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

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time." I wish to share my time with the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy de Valera.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Before going into the broad outline of the Bill, it would be useful for the information of the House if I gave the background to the need for it and the reasons urgent, but temporary, measures are necessary to respond to a critical situation.

The High Court found on 12 June this year 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 are ineffective and insufficient. The judgment followed a judicial review sought by the National Association of Regional Game Councils. 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 in order to be granted firearm certificates are also ineffective and insufficient. The effect of the judgment is that both Ministers are 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.

In arriving at his judgment, the learned judge made a number of important points which are worth repeating here. The statutory obligations in the Firearms Act, 1925, relevant to the granting of firearm certificates to non-residents impose certain requirements on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Firearms Act, 1925, requires that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform be satisfied that a non-resident seeking a firearm certificate is not a danger to public safety or to the peace and is not a person declared to be disentitled. The following are declared to be disentitled: a person under the age of 16; 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.

While the Court found that the obligations could be described as onerous and, in certain instances, difficult to comply with, if not impossible, they are statutory, couched in unambiguous terms and, accordingly, there is a legal requirement to comply with them. While evidence was offered of the existing procedures followed to comply with these onerous and rigid obligations, the court found that, having regard to the rigid but unambiguous nature of the statutory obligations, the procedures did not so comply. The procedures referred in evidence to the High Court included requiring confirmation from an applicant of a European firearms pass, for example, or of a firearm certificate or permit issued in an applicant's country of residence. They also included checks with the Garda authorities in relation to non-residents convicted of crimes and, in addition, evidence of permission to shoot on land within the State.

There are broad and significant implications arising from the judgment, not only for overseas visiting shooters but also for the issue of firearm certificates generally. The advice available to me is that the case for new legislation in this area is a compelling one. Ideally, any new legislation would address the broad implications of the judgment and effect significant amendments to the Firearms Act, 1925, and to the relevant provisions of the Wildlife Act, 1976, which would ensure that the necessary firearm certificates could be issued expeditiously with the minimum of administrative inconvenience. There are also key public policy considerations to be addressed in any proposals for change to ensure that firearms and their use remain under strict control.

It is for this reason that I propose to establish immediately a review group comprising representatives of the key agencies in this area with a view to producing a comprehensive analysis of what is required and how it is to be achieved. The group is to be tasked, as a matter of urgency, 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, including those of the National Association of Regional Game Councils.

In responding to the difficulties which have arisen since the High Court judgment was delivered, I have met representatives of various groups affected or concerned by the judgment including representatives of the National Association of Regional Game Councils. There is an appreciation on both sides of the difficulties which each of us face and an acceptance that what is required is a fair and balanced approach which achieves a solution which recognises the interests of all. By that I mean the interests of both the domestic and out-of-state shooters, the conservation and wildlife interest groups, the promoters, the tourism, sporting and business sectors and the public interest which is concerned with safety and security elements. It is for these reasons I am establishing the review group.

However, to bear fruit any detailed consideration of an area as complex and as sensitive as that of firearms controls will obviously require some time. In the meantime, the Government is acutely aware that an administrative paralysis during which hunting licences and firearm certificates are not issued to non-residents has profound implications for the overseas shooting tourism business.

Overseas shooting visitors are significant contributors to the tourism sector. Bord Fáilte has estimated that the sector is worth up to £21 million.

I did not see that in any of the reports.

While I am aware that some of our domestic organisations have queried that figure, over 8,000 firearm certificates issued to non-resident shooters in the past two years. I am informed the sector is exceptionally high yield, attracting visitors in the off-season. A number of prestigious tourism establishments have made substantial investments in building up their businesses, spending money on such matters as game farming and upgrading. While it is difficult to put an exact figure on the numbers employed directly, there is no doubt employees in the hotels and shooting estates, as well as "beaters", farmers and animal feed manufacturers, for example, would be affected by any serious downturn in business. Allied to that is the fact that this potential growth area is competing with other countries for this developing business and I am aware that, if the business were to be lost for this year in the months ahead, it is almost certainly lost for years to come, if not forever.

In light of those important considerations, it was decided that a two stage response is essential to deal with the matters raised by the High Court judgment. First, the establishment of a review group as I outlined and second, the introduction of temporary legislative measures to deal, in the short-term, with the urgent and critical issues which arise not only for the tourism sector but also for the whole economy. Failure to issue hunting licences and accompanying firearm certificates is having an immediate effect on the tourism shooting industry and on persons who make their livelihoods in that area of the economy. Because of that the Government agreed urgent temporary measures are necessary.

There are some points in the Bill which I will emphasise. This is an interim measure to allow hunting licences and firearm certificates to issue to non-residents pending consideration of more comprehensive proposals from the review group mentioned earlier. The Bill specifically provides that the Act shall expire 12 months after the date of its passing, subject to the possibility of one, and only one further extension if that is considered absolutely necessary.

In addition, it should be noted 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 issuing firearm certificates to non-residents. While the Bill proposes to amend, on an interim basis, the statutory provisions governing the limitations and restrictions for granting firearm certificates, in real terms it gives effect to the existing pro-cedures in recognition that the statutory obligations are effectively difficult to meet and, in some cases, impossible.

I have heard it said the Bill will effectively mean that non-residents will be able to bring firearms into this country with virtually no checks being made. I refute that suggestion categorically. The provisions of the Bill do not dilute the existing procedures. In granting firearm certificates to non-residents, regard has always been had to the preservation of the public safety and the peace. That was always the overriding consideration. The measures proposed in the Bill do not change that. In fact, two additional restrictive measures are included. These are in section 1(5) which allows the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to attach conditions to a firearm certificate and also in subsection (6) where provision is made to allow the Minister to revoke a firearm certificate where he 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.

