Tuesday, 24 October 2006
This matter relates to the need for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to take steps to prevent the placing of advertisements in the Border region of the Republic in respect of the sale of illegal fireworks in Northern Ireland. I raised the issue of the sale of illegal fireworks in this jurisdiction approximately two weeks and made some suggestions as to what the Minister should do. He subsequently made an announcement regarding the 2006 Act and the advertising campaign. I did not, however, realise the full extent of the problem and the ineffectiveness of the Minister's response until I was travelling between Donegal and Dundalk a week ago, when I had the opportunity to observe the disastrous situation that arises when the law in one jurisdiction is the opposite to the law in the neighbouring jurisdiction.
In the Republic, it is an offence to possess a firework with intent to sell or supply under the Minister's new Criminal Justice Act 2006. Moreover, it is an offence to light an unlicensed firework. The penalty for each of these offences is a fine of up to €10,000 or five years imprisonment, or both. The simple possession of a firework attracts a €10,000 penalty. These are severe penalties. Across the Border in Northern Ireland, however, unlimited quantities of fireworks are legally on sale in bona fide retail outlets and in wholesale warehouses. I saw no Garda presence of any sort along the Border to deter purchasers from the Republic crossing into the North or to confiscate their criminal cargo on their return.
To further underline the stupidity of the situation, there were hoardings and signposts erected in the Republic advertising the illegal goods available for sale legally in the neighbouring jurisdiction. The Minister's new penalties and offences in the legislation ring very hollow, particularly as he has not taken steps to ban the advertising of illegal goods along the Border or to increase patrols to deter purchasers or confiscate illegal goods from motorists returning to the Republic. Most important, he has not taken steps to discuss with his counterparts in Northern Ireland the illogicality of having diametrically opposed legal positions on the possession and use of fireworks in the two jurisdictions. The only solution to the annual explosion of fireworks in the run up to Hallowe'en is to bring forward proposals to synchronise the legislation on an all-Ireland basis. Either fireworks should become legal under strict controls in both jurisdictions or they should be banned in both jurisdictions.
Last year in Northern Ireland there was a whopping 56% increase in injuries involving fireworks and there is a campaign afoot in schools there to reduce accidents this year. There is a strong case for banning them in both jurisdictions. It is high time an effective approach was agreed so that elderly people will not be obliged to dread the imminent arrival of Hallowe'en and that parents will not be worried about injuries to their children from dangerous explosive devices in the hands of irresponsible people.
The Tánaiste is aware that a number of persons and companies in Northern Ireland which manufacture and/or sell fireworks in that jurisdiction advertise their products in the Republic. However, before addressing the issue of advertising, I wish first to outline the law and current policy relating to the control of fireworks.
The Explosives Act 1875, as amended by the Criminal Justice Act 2006, governs the importation, manufacture, storage and sale of fireworks. While the law does not specifically ban the importation, manufacture, sale or use of fireworks, they may only be imported into Ireland on foot of an importation licence granted by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It is current policy, in the interests of safety and security, to restrict, to the greatest extent possible, the availability of fireworks to the general public. Effect is given to this policy through the use of the licensing powers, conferred on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform by the 1875 Act. Licences are only issued for the importation of fireworks used in organised displays, conducted by professional or competent operators. In effect, this policy means that the only fireworks imported into the State under licence and "legally held" are those used in professional displays. All other fireworks imported, held, sold or used in this country are illegal and any person in possession of fireworks without a valid licence is liable to prosecution.
Last year, the Tánaiste commissioned research into the public's attitude to current policy on the control of fireworks. The general conclusion of the research was that people are generally in favour of the thrust of the current policy of prohibiting the importation of fireworks for sale to members of the public.
On the question of prohibiting the advertisement in this jurisdiction of fireworks for sale in Northern Ireland, the House will be aware that the sale of fireworks there is not illegal. It is, therefore, open to any person who wishes to import fireworks into this jurisdiction, on foot of an importation licence issued by the Tánaiste, to purchase fireworks in Northern Ireland. While the question of advertising generally, and the accuracy of the advertisement content, is a matter for the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, it seems that in the circumstances one could not prohibit in this jurisdiction the advertising of fireworks for sale in Northern Ireland.
The question of advertising of fireworks for sale in this jurisdiction is, however, a different matter. As already stated, while our law does not ban the importation of fireworks for sale, it is current policy not to issue licences for the importation of fireworks for sale here to the general public. As a result of recent changes in the law, any person found in possession of fireworks for sale, or with intent to supply, will be liable on conviction on indictment to a fine of up to €10,000 or up to five years imprisonment, or both.
The Tánaiste is fully aware of the difficulties which the illegal use of fireworks present each year at this time, the distress they cause to people, particularly the elderly, and the dangers they pose. Conscious of this, he introduced, in the Criminal Justice Act 2006, a number of amendments to the Explosives Act 1875. These provide for new offences governing the misuse of fireworks in public places and an offence of possession of illegally imported fireworks with intent to supply. They also provide for significantly increased penalties governing the illegal importation, sale and use of fireworks. These new offences and penalties are that it is an offence for any person to possess a firework with intent to sell or supply, without a licence; it is an offence to throw an ignited firework at any person or property; and it is an offence to light unlicensed fireworks in a public place. The penalty for such offences is a fine of up to €10,000 or five years imprisonment, or both.
The simple possession of fireworks without a licence is also an offence for which a person may be liable to a fine of up to €10,000. This year, for the first time, the Tánaiste embarked on a nationwide advertising campaign designed to generate knowledge among members of the public that it is illegal to possess fireworks without a licence, to bring to their attention the new offences and penalties for the illegal possession and use of fireworks introduced under the Criminal Justice Act 2006 and to improve awareness of the danger of fireworks. The campaign is national in nature, comprising print, radio and outdoor advertisements and will run up until Hallowe'en. In this regard, it should be noted that large advertising billboards with the clear and simple message of the campaign, "No Licence — No Fireworks", and outlining clearly the penalties, have been strategically located in the Border counties.
In the lead-up to Hallowe'en each year, special efforts are made by the Garda to combat the illegal importation, sale and use of fireworks. Where necessary, specific policing plans are put in place in areas where particular problems can arise. These plans include intelligence gathering on known dealers and suppliers and, once identified, putting plans in place to arrest them and seize their stocks of illegal fireworks.
This year an intelligence-led operation — Operation Tombola — which aims to prevent and detect the organised importation for sale of fireworks, has been put in place by the Garda Commissioner. In this context chief superintendents throughout the country have been instructed to introduce measures appropriate to their respective areas of responsibility, with particular emphasis on Garda divisions in the Dublin metropolitan region and Border areas. The operation, while being intelligence-driven, is also coupled with sporadic high visibility policing activities. Operation Tombola commenced on 25 September 2006 and, to date, there have been 30 seizures of fireworks with an estimated value of €87,000.
In the past five years, operations of this kind have resulted in significant seizures of illegally imported fireworks with an estimated value of over €2 million. All fireworks seized are forfeited by the person possessing them and destroyed in accordance with the provisions of the Explosives Act 1875.