Tuesday, 7 November 1972
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Harte: For the benefit of the Parliamentary Secretary who may not have been here this afternoon when I raised this matter, the question concerns the general position relating to the regulations which permit customs officers to issue gun licences to any person entering the country who is able to produce any simple means of identification.
The situation is that any person coming in here, whether he arrives at an airport, a seaport or a land frontier, must be issued with a gun licence on request so long as he produces any means of identification, be that identification correct or otherwise because under the regulations laid down by the Department of Justice a customs officer is bound to issue such a licence in such circumstances. In effect, this means that any member of any illegal organisation in Northern Ireland, be it UVF, UDA or Provisional IRA who wishes to carry guns on this side of the Border can do so.
We have been hearing statements from the Government concerning gun clubs in the North of Ireland. Indeed, all parties in this House abhor the  thought of the number of licensed guns in that part of the country. Despite that the Government here permitted a situation to develop whereby any gunman who wishes to come across the Border with a gun can be issued with a licence. I appreciated the reason for introducing such a regulation a few years ago. Its purpose was to encourage gun clubs on this side of the Border and to encourage people from the North of Ireland, from Britain and from western Europe to come here for game shooting. However, the situation now does not lend itself to this practice and the relevant regulations should not be continued by the Department.
If a citizen of this country applies for a gun licence he must present himself to the local gardaí. If the licence is required in respect of a shotgun the local superintendent will O.K. the application if the person is considered suitable to hold a licence. A person of less than 21 years of age must have a letter of consent from his parents before being considered for a licence and if a licence is required for a .22 rifle, the chief superintendent of the district examines the application. However, any person who has reached the age of 21, whether fit or unfit to hold a licence, can obtain one by presenting himself at the Customs and requesting it. This is a bad and a weak law which must be changed.
Recently in Donegal a car was stopped by gardaí. None of the five people in the car was known to be a member of a gun club but there were five guns in the car each of which was licensed. One of the group proudly displayed his arm band on which appeared the letters UVF but we are left to guess whether he was a member of that organisation or whether he had some other reason for his action. I have it from very good authority that this incident took place. Law and order must be preserved and a bad law must be exposed. It is not good enough for the Department of Justice to continue to tolerate such a law. The sooner it is changed the better. I call on the Minister for Justice to revoke the present law and the sooner he revokes  it the sooner he will have my support on other matters.
I am not a person who has tried to use the northern situation for any political gain. The situation is much too delicate for that. I speak now in the calmness of the evening and I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to ask the Minister for Justice to accept that the law is wrong. I should not have to come here and assert this. All that should be necessary to have the regulations changed is a simple telephone message to the Department.
I have no wish to say anything that would worsen the present situation but I would point out that there are people holding gun licences at the moment which have been issued by Customs officers. These people will appear before the district court for offences arising out of the Game Preservation Act. These are not fit people to hold gun licences for the purpose for which they were granted. Of the five people who were in the car I have referred to, two are known to be convicted criminals in the North of Ireland but, I emphasise, they were not convicted for political offences.
The present regulations are a complete contradiction of the Government's concern in respect of gun clubs in the North. In the interests of the preservation of law and order these regulations should be changed so that this foolish system might be discontinued.
Parliamentary Secretary to the Taoiseach (Mr. Andrews): At the outset I apologise to the Deputy for the absence of the Minister for Justice who is attending an official function this evening. The Minister has asked me to give the Deputy an assurance that this matter is being dealt with and that he is keeping in close touch with it. I am sure the Deputy did not intend to be excitable about what he described as evidence he received on good authority in relation to one of the persons he referred to as having been wearing a UVF band. After investigation by the Minister into this alleged incident there is no evidence to substantiate its having taken place.
Mr. Andrews: I assure the Deputy that inquiries were made in the short time available to the Minister. It has been possible to identify one particular incident which might have given rise to the information given to the Deputy. This concerned a case where the gardaí found, not rifles, but two shotguns that were held under certificate both in the North and down here. There was no reason to suspect that the guns were intended for use other than in a perfectly lawful fashion.
Mr. Andrews: I am coming to the position which the Deputy suggests exists. The Deputy says he has no wish to make political capital out of the situation. I would like to believe that. I am not condoning in any way any situation, hypothetically or otherwise, which the Deputy suggests exists, as neither does the Minister for Justice, who, since assuming that office, has indicated his will in respect of matters of that nature. What the Deputy is questioning is neither a regulation nor a law. It is an arrangement which came into existence in 1965. Under the 1925 Firearms Act non residents—people living in the Six Counties or people from outside this island—had to apply directly to the Minister for Justice for firearm certificates but it was fair to presume then, as it is fair to presume now, that these people were bona fide and that they received clearance——
Mr. Andrews: The position between 1925 and 1965 was that one had to apply directly to the Department of Justice for a firearm certificate, that was people coming into the country carrying firearms. Since 1965 an arrangement has been in operation whereby non-residents, due to lack of knowledge of our law or due to late application, receive these certificates from the customs officers who act as agents of the Minister for Justice. However, I would like to assure the Deputy that the situation at the Border which concerns him most is being rigorously controlled and the bona fides of anybody coming there——
Mr. Andrews: No later than a fortnight or three weeks' ago I was in Belfast. I know exactly the situation, so the Deputy need not give me a lecture on it. Because the Deputy comes from the Border, or anybody else comes from the Six Counties, does not give him any right or entitlement over people who come from this side of the Border.
Mr. Andrews: I am not suggesting the Deputy is talking, as he describes it, a lot of bull. I am pointing out that these officials on the Border, to whom the Deputy might give some credit, are implementing these arrangements——
Mr. Andrews: The Deputy can take it that the Minister is keeping in close touch with the situation, and that, if necessary, something will be done about it in the not-too-distant future. However, the Deputy should get his facts right and not make unsubstantiated and rather hysterical allegations here in view of the critical situation which exists at the points he mentions. I have already pointed out to the Deputy that these certificates relate to shotguns and sporting rifles only, that is .22 rifles. All I can say again is that the Minister has the position under review and is keeping in very close and constant touch with the situation.
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