I also emphasise that the policy — which in the main has been followed since 1972 — of restricting the issuing of firearm certificates to certain categories of firearms, is not changed by the Bill. The policy, which is among the most restrictive in Europe, will continue as before, and provides that firearm certificates will only be granted for shotguns and rifles in certain limited categories.

Quite apart from what might be described as new restrictions, the Bill provides in section 1 that, before granting a firearm certificate, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform 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 Minister 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 the Minister may make such inquiries as he considers appropriate, such as inquiries from the Garda Síochána or other police services if it is considered necessary and possible to do that to determine suitability in any particular case.

The European Firearms Pass is a document 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 is a non-transferrable document on which is entered 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. I emphasise these aspects of the Bill to illustrate that there is no question of non-residents being allowed to bring firearms into this country without proper checks being made on their suitability.

This legislation will expire 12 months after its passing and the fact that the broad implications which arise from the granting of firearms certificates generally from the recent High Court judgment will be addressed as a matter of urgency by an expert review group is assured. The group will consult widely and seek submissions on what needs to be done. I commend the Bill to the House.

In supporting the Bill I take this opportunity to stress to Deputies that from my perspective it is a temporary measure to deal with the immediate consequences of the High Court judgment on the issue of hunting licences to persons ordinarily resident outside the State.

The judgment had immediate implications for more than 3,000 such persons who may be expected to apply for hunting licences over the coming months. Without this amending legislation, it will not be possible for my Department to issue licences to those applicants. Apart from the problems this would present for the applicants, it would also have very serious implications for those Irish based persons and businesses involved in the provision of hunting facilities and services for persons resident outside the State — a niche industry that makes an important contribution to the economy.

While this Bill is necessary, the House will be aware that a much more extensive Bill amending many of the provisions of the Wildlife Act, 1976, and addressing other wildlife conservation issues, is at an advanced stage of preparation and I expect to publish it in the autumn. Meanwhile, the implications of the High Court judgment are being examined by me and my Department with a view to ensuring that the provisions of the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, when introduced, will address all relevant matters relating to the issue of hunting licences.

In that regard, and as the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform mentioned, I recently met representatives of the National Association of Regional Game Councils and listened to their views on this matter. Having met representative of the association on a number of occasions since, and before my appointment as Minister, I am very aware of their concerns and of the concerns of their members throughout the country.

However, while I am anxious to deal with the legitimate concerns of hunters, both Irish based and those resident outside the State, I must be conscious of my statutory obligations as Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands in regard to nature conservation. I assured the representatives of the association that the Bill before us today would be of limited duration and that, from the wildlife conservation point of view, the issues raised by them would be considered in the context of the forthcoming Wildlife (Amendment) Bill. In that context, a further meeting between representatives of the association and officials of my Department has been scheduled for next week to discuss further the concerns of the association in relation to that Bill.

(Mayo): I seek the indulgence of the House to share my time, if there is any remaining, with Deputy Naughten.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

(Mayo): This Bill is irresponsible. It has been hastily drafted and has not been properly thought through. It is also probably unconstitutional in that it discriminates in favour of EU citizens over and above Irish citizens. If implemented in its present form, it effectively compromises public safety. I am sympathetic to the interests of tour operators who promote shooting and hunting holidays and I am appreciative of the people who benefit from the annual 3,000 foreign visitors, as the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands stated, or 4,000 foreign visitors, as the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform stated, who they bring here. Again there is absolutely no consistency here. However, the safety and security of the individual must take precedence over all other considerations.

In 1992, handguns were used in the murders of 97 people in Switzerland, 128 in Canada and 13,220 in the United States. In 1991, 38,317 people were killed by firearms in the US in homicides, suicides and accidents involving firearms. That is more than 100 people per day. It is also more than the total number of Americans who died in battle in the Korean War. Firearms kill more people between the ages of 15 and 24 in the US than natural causes. Those figures were the statistics for six years ago. I do not have the latest figures, but the indications are that the statistics have increased dramatically and we all recall the horror of the recent spectacular high profile juvenile murders of classmates, teachers and parents. Each death was caused by a single gun.

Televising the aftermath of a major tragedy in a small town US high school has again reduced the world to a global village. I am sure the residents of Dunblane could never in their wildest dreams have envisaged that the nightmare of a US class hall would one day be transposed to their tranquil corner of rural Scotland. The unfortunate reality is that what happens in Dallas yesterday can be a reality in Dunblane today or in Dundalk or Dungarvan tomorrow. Violence is on the increase and there is a direct relationship between the ready and easy availability of guns and the increase in violence, either against others or against oneself.

We must, therefore, tread cautiously when it comes to amending gun laws, particularly if, by amending, we mean relaxing the rules. I am also extremely sceptical of Government promises to the effect that this is just a temporary measure to facilitate in the short-term the 3,000 or 4,000 visitor applicants for firearm certificates and hunting licences. It is worth recalling that a temporary measure introduced in 1972 by the then Minister for Justice, Deputy Des O'Malley, led to the handing in of thousands of rifles for inspection. The measure is still in force today and the rifles lie rusting in the Department of Defence vaults at the Curragh.

