Seanad Éireann - Volume 92 - 16 May, 1979

Adjournment Matter. - Glen of Imaal Firing Range.

Dr. West: Every Member of the Seanad will join with me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the relatives of the children who were killed or injured in the accident which took place on 14 April last. It is not enough for us to just express our sympathy. We have to ensure, as part of our public duty, that some action is taken to prevent the recurrence of accidents such as this. The accident that took place recently was not the first. It was the second in a 12-month period in which children were either maimed or killed. It is now long past the time for talking about this. Some genuine concrete proposals to prevent a recurrence of such accidents are essential.

When the Glen of Imaal was first used as a firing range it was in the era long before the motor car and it was not easily accessible from Dublin. It was a hard day's journey from Dublin down to that part of Wicklow. In that sense the use of this beautiful part of the country as a firing range was reasonably safe. Now the situation has changed. Not only is the area readily accessible within half an hour from Dublin by motor car, but at the same time people have more money for taking recreation. Also, we encourage our young people to go out in the fresh air at the weekends, and the scenic part of County Wicklow is one of the natural playgrounds for people in the Dublin city area and, the people of Wicklow. The Glen of Imaal is not safe any more. With the increasing number of young people continually going into the mountains, particularly at the week-ends in the spring and summer, the chances of further accidents of this nature are just too high and something must be done.

The only thing, so far as I am aware, that has been done is that the Minister for Defence has announced the setting [157] up of a commission to investigate the situation and to make recommendations. As every politician knows, this is one of the great ways of putting off an unpleasant decision which should be taken urgently. Commissions are always a way of making sure that sleeping dogs still lie. The Minister and his Department have problems. It is not simple to find alternative firing ranges, and it is also not easy to fence off the whole area in question. It is difficult to see what sort of compromise in between those two suggestions will really be effective and will prevent young children from wandering into this area. I am afraid that one of these unpleasant decisions will have to be taken.

I was not encouraged when, on the evening of the accident, a spokesman from the Army ruled out one of these possibilities straight away, by saying that there was no possibility of finding another firing range, because the problems would reappear in another area. That is not quite the situation. One of the principal difficulties about this location is that it is so near the capital city. When it was originally designed as a firing range it was not accessible from Dublin, but now it is. There is not much possibility of a compromise between these two proposals. If the area is to continue to be used as a firing range the area being used for a firing range will have to be narrowed down, clearly defined and fenced off. If that is not done, then we will just have to find an alternative site. There are alternative sites. There would be difficulties about them, but there certainly are sites more suitable for this. If an alternative site was found, a really good clearing up operation on which money could be spent could be done and this area of Wicklow could be made safe for recreation. There are those two possibilities. I hope that this matter is being treated with considerable urgency by the Minister and his Department. Otherwise there will be a recurrence of the accidents that we have already seen in the last 12 months.

I would like the Minister, when he is replying to indicate clearly and explicitly what is being done in this respect and to put at rest the minds of the parents of [158] children in the Dublin area, who go off to the mountains at week-ends and wander into areas that are not properly fenced off. Also there are probably not enough notices up at the moment, although notices will not keep people out. Will the Minister give a clear indication of the action that will be taken to prevent a recurrence of accidents of this nature so that at least out of this latest tragedy some good will come?

I do not intend to take up my full allotment of time, but I know that Senator Cassidy also wishes to say something on this matter.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I am sorry, but I understand that the Chair should have received notice previously of people who intended to speak and therefore——

Dr. West: In the past this practice has not been adhered to, a Leas-Chathaoirleach. I know that provided the speaker went under his allotted time it was permitted to allow another short contribution. I know Senator Cassidy is keen to speak on this subject.

Mrs. Cassidy: I have already——

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: It was the normal procedure that the Chair be notified of those intending to speak on the motion, but on this occasion we will allow a short contribution from Senator Cassidy.

