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 Header Item Garda Investigations (Continued)
 Header Item Forestry Sector

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 787 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Niall Collins: Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins] We must have some political honesty on the question of why certain people within the Sinn Féin leadership and the Sinn Féin movement, in Limerick and throughout the country, are affording a degree of political respectability to these criminals.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Catherine Byrne): Information on Catherine Byrne Zoom on Catherine Byrne The Deputy's time is up.

Deputy Niall Collins: Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins That is exactly what is going on. I have been accused of political opportunism on this issue.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Catherine Byrne): Information on Catherine Byrne Zoom on Catherine Byrne I am calling the Minister to reply.

Deputy Niall Collins: Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins However, when I read into the record what people have said publicly on radio stations and to other media, I am merely stating the facts.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Catherine Byrne): Information on Catherine Byrne Zoom on Catherine Byrne I remind the Deputy that he is cutting into other speakers' time. I ask him to resume his seat and allow the Minister to respond.

Deputy Niall Collins: Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins We must have an honest political debate about the role of all political parties in supporting the Garda Síochána.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Catherine Byrne): Information on Catherine Byrne Zoom on Catherine Byrne Deputy, please.

Deputy Niall Collins: Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins The actions of the Garda in Limerick were in no way an overreaction. In fact, they ultimately prevented an attempt on a man's life in the city, for which the gardaí involved deserve to be commended.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter The Deputy must understand that I will not comment on what action the Garda did or did not take with regard to the possibility that it did or did not foil a particular attempt on the life of any individual. I will not comment on any arrests that took place because it is not appropriate to do so.

It is unfortunate that the Deputy cannot confine himself to expressing support for the Garda but instead feels the need to engage in a false battle with me for public relations purposes. I remind him yet again that it was his party which signed a document with the troika requiring a substantial reduction in public spending, one of the measures in this regard being to reduce the membership of the Garda by the end of 2013 to 13,000.

Deputy Niall Collins: Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins The numbers are dropping below that.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Catherine Byrne): Information on Catherine Byrne Zoom on Catherine Byrne Deputy Collins had his chance to speak and should allow the Minister to reply.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter I remind the Deputy that the current numbers within the Garda Síochána are 13,450. On average, some 300 to 350 gardaí retire every year. It is always the case that the number of gardaí in a given year who have completed 30 years of service and for whom the option is available to retire is larger than the number who actually retire in that year. The Deputy is hawking around the fact that 1,200 members of the force are eligible to retire next year without any acknowledgement that while there was probably a similar number eligible to retire in preceding years, the number who did in fact retire was nowhere near that number. A considerable portion of the 1,200 gardaí eligible for retirement next year enjoy their work and want to remain in the force. I have no doubt they will still be in the Garda Síochána in 2014, never mind 2013. The Deputy should not seek to mislead people in this regard.

An issue on which he and I are agreed is that the Garda Síochána is doing an extraordinary job in targeting people engaged in subversion. Tragically, there is still a number of groups on this island intent on murder and mayhem. Some of them are masquerading as political groupings while engaged in substantial criminality. I assure the Deputy that the Garda will continue to target such groups and, where appropriate, to arrest individuals. Moreover, where there is evidence, individuals will be taken before the courts and prosecutions will ensue as appropriate. There should be no doubt that these matters will be dealt with properly before the courts.

Forestry Sector

Deputy Michael McNamara: Information on Michael McNamara Zoom on Michael McNamara Various organisations have written to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to express their concern that the proposed sale of the Coillte Teoranta forest crop will impact negatively on public access to and recreational usage of State forests. These organisations include Mountaineering Ireland, BirdWatch Ireland, An Óige, An Taisce, the Irish Wildlife Trust, and CELT, an environmental education organisation based in Scariff in east Clare which the Minister of State, Deputy Shane McEntee, visited earlier this year. These concerned bodies have pointed out that the Coillte estate covers more than 7% of Ireland's landmass and includes 11 forest parks and more than 150 recreation sites. It is estimated that 18 million individual visits are made to the Coillte estate each year, making it one of the most significant recreational and environmental resources in the State. The forests are used by orienteerers, hill walkers, runners and bird watchers as well as local people and family groups. The public can access miles of walking, hiking and long-distance trails as well as the new cycle trails that are being developed by Coillte. This is a particularly important resource at a time when we are promoting good health, fighting obesity and striving to keep people out of hospital. Indeed, at a time when people have less disposable income to holiday abroad, it is even more important to protect our tourism resources.

My understanding is that the Government, at the behest of the troika and as part of the agreed programme for Government, has undertaken to sell the Coillte forest crop but not the land on which the trees grow. It is important to bear in mind that much of the Coillte crop was sown to be harvested as a commercial venture. However, ownership in itself will not protect the recreational use of forests. It is the management of the estate that will determine how public access will be maintained and amenities developed in the public interest. The use of State forests by the people of Ireland has been made possible by an open access policy by Coillte. It is very important that the recreational facility the crop provides is ring-fenced into the future if the crop is sold.

Deputy Clare Daly: Information on Clare Daly Zoom on Clare Daly We are discussing this issue against the backdrop of Coillte's decision to sell 1,000 acres of public forestry with the approval of the Minister, which is in addition to the 40,000 acres of public forest lands that have already been transferred into private ownership by Coillte. It is time for a rigorous public inquiry into the activities of this organisation. In the past three years it has amassed profits of more than €400 million, paid virtually no dividends to the State and paid its own chief executive officer a salary of just short of €500,000 despite the cap on semi-State salaries. Furthermore, more than €1 million of the moneys accruing to the body from the privatisation of public lands was used to plug a pension fund deficit in the organisation.

  What is the Government doing to protect this vital amenity and asset belonging to the people of this country? A geological survey has been commissioned to analyse the mineral wealth that exists under these lands. Will that survey be published and who will have access to that wealth in the event of the lands or crop being sold off? What will the Government do to protect the jobs in that industry and, crucially, to develop other jobs in the sector? We compare very poorly with other European countries in this regard, many of which use forestry as a resource for job creation. In this country, on the other hand, Coillte has apparently been given carte blanche to sell these assets off for a quick buck in contravention of the best interests of the State and its taxpayers.

Deputy Martin Ferris: Information on Martin Ferris Zoom on Martin Ferris During the general election campaign, spokespeople from both Fine Gael and the Labour Party vehemently denied there would be any sale of Coillte forestry under their watch. That, however, is exactly what is happening. We are all aware of the latest statement regarding the privatisation by stealth of lands in Donegal. Since 2009, Coillte has sold off publicly owned lands worth €108 million without any public accountability or scrutiny and without any dividends being returned to the State. I have tabled countless parliamentary questions over the years on this issue, the response in each case being to point out that Coillte is a private company. Nothing could be further from the truth. Coillte is owned by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Finance, both of which are shareholders, but we cannot get any answers regarding the company's activities.

Only Coillte lands that are viable for forestry will interest prospective foreign investors. We were told at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine that a sizeable portion of lands under Coillte control are not viable. What will happen to these non-viable, unsaleable lands when the profitable ones have been sold off? Regarding mineral rights, I was told that Coillte has compiled a detailed account of the mineral deposits that may exist on the lands under its control. What happens to those rights when land is sold to private interests? One of those interested international businesses is chaired by a former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. What happens in the case of a 100 year lease, for example?

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