This Bill would never have been necessary if the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands had discharged the responsibilities imposed on them by the Firearms Act, 1925 and the Wildlife Act, 1976. The 35 page judgment of Mr. Justice Quirke on 12 June last is a withering denunciation of the manner in which the obligations imposed by both Acts on the respective Ministers have been flouted, ignored and set aside. Both Acts set down specific stipulations in relation to the competence, fitness and suitability of persons to use guns and ammunition. The Firearms Act, 1925, sets down exactly the same conditions for non-resident applicants for firearms certificates as it does for Irish citizens. Section 8 (1) of the 1925 Act lays down those disentitled to hold firearms certificates as (a) any person under the age of 16 years; (b) any person of intemperate habits; (c) any person of unsound mind; (d) any person who has been sentenced by any court in Saorstát Éireann for any crime to penal servitude for any term which has not expired or has expired within five years previously; (e) any person who has been sentenced by any court in Saorstát Éireann for any crime to imprisonment for any term of not less than three months which has not expired or has expired within five years previously; (f) any person who is subject to the supervision of the police; and (g) any person who is bound by a recognisance to keep the peace or be of good behaviour, a condition of which is that such person shall not have in his possession or use or carry any firearm or ammunition.

The clear and sensible requirements and safeguards in that Act were virtually ignored. Instead of a thorough check 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 each applicant and a description of the person's firearm whereupon a firearms certificate and hunting licence would be issued without any difficulty.

The Minister maintained today that the public safety was well served by the manner in which the existing legislation was enforced. I wonder if the Minister read the 35 page judgment of Mr Justice Quirke in which he interprets the 1925 Act as imposing a clear obligation on the Minister to be satisfied that the applicant for a firearms certificate "can be permitted to have in his possession, use and carry a firearm or ammunition without danger to the public safety or to the peace. Clearly this requires some form of investigation or inquiry into the suitability of such a person to be in possession of and to use firearms. No such inquiry or investigation is or has been undertaken . in respect of non-resident applicants for firearms certificates".

To put it mildly, such carelessness where guns are involved borders on recklessness. It is particularly so when one considers that nine of the 13 European states referred to in evidence in court have not enacted firearms legislation. There is, for example, no firearms legislation in either Belgium or Switzerland. There is a huge variation between requirements and standards in the different European countries. In many states, whose tourist shooters come here, hunting licences or permits are obtainable without difficulty or detailed inquiry. Often all the applicants must do is produce a document indicating that he or she has permission to shoot over particular lands and the licence or permit issues. Yet these permits and licences have been accepted at face value here. No investigation, inquiry or check was carried out by either the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands or anybody on their behalf within the country of residence of the applicant.

It is worth recalling the clarity of the judgment, which states: "It is clear that the first named respondent [that is, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform] has not discharged his obligation under those subsections and it is admitted on behalf of the first named respondent that no attempt has been made by or on behalf of the first named respondent to comply with the provisions of subsections (b), (c), (f), (g), etc.". Then Mr. Justice Quirke talks about the Minister failing "fundamentally to address the obligations imposed".

Mr. Justice Quirke is equally scathing about the failure of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands to discharge her responsibilities to assess, under the Wildlife Act, 1976, the suitability of applicants, particularly having regard to "conservation requirements". In page 34, Mr. Justice Quirke found: "no investigations are carried out or inquiries made by the second named respondent or anyone on his behalf in the country of residence of an applicant for a hunting licence or elsewhere in relation to such application".

Here two Ministers are failing to discharge their responsibilities in an area fundamental to public safety and wild life conservation. Indeed, Mr. Justice Quirke puts it in context in page 18 of his judgment, where he states that the statutory obligation imposed by section 4(b) of the Firearms Act, 1925 is clear and unequivocal and has implications which relate to the security of the State and its citizens, yet that onerous responsibility was totally neglected.

We owe a considerable debt of gratitude to the National Association of Regional Games Council which is one of the most responsible and progressive voluntary organisations in the country. It has 22,000 members in 875 gun clubs. It digs deep into its resources to promote wildlife conservation. It has set the highest standards for its members and repeatedly tried to point successive Ministers and their officials in the right direction. Not alone has its advice and pleadings been constantly ignored but it has been denied membership of or access to State boards, bodies and councils which purport to oversee the sporting activities to which it is passionately committed. Had it been recognised and listened to, this debacle would never have happened. It has been well and truly vindicated by the High Court judgment of 12 June. It did a valuable service in bringing the case to court and focusing attention on a major deficiency and omissions in the implementation of firearms legislation.

One would imagine the reaction of the Minister and the Department would be to introduce a regime which would impose in a structured fashion the same checks on shooter tourists that we impose on our own citizens but the direct opposite has been done. The lack of guaranteed checks, the failure to verify the credentials and suitability of shooter tourists and to apply the standards of the 1925 Act which apply to our own nationals is irresponsible, dangerous, illegal and unconstitutional. It is only a matter of time before this Bill is struck down by the courts. For that reason the Minister should withdraw it.

I do not accept that it is not possible to check the suitability of non-nationals to carry or use firearms without major difficulty. A procedure could easily be introduced whereby the seven checks or requirements specified in section 8(1) of the 1925 Act could be incorporated on a standard form which would be signed by the applicant and duly stamped by his or her local police authority in the country of origin. It could then be accepted as bona fide proof of the applicant's suitability to possess and use a firearm and would meet the requirements of the 1925 Act. I fail to see how there could be a difficulty with this. Holidays, particularly hunting holidays, are not spontaneous. They have to be arranged in advance. The flight and accommodation has to be pre-booked. Access to the land over which one can shoot has to be arranged in advance. It should be possible, therefore, to arrange for official verification of suitability to possess or use a firearm which, after all, is the central purpose of the holiday.