Mrs. Cassidy: I spoke to the Cathaoirleach and got his approval. I am grateful to the Leas-Chathaoirleach, to Senator West and to the Minister for an opportunity to express the concern that is felt by local people, of whom I happen to be one, at the continuing frequency of fatal accidents in the Glen of Imaal surrounding Coolmoney Camp and to express the grave disquiet that is widely felt locally at the absence of any safety precautions or of any attempt to ensure that live ammunition is rendered harmless to people who may for one reason or another be in the glen. Three fatal accidents, two involving children and one involving members of the [159] Defence Forces, have occurred in as many years. It is not enough to point out that there are warning notices in the area, or to say that local people have never been injured. These facts are irrelevant. The fact that children have been involved in two of these accidents is particularly tragic. Children as we all know, will wander and climb, one cannot tie them to a wall. Children on a holiday outing in a scenic area are entitled to be protected and their parents are entitled to know that they are protected, particularly when the responsibility for their safety is the responsibility of a Department of State.

The Glen of Imaal is an area of great scenic beauty in west Wicklow, which otherwise is a disadvantaged area. It is only an hour's drive from Dublin and it has great tourist potential. The Sam MacAllister cottage in the glen, which has been very carefully restored and which stands as a monument to a deed of epic bravery in our history, draws many hundreds of tourists every year as does the transport museum at Castleruddery and the annual deer fair in the glen. Hopefully, the numbers of tourists will increase, bringing a degree of prosperity to the area. The public are entitled to expect the State, in this case the Minister, to assume and to be seen to assume the responsibility for policing the area and to take all necessary precautions, not merely all possible precautions, to ensure that this kind of appalling tragedy will never happen again. Surely it is possible to send in a bomb disposal team to search the area and to defuse the live ammunition. There are bombs and shells there that have been there for half a century. Surely it is possible effectively to patrol the area. If this cannot be done, perhaps the area should be fenced off so that people cannot gain access to the dangerous range.

I have heard stories of climbers coming down from Lugnaquilla and finding themselves surrounded by noise or by odd looking objects and to have thrown themselves on the ground. We should not be deterred at the cost of such safety precautions, because one simply cannot put a price upon human life.

[160] Minister for Defence (Mr. Molloy): First of all I will set the scene in regard to what happened here and the circumstances surrounding this tragic accident which took place on 14 April last in the Glen of Imaal. A group of young boys and girls aged between 12 and 17 years of age from St. Mary's Youth Club in Lucan had been granted permission by an Óige Head Office to hold an Easter weekend camp at Ballinciea Youth Hostel. This hostel is located between Donard village and Knickeen Ford in the Glen of Imaal. They were in the charge of three youth leaders from the club who were aged between 18 and 21 years. The group arrived at the hostel on Friday, 13. On Saturday, 14 April a party of about 30 left the hostel at approximately 11.30 a.m. and went on a hike of the area. It appears that the group divided and that those involved in the accident approached the range from the vicinity of the old Churchill tank at Leitrim Barracks area, continuing across the range Knickeen—Camara Cross— Coan Road and then forded the Knickeen river and continued eastwards to the site of the explosion.

The device which caused the explosion was picked up by one of the children 20 to 30 metres west of the Knickeen—Camara—Coan Road. They put it in a holdall and on reaching the river began to play with it, submerging it in the water, and passing it around. Having crossed the river they continued eastwards for about 500 metres. One of the boys threw the projectile against a small rock causing the explosion. That was at about 12.30 a.m.

The lands at the Glen of Imaal have been in military use since about 1895. The military have been exercising heavy weapons in the glen ever since that time. It was also used for the training of personnel in explosives demolition and in other related training since the foundation of the State. It is absolutely essential that the military personnel should have at least one area in the State where they can gain expertise in the use of all of the weapons with which they are supplied. The nature of the exercises undertaken by the military on these lands is such that at no time is it possible to say with [161] certainty that all of these shells have detonated or that they should be accounted for. When service ammunition fails to explode at the target area during exercises the area is searched and the projectiles found are destroyed. Ricochets may cause unexploded shells to reach places in the lands beyond the general target area. Because of the possibility of shells becoming buried in soft ground it has never been possible to ensure that all unexploded shells are recovered. Shells previously buried in soft ground may become exposed following rain, or grazing by sheep, or even further firing exercises could also cause that to happen. The danger of unexploded shells surfacing at any time is a continuing one. I must emphasise that for the sake of the public. In those circumstances and even with the most stringent military safety precautions, the lands can never be regarded as absolutely safe for recreational purposes.

