary to assist the economy.

Senator Connor mentioned the delay in introducing the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill. I am reliably informed that the Bill is very close to its final draft; it is with the parliamentary draftsman as I speak. In its legislative programme the Government is committed to the publication of the Bill in the autumn. Senator Connor will be aware from recent reports regarding the Government's performance in its first year that all the objectives it set itself will be achieved.

Senator Dan Kiely requested assistance for the development of native species of grouse and partridge. The Senator knows precisely what he is talking about, not just because he is a Kerryman — though it helps — but because he is involved in the sport and understands precisely what is the position. I wish many of the commentators on this legislation were as informed. I will bring the Senator's views to the attention of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Culture, Gaeltacht and the Islands to see if she can assist in this regard. I have no doubt whatsoever that if she can, she will do so. She has shown tremendous commitment to her portfolio and will be glad to assist in every way.

Regarding the regulation of tourist shoot promoters and gillies, this issue has been under consideration in the context of the forthcoming Wildlife (Amendment) Bill and is likely to be included in the Bill when published. This is part of the Government's commitment to wildlife. The vetting of gillies will be considered in the context of the possible licensing of tourist shoot operators and the forthcoming wildlife Bill.

Senator Costello referred to the question of checking what tourists shoot. Many contributors to the debate in this House, and people elsewhere, tried to convey the impression that there are no checks and that it was a free for all. Nothing could be further from the truth. A notice is sent to hunters informing them that they must co-operate with bag checks and make bag returns. In this respect, spot-checks are made by rangers and this is as it should be. Bag returns are made to the Wildlife Service by the tourist shoot operators. In addition, a detailed form must be completed by those applying for certificates and the Department will not grant a certificate unless the individual has been granted a hunting licence. In addition, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has been known to refuse firearm certificates and to regulate this matter in so far as it can.

On the question of visitors holding 500 rounds of ammunition while residents are confined to 100 rounds, it is a long standing practice to allow visitors to have 500 rounds in their possession at any given time. They would need 500 rounds if they were shooting at game which was out of range all the time, as Deputy Stagg outlined to the Dáil yesterday evening. Another reason visitors are allowed 500 rounds of ammunition in their possession is that they may not be known to firearms dealers and may have difficulty replenishing their supplies. Firearms dealers are extremely careful about giving out ammunition. I am sure that if the firearms dealers were to receive the names of the visitors who constantly shoot out of range they would be happy to meet them and accommodate them. If Deputy Stagg or any other informed commentator could forward these names it would be of considerable benefit to the industry.

In short, this legislation is about ensuring businesses under threat are saved. It is about saving jobs and ensuring that the contribution this sector makes to the economy is maintained. It is not about liberalising the laws in relation to firearms, undermining our wildlife or bringing about a situation whereby people can come into the country and easily obtain a firearms certificate or a hunting licence. The legislation is balanced and the Government is committed to the working group and to a new wildlife Act. In this respect, it is important that the High Court action should prove the catalyst for comprehensive changes to our firearms legislation and considerable improvements in the future. In the meantime this temporary measure, which is designed only to last until May 1999 when it may be renewed for a further period of 12 months, is intended to cover a temporary situation which has arisen.

I thank Senators for their contributions and ask that the legislation be presented to the public for what it is and not as something Members of the Opposition might wish it to be.

Question put and agreed to.