The 1925 Act has stood the test of time well. Instead of attempting to dilute it to suit non-nationals we should encourage other EU countries to adopt best practice. Instead of relaxing the firearm provisions we should seriously consider revising our gun laws. It is anomalous that one can obtain a firearm certificate at the age of 16 whereas one must be 17 to obtain a provisional driving licence. We should strengthen rather than water down the existing legislation.

I thank Deputy Higgins for sharing his time with me. As someone who represents a constituency which relies heavily on tourism, I acknowledge the importance of fishing and shooting enthusiasts. The existing controls are inadequate, however, in ensuring the sustainable development of the sector. Many of those who come here on shooting holidays pay scant regard to the rules of fair play in shooting game. In recent times a tourist was found to be carrying swans in his baggage. Many tourists will shoot anything that moves, including our protected species. This must be stamped out. I am aware of a case where a tourist attempted to shoot a cock pheasant crossing the road. When he was informed by his Irish guide that he should not do so as the bird was walking his reply was that he was waiting for it to stop.

The movement of licensed guns in and out of the country presents a serious problem. While tourists are checked at the point of entry I am led to believe that no checks are carried out at the point of departure to ensure they take their firearms with them. Can the Minister give a guarantee that this negligence will be brought to an end and proper controls put in place?

Local gun clubs, the only groups which restock game, do not receive any funding. The individuals who organise hunting holidays fail to reinvest in restocking game. This is unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue if the sector is to develop. The funds raised by way of licence fees must be reinvested. Similar problems are being encountered in the angling sector. Foreign anglers come here to fish for up to six weeks to catch perch among fish which they sell on the Continent. They are able to take their families on holiday to the Canaries on the proceeds.

The duck hunting season opens on 1 September whereas the pheasant hunting season does not open until 1 November. Both seasons should open on the same day on 1 November.

Bad law is law based on a "why not" or "no good reason" test. The Minister said that, unless there is a good reason not to, a licence will be granted. It is unbelievable that gun licences are issued on this basis. The existing legislation has stood the test of time well. The Minister should withdraw the proposals he has put before the House as they are both bad and dangerous in favour of the amendment tabled by Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Democratic Left and allow the matter to be considered fully. There has been only one meeting with the NARGC. This could not be described as proper consultation. The desirability of this measure should be demonstrated.

I welcome the High Court decision which upholds domestic legislation. It does not preclude the issuing of gun or hunting licences to non-nationals who have been made more amenable to Irish law. The Bill seeks to create two sets of rules, one for Irish citizens and another for non-nationals who will receive more favourable treatment. I seriously question whether this is constitutional. Unlike John Gilligan, Al Capone would have no problems in obtaining a gun licence here. This is crazy. If one is denied for a good reason, so should the other.

Is there a need for this Bill? Is its purpose to encourage and facilitate foreign shooters to come here? It is alleged the 3,000 foreign shooters who come here each year make a major contribution to the economy. I seriously question this. They make a minimal contribution and do serious damage. Bord Fáilte states their contribution is so small it does not maintain a separate heading. The Minister mentioned a figure of £21 million but that is rubbish, the real figure is closer to £1 million to £2 million. The average stay is two days and they do not stay in fancy hotels, but in bed and breakfast accommodation. In the part of the country I come from they do not spend £7,000 or anything like it. A figure of £700 would be nearer the mark.

I will refer to the modus operandi of agents and shooters. The agents acquire a number of small but separate pockets of land comprising between five and 20 acres. They then organise dawn raids on the general area and they trespass and poach on neighbouring property in respect of which they have no rights. Everything that moves is regarded as a legitimate target. In one instance of which I am aware, an operator advertised and sold 2,000 acres of bogland over which he had no rights to a series of shooters, native and foreign, who descended on the area like locusts and the slaughter was frightening to behold. Many species of wildlife were virtually eliminated.

As already stated, these people regard everything that moves — whether it runs or flies, is legal game or is part of a preserved species — as a legitimate target and it will be shot. Songbirds, blackbirds, robins, thrushes, finches, linnets, foxes, crows, magpies and hares — in and out of season — are shot at every opportunity. Game birds are shot at even when out of range. Those unwelcome and uncaring tourists to whom I refer award themselves brownie points for shooting at such birds.

We would be better off without this form of tourism. However, if we are obliged by European directives to allow these so-called sportsmen to enter our country, we should make it as difficult as possible for them to do so. There should be no lowering of the standards that apply to Irish gun licence holders — this is proposed in the Bill — to accommodate these reckless people and the handful of "cowboys" who organise their activities. The safety and security standards put in place by the existing Act have stood the test of time. Many Irish people have been refused gun licences for good reason. However, such restrictions will not apply to non-nationals if the legislation is passed.

How will we check the bona fides of foreign shooters? Tourist shooters are more dangerous than the banished species of bona fide travellers who simply travelled three miles to drink porter. The new version of bona fide traveller is much more dangerous because he carries guns. If the Minister has his way, these people will be granted what are, in effect, automatic licences and they will be free from legal sanction under the law. I will return to this point later.

Irish game clubs — I am a member of one — do extraordinarily positive work to enhance and maintain the natural wildlife habitat. Such clubs are to be found in every village and their work has been endorsed by the world famous naturalist, Dr. David Bellamy. This good work is regularly undermined if not destroyed by the illegal activities of tourist shooters and those who organise their activities. The wreckers should be discouraged in every possible way by the law.