Members of the public are warned by permanent notices on the lands of the risk of touching a projectile or part of a projectile found there. An Óige and local interests connected with youth groups were made aware by the military authorities and the Department of Defence of the dangers involved in the use of the lands for recreational purposes following the unfortunate incident last September involving some youths who were injured. I appeal to all organisations connected with youth groups and to all who come to the Glen of Imaal for recreation, in the interests of their own safety, to keep away from the military lands as the surest way of avoiding another tragedy similar to that of 14 April.

I join with Senator West in placing on record here my personal regret on the recent tragic occurrence in which these three young boys sadly lost their lives and in which, of course, several other young people were injured. I express my sincere sympathy to their parents and to their relatives and I am sure that all the Members of the House will join with me in doing that.

Since the accident took place, the Chief of Staff instructed the Director of [162] Training to convene a board of officers to examine and report on all aspects of safety on approved military ranges in the State. This board are to consider among other questions the possible effects of new weapons and of new fire control equipment on current safety regulations and safety measures. In addition, I have directed the setting up of a committee to consider and make recommendations to me, as to any further safety precautions which they might deem necessary to be taken to minimise danger to the public arising out of the use of the Glen of Imaal. Invitations to certain bodies and persons to serve on this committee have already been issued and I am asking this committee to report to me not later than 30 June next. That would be a civilian board.

I want the House to understand that it is essential for the Defence Forces to retain and to continue to use the Glen of Imaal as a training ground for the firing of infantry, artillery and cavalry weapons. It is and will continue to be required for the destruction of dangerous explosive materials and for the training of EOD personnel. The location of the range has been criticised by private individuals and by some public figures, and suggestions have been made, some of which have been repeated here by Senator West, in regard to closing the range, fencing it off, or re-locating it. Unless alternative sites are available the question of closing the range is out of the question. Closing the area does not make it safe, nor would it be so in the forseeable future. As I explained in the other House unexploded projectiles that have been fired there over the past 50 years which could still be buried there, could reappear over perhaps the next 100 years. I am just guessing in trying to emphasise how long the danger of those unexploded projectiles remains. Closing it and opening a range somewhere else does not remove the danger which will continue for members of the public who would visit the area or use it for recreational purposes. Fencing it off was the other suggestion. That might involve a perimeter fence of around 18 miles long. It must, however, be remembered that a number of public roads run through this area. Unless these are either [163] fenced in on both sides or closed altogether there will be little point in fencing the outer perimeter. That would not be a solution. However, I am prepared to await the outcome of this committee that I have invited to act on this matter.

I can see some of the difficulties in some of the suggestions that have been made already such as the question of re-locating the range. This suggestion has been made again by Senator West. Even if there were locations elsewhere considered suitable by the General Staff, the pressures of environmentalists and public representatives, I think the House would agree, would make such a move impossible. We have only to reflect on the objections that were raised to the siting of the asbestos waste dumps and ordinary refuse pit heads, and consider the outcry that would follow our relocating the range elsewhere in the country.

I would ask the House to accept that the Glen of Imaal must continue in its present role indefinitely. The obligation rests on the Department of Defence and on me as Minister to ensure that the very maximum safety precautions are taken to protect the public. I would repeat my appeal to members of the public not to use the military grounds at the Glen of Imaal for recreation purposes. If people continue to go into those grounds we would ask them to be very careful in the manner in which they use the grounds [164] and if they find any projectiles, they should not touch them but should report their location. If people continue to organise groups of young boys and girls and bring them into this area the possibility of further accidents cannot be eliminated.

I had discussions with An Óige last week. They have expressed their concern and have offered full co-operation with me in seeking ways in which we can overcome this problem. I am as gravely concerned as any Member of this House or of the community that such an occurrence would never occur again.

I thank Senator West for giving me the opportunity of referring very briefly to this matter here. All I can say in conclusion is to assure him and the other Members of the House that I will give very full consideration to the suggestions that may be made by the comittee that I have set up and to any other suggestions by Senators or others concerned about the matter. I will seek to implement as expeditiously as possible any valid proposal that may be made. In the meantime until these matters are reported upon, the military authorities are exercising the very maximum security in the area in order to ensure that no other tragedy will occur there. We can only take human precautions. I would appeal to people to be wise and sensible in the use they make of these lands.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.35 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 30 May 1979.