The promoters of this savage trade have come up with the most fantastic fictions. The first is that Ireland will lose £21 million in tourism revenue per year. As already stated, the real figure is approximately £1 million to £2 million. The second fiction is that foreign shooters are essential to control pigeons which attack crops. I know of no crops that are attacked during the hunting season because they are not grown at that time of year. Amazingly, a spokesman for the IFA gave credence to this nonsense. There are approximately 250,000 licensed gun holders in Ireland, many of whom are farmers and landowners. It is not credible to state that they require 3,000 French and Italian shooters to augment their efforts in respect of pest control. The shooting of animals other than listed game species is illegal. That includes pigeons. Foreign shooters can only shoot the game listed on their licences unless they obtain a special dispensation. However, they are not sanctioned if they shoot other animals.

As stated earlier, non-nationals living abroad are not amenable to the sanction of Irish law unless that law allows for their arrest and detention pending trial by the courts. For example, if an Italian tourist shoots species which are protected under Irish law, such as blackbirds, thrushes, lapwings or swans, the gardaí can seize the dead birds but they cannot take further action because a summons cannot be served outside the jurisdiction and the culprits cannot be arrested or detained. Therefore, these individuals will remain immune to sanction under Irish law unless that law allows for their arrest and detention. Likewise, a landowner who discovers trespassing French shooters on his property is only empowered to order them to leave. In this instance, the laws of trespass cannot be enforced because a summons cannot be served outside the jurisdiction and the farmer cannot arrest or detain the culprits.

I ask the Minister to withdraw the Bill because it is unnecessary, undesirable and dangerous. I request that he take time to examine this matter and engage in detailed consultations. I suggest that he should not walk into a legal and constitutional quagmire and a political row which will overshadow the famous rod licence war. People have strong feelings about this issue and a court decision preventing these raiders from destroying our wildlife has been welcomed. To facilitate these people now would be a serious mistake.

Legislation in this area should provide for equal treatment of all applicants, be they Irish or otherwise, for gun and hunting licences. Like traders in game, shoot organisers should also be licensed and made liable under the law for the conduct of their clients. The law should provide for a mechanism to check the credentials of foreign applicants by the police authorities in their country of residence. There is no reason the checklist operated by the Garda in respect of Irish applicants should not apply to foreign nationals seeking a licence to shoot here. The law should allow for the confiscation of guns and other equipment and payment of a deposit in lieu of fine in cases where legislative provisions are breached.

Licence holders should be confined to shooting on the land specified in their applications and their licences should only be valid for the days specified. Under the current practice, a tourist applying for a gun licence in March is granted one for 12 months. This crosses the normal boundary applying to the licence period. Effectively, these people obtain two year licences while Irish people who apply for licences in March are obliged to reapply in July. This means that foreign shooters can return to Ireland later in the year without giving notice to anyone and they can shoot to their hearts content. I assure the Minister that they do so because I have seen them in action.

Irish gun licence holders are limited to possessing 100 rounds of ammunition at any one time while the limit for foreign shooters is 500 rounds. I suggest that the limit applying to nationals should also apply to non-nationals.

I appeal to the Minister to examine the points put forward by Members. I speak from experience on this issue because I have seen the individuals under discussion in action. It would be good riddance to bad rubbish if they stopped visiting Ireland. The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands will face major problems in terms of the costs involved if she is to repair the damage these people, who are not controllable, have done to our wildlife.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:

"Dáil Éireann declines to give a second reading to the Bill because

(a) the legislation has been rushed and the Oireachtas is not being given adequate time to consider it;

(b) it fails to meet the requirements of the judgment given in the High Court on 12 June 1998 by Mr. Justice Quirke; and

(c) it will mean that the licensing procedures for the issuing of firearms for non-residents will continue to be significantly less stringent than that for Irish residents, a situation which is undesirable on both safety and conservation grounds."

I wish to share my time with Deputy Joe Higgins.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Opposition parties have come together to propose this amendment because of the grave public concern, particularly among the members of gun clubs, about this Bill. It is being rushed through and the Oireachtas has not been given adequate time to consider it. It fails to meet the requirements of the judgment of the High Court and it will mean that the licensing requirements for issuing firearms certificates for non-residents will continue to be significantly less stringent than for Irish residents. This is undesirable on safety and conservation grounds.

The Bill is a panic measure from the Minister in response to an inevitable High Court decision. The public is surprised at the laxity with which foreigners can bring guns into the country. Those without a knowledge of this issue will be appalled at the difference between the attitudes adopted to foreign visitors and Irish residents. Illegally held guns have caused much death and destruction in Ireland but the stringent measures for Irish citizens with regard to guns held legally have been effective. However, it is unacceptable to apply a different set of criteria to visitors from other jurisdictions where attitudes to gun ownership can be very different from such attitudes in this country. The Minister is proceeding with a Bill which will reinforce that gap.

The Government is attempting to push this Bill through without proper consultation. One brief meeting with the National Association of Regional Game Councils is not sufficient. That organisation, which has 22,000 members, has expressed grave objections to the Bill. We do not need to be reminded of the public safety aspects of this issue. The events in Dunblane, Scotland, are to the forefront in our minds. It is wrong, pig-headed and obdurate of the Minister to proceed to put safety at risk unnecessarily.

What is the country coming to when we have become craven in the face of the tourism industry? Have we lost our faculties when it comes to making judgments on what is in the public good and what is good for tourism? There is a down side to tourism which we must face up to and address. If not, we will lose the country's valuable tourism assets. This Bill is a knee-jerk reaction from the Minister to try to cope with fears that have been expressed from certain promotional interests which are not regulated. What does it say about our concern for tourism when we do not regulate for bringing foreign shooters into the country or for the promotion of shooting abroad?

There are serious public safety and conservation implications. The Minister must have regard to the concerns about conservation shown by the national association. It has tried to have improvements and changes made over many years. I do not absolve previous Governments of blame on this issue. However, to rush through a Bill which will copperfasten injustice and inadequate procedures is the wrong approach. It will put the Minister at risk of again being brought to court.

Members have a duty to protect the legislative process from abuse. This presentation of this Bill constitutes an unacceptable abuse of the legislative process and I ask the Minister to withdraw it. The Independent Members have been silent on this issue, although they represent thousands of members of the national association. The Independents should live up to their stated independence rather than being voting fodder for the Government. Let them protect the interests of those in gun clubs and the game councils and the long-term future of this tourism sector.

(Dublin West): This Bill gives overseas shooters the right to shoot game in this country. The Minister must be aware of the serious complaints already referred to by speakers. I was not joking when I remarked on the Order of Business that songbirds are in dread of this Bill. Shooters from the Continent are notorious for roaming the countryside and blasting any feathered creature that crosses their path. It is environmental vandalism of the most grotesque kind. Whatever justification there may be for shooting game birds, it is obscene that blackbirds, thrushes and smaller songbirds are fair game for these shooters. With this Bill the Minister will ensure that this practice will continue and that the celebrated dawn chorus will be replaced by a chorus of shotguns bringing destruction to all species of birds.

It seems that the tour operators have the Minister's ear. They have grossly exaggerated the economic contribution of the shooting sector to tourism. They must bear responsibility for the abuses which are rampant. Visiting shooters are officially confined to certain areas to shoot but in practice the acreage involved is too small and there are not enough game birds in the areas. Consequently, trigger happy tourists seeking value for what they have paid to come to Ireland extend their sights to virtually every species of bird. They go outside the designated areas and encroach on areas where voluntary groups have made great efforts to protect and develop wildlife.

It would do no harm to take the gun out of Irish tourism with regard to live game shooting. Clay pigeon and other such shooting could be developed successfully instead. In putting forward legislation the Minister should have proposed stringent measures to ensure that the rampant abuse of wildlife and the environment which takes place as part of this industry was outlawed. The same rules should apply to Irish citizens as to visitors.

The Green Party hosted a press conference recently on the subject of the decline in fish stocks. The occasion of the press conference was a dispute that had arisen between various groups who, in different ways, depend on the availability of salmon for a living. The question is how an ever smaller cake is to be divided. A resolution has yet to be found. Among those who took part in the press conference were men who had fished salmon in the rivers of the south-east all their lives by a technique that was originally approved under the Statutes of Kilkenny in the sixteenth century. They were firmly of the view that wild salmon, a species that regularly produces specimens of 15 pounds and upwards, is now extinct in Irish waters, and what they fish for, in the season that is in it, is ranched farmed salmon which have been released into the rivers and which, individually, weigh between three and five pounds. I have no reason to doubt the judgment of these experienced individuals. It seems remarkable that a species so significant and symbolic as the wild salmon, which even features on our currency, has been put to extinction for commercial gain and has been replaced by a paler, smaller kind of shadow species.

I have no doubt that the intentions behind this Firearms (Temporary Provisions) Bill are fully motivated by commercial considerations. There will be arguments that visitors from EU member states like to shoot things while relaxing and taking the air on holidays in Ireland, and we like to welcome tourists to our country. However, visitors from certain EU states in particular have carved out quite a reputation for themselves in rural areas for their keen interest in shooting everything in sight during their forays. Possibly these are visitors from countries where the gun sport culture has been so prevalent in recent decades that there is nothing left to shoot at. I doubt that the attitudes and behaviour of such people will change or be affected by the passage of this Bill except in the negative sense that they will now be in a position to claim some legitimacy for their activities because they will have been licensed by the Irish State. The signal this Bill sends out has the same effect as running an advertisement campaign in the wealth centres of the European Union stating "Wildlife for sale. Shoot on sight. Apply to the Government of Ireland". Game shooters and anglers understand the environment and respect it, and we should listen to them. If certain foreigners have a licence for 500 rounds of ammunition and they adopt this macho-Italian outlook, we will see devastation in our countryside.

This Bill does allow the Minister to attach conditions to any firearms certificate granted to a person not ordinarily resident in the State. There is a plethora of regulations and restrictions in many areas of the fisheries industry but with very little means of enforcement. Are we to have the same scenario in regard to the issuing of firearms certificates to trigger-happy tourists? What provisions have been proposed by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and sanctioned by the Minister for Finance to put resources into this area of enforcement, given the failure to enforce the Firearms Act, 1925? Although this Bill amends the Wildlife Act, 1976, it allows that a firearms certificate may be revoked only where there is danger to public safety or to the peace. These are two compelling reasons for revoking a firearms certificate. Would it not be equally worthwhile to allow revocation where a person or a group of persons engage in the indiscriminate slaughter of wildlife? Do children and adults in rural areas where these shooting-party holidays are popular not deserve to be protected from the likely loss of their songbirds and feathered wildlife?

As individuals and as a society we define ourselves by how we treat the environment and the landscape. So far we have been relatively poor at protecting the national environment. This Bill strips away a measure of protection which has been afforded to other dwellers in the landscape, particularly hedgerow creatures such as songbirds. This legislation is a regrettable decision promulgated by Government for regrettable reasons. I hope the review group will turn it inside out over the coming year, but I doubt they will. This is bad legislation and the Green Party opposes it. Mr. Justice Quirke's judgment on 12 June has created an opportunity to review policy in this area. The Government has treated that opportunity as a threat, prompted by tourism interests. That is a bad basis on which to rush legislation through this House on the eve of the recess.

I thank Deputy Gormley for sharing his time. There is considerable concern about this Bill. There is a necessity to be careful and prudent in issuing gun licences and, in this instance, we are not being careful enough. I agree with the Minister's concern for the many tourists who come here for fishing and shooting, but restrictions must be imposed and great care taken in issuing firearms. I know that Garda superintendents and sergeants monitor people who have guns, but these are people who are resident in Ireland. They will not have a proper opportunity to monitor people driving in here in cars, jeeps etc. They will not be able to see the number of guns being brought into the country or whether they are left here or taken back out, and that is a very dangerous situation, to put it mildly.

I am concerned about the attitude of many people who are coming here. Let me give an example. A Frenchman was out shooting when he saw a pheasant running along a lane. The Frenchman took up his gun to aim at the pheasant. The person with him asked whether he intended to shoot it while it was running, to which he replied that he was waiting for it to stop. This shows they have no understanding of sport. In many instances what they are doing is pure slaughter. There has to be greater regulation.

The National Regional Game Council, which brings in tourists, makes an effort to monitor what is happening. It has gillies, there are bag limits and there are specific shooting days. However, insufficient care is being taken and many birds and animals are being wiped out. We have to carefully monitor what is happening.

Let me appeal to the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands to have continuous surveys carried out. If some species are endangered every effort must be made to protect them and legislation introduced if necessary. There should be much greater control on tourists in the context of bag limits. Such bag limits should be reported and monitored and indiscriminate shooting of birds and animals should not be allowed.

The Bill before the House deals with guns. We have to be particularly careful. I regret that I am not satisfied that this Bill has the proper safeguards.

I thank all the Deputies who contributed to this interesting debate. Prima facie it would appear that the Opposition wish to take the gun out of Irish tourism. However, a more detailed examination of the position reveals glaring inconsistencies between what they did in Government and what they preach in Opposition. Deputy Higgins quoted liberally from the High Court judgment of Mr. Justice Quirke. Other Deputies berated me as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, on our implementation of the Firearms Act, 1925 and the Wildlife, Act, 1976, and went on to imply that the judgment was critical of us since coming into office. It would be helpful to all observers to note that the High Court proceedings in this matter were commenced on 4 March l996 when the critics on the Opposition benches were in Government.

We are criticising the Minister for his response.

Please allow the Minister continue.

(Mayo): The Minister has been looking at it for the past year.

That illustrates the inconsistency and the hypocrisy with which they have approached this particular debate. If they wanted to amend the Firearms Act, l925, or the Wildlife Act, l976, they had ample opportunity to do so.

We do not want to amend it.

The High Court proceedings to which they refer were commenced during their period in office and it is extraordinary that following on the issuance of those proceedings, no steps were initiated by the members of the rainbow Coalition Government to amend either Act.

(Mayo): We do not want to amend it, we want it enforced.

This is a temporary emergency measure taken to respond to a critical situation in a growing area of our economy. Hunting licences and firearms certificates have not issued to shooters since 12 June last.

The economy has not collapsed since then.

If that situation were to continue indefinitely, pending consideration of the comprehensive measures needed, companies and individuals who have invested heavily would go to the wall. Allied to this measure I have made it clear I will be establishing a review group to begin work immediately which will 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 must be done in the area of firearms which will take account of all interests including those of domestic shooters, tourists, sporting concerns and so on.

In the wildlife context, the provisions of this Bill which relate to the issue of hunting licences to persons from outside the State will be reassessed in the light of the forthcoming Wildlife (Amendment) Bill due to be published by the Minister in the autumn. That draft Bill already contains proposed amendments to the regime which has been operating in the area of hunting licences. I have already made it clear that the temporary provisions of this Bill cannot be construed as liberalising our controls on firearms. To say otherwise is merely to scaremonger with a view to some perceived political gain. Procedures followed under different Governments for some years will continue to operate.

I have taken the opportunity to provide additional restrictions in this legislation in that I may revoke certain certificates if I believe it is necessary and I may add conditions to a certificate.

The suggestion has also been made that a police certificate of no convictions should be submitted by each applicant from his or her country of origin and that provision should be made for this in the Bill. The position is that the Bill provides in section 1(4) that the Minister may make such inquiries as he or she considers appropriate as to the suitability of any applicant. There is also provision in section 1(3)(b) for the Minister to treat any document duly issued by an appropriate authority as evidence of suitability.

Deputy Higgins said that an applicant should simply indicate on the application form that he or she is of sound mind and temperate habits and that the police force in his or her country of residence should stamp that certificate with a seal of approval. That sounds fine but experience has shown that police services throughout the world will not provide certificates of character or vouch for the sanity or abstemious habits of their citizens because they do not regard themselves as professionally qualified to do so. Obviously that presents us with a serious difficulty.

The temporary provisions of this Bill will maintain our controls over the use and possession of firearms while at the same time protect jobs. These provisions do not reduce the existing measures in any way.

They do. The Minister is wrong.

It will expire when more comprehensive measures are introduced following the report of the expert group which I intend to establish immediately.

The Minister did not enforce the existing measures.

The forthcoming Wildlife (Amendment) Bill will include consideration of powers in relation to search, forfeiture and seizure and offences and penalties. These matters will come before the Oireachtas when the Bill is published. The regulation of tourist shoot promoters is another issue which has been under active consideration in the context of the same Bill and one the Minister is likely to include in it. That is to say the Minister would perhaps provide for the licensing of tourist shoot operators. That is something to which the Minister is giving consideration.

With regard to the shooting of non-game birds, all these species of birds are protected under the l976 Wildlife Act and this Bill does not affect that protection in any way.

There is no sanction against these people.

Deputy Stagg should allow the Minister to conclude his contribution. There is very little time remaining.

Is it true that there is no sanction?

It is not appropriate for the Deputy to ask questions.

Anybody with evidence that tourist shooters are shooting protected species——

They are doing it every day.

——such as songbirds and so on is urged to submit that evidence to the National Parks and Wildlife Service who will act on it under the l976 Act.

They must be deaf and blind if they do not know about it.

With regard to the argument about putting the money back into the tourist shooter area, that fee is an excise matter and as such is one for the Minister for Finance. On the question of the powers to take legal steps in regard to abuses by tourist shooters, the forthcoming Wildlife (Amendment) Bill will include powers in this respect.

A number of questions were raised about the way the sum of £21 million was assessed as being the benefit to the economy annually from tourist shooters. The Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation furnished that figure to me and he in turn received it from Bord Fáilte.

I unequivocally condemn indiscriminate shooting and the Wildlife Bill, l976, is being addressed by the Minister. A review group will examine the position so that for the first time in a long time meaningful changes will be made in the area of wildlife and the granting of hunting licences and firearms certificates. Irrespective of the criticisms put forward, a considerable number of jobs would have been lost and a considerable number of people put out of business if this measure had not been brought before the House.

I am deeply concerned about the prospect of the law being flouted but I assure the House that, in so far as it is possible, this legislation will be administered effectively by officials in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The twin aims of protecting jobs and businesses while ensuring the safety of our community will be achieved.

(Mayo): It is wide open.

As it is now 2.30 p.m. I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of this day on the amendment to the motion for the Second Reading in the names of Deputies McManus, Jim Higgins and Stagg: "That the words proposed to be deleted stand part of the main question."

The Dáil divided: Tá, 71; Níl, 54.

  • Ahern, Dermot.
  • Killeen, Tony.
  • Ahern, Michael.
  • Kirk, Séamus.
  • Ahern, Noel.
  • Kitt, Michael.
  • Andrews, David.
  • Kitt, Tom.
  • Ardagh, Seán.
  • Lawlor, Liam.
  • Aylward, Liam.
  • Lenihan, Brian.
  • Blaney, Harry.
  • Lenihan, Conor.
  • Brady, Johnny.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • McDaid, James.
  • Brennan, Matt.
  • McGennis, Marian.
  • Brennan, Séamus.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • Briscoe, Ben.
  • Moffatt, Thomas.
  • Browne, John (Wexford).
  • Molloy, Robert.
  • Byrne, Hugh.
  • Moloney, John.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Moynihan, Donal.
  • Collins, Michael.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.
  • O'Dea, Willie.
  • Cowen, Brian.
  • O'Donnell, Liz.
  • Cullen, Martin.
  • O'Donoghue, John.
  • Daly, Brendan.
  • O'Flynn, Noel.
  • Davern, Noel.
  • O'Hanlon, Rory.
  • de Valera, Síle.
  • O'Keeffe, Ned.
  • Dennehy, John.
  • O'Kennedy, Michael.
  • Doherty, Seán.
  • O'Malley, Desmond.
  • Ellis, John.
  • O'Rourke, Mary.
  • Fahey, Frank.
  • Power, Seán.
  • Fleming, Seán.
  • Roche, Dick.
  • Flood, Chris.
  • Ryan, Eoin.
  • Foley, Denis.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Hanafin, Mary.
  • Smith, Michael.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Treacy, Noel.
  • Healy-Rae, Jackie.
  • Wade, Eddie.
  • Jacob, Joe.
  • Wallace, Dan.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Wallace, Mary.
  • Kenneally, Brendan.
  • Walsh, Joe.
  • Wright, G. V.

Níl

  • Barnes, Monica.
  • Kenny, Enda.
  • Barrett, Seán.
  • McCormack, Pádraic.
  • Belton, Louis.
  • McDowell, Derek.
  • Boylan, Andrew.
  • McGahon, Brendan.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • McGrath, Paul.
  • Burke, Liam.
  • McManus, Liz.
  • Burke, Ulick.
  • Mitchell, Gay.
  • Carey, Donal.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Clune, Deirdre.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Connaughton, Paul.
  • O'Keeffe, Jim.
  • Cosgrave, Michael.
  • O'Sullivan, Jan.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Owen, Nora.
  • Currie, Austin.
  • Penrose, William.
  • D'Arcy, Michael.
  • Perry, John.
  • De Rossa, Proinsias.
  • Quinn, Ruairí.
  • Enright, Thomas.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Finucane, Michael.
  • Reynolds, Gerard.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Ryan, Seán.
  • Gilmore, Éamon.
  • Sargent, Trevor.
  • Gormley, John.
  • Shatter, Alan.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • Sheehan, Patrick.
  • Higgins, Jim.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Higgins, Joe.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Higgins, Michael.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Hogan, Philip.
  • Upton, Pat.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Wall, Jack.
Tellers: Tá , Deputies S. Brennan and Power; Níl, Deputies Barrett and Stagg.
Question declared carried.

I declare the Bill to be read a Second Time in accordance with Standing Order 111(2) and the Bill will be considered in Committee later today.

On a point of order, must the Bill now be put through Second Stage without amendment?

Standings Orders provide that it is read a Second Time once the question is put.