Mick Wallace – No Honest Engagement Over Maghaberry
Over this last number of years since the ending of their protest action in November 2012, in order to create the space for the implementation of the August 2010 Agreement, Republican Prisoners have engaged with various bodies ranging from the Prison Service management, Political Parties, David Ford’s Assessment Team, the Catholic Church, Independent Councillors, Prisoner Ombudsman, International Committee of the Red Cross and members of the 26 Counties Oireachtas Commitee and TDs. So far, all this engagement has not resulted in any progress whatsoever in relation to the implementation of the August 2010 Agreement; despite commitments given and recommendations agreed to at different times throughout this process.
Most recently, a member of one of those bodies, Mick Wallace TD, highlighted the reality of the situation in Maghaberry during “Oireachtas Debates”. Mick exposed the lies regarding the most recent assaults that took place in Maghaberry Jail and argued that rather than progress there has been a deterioration of the situation in Maghaberry.
The IRPWA welcome Mick Wallace’s contribution in which he clearly and unequivocally lays the blame for the failure on the doorstep of the Prison Service, the Security Services, the Stormont Administration – specifically the Justice Minister David Ford, and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).
We also welcome his assertion that the proposed “forum would be constituted under terms of reference that allow it to make decisions”. Since the acceptance of a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as the Independent Chair of the Forum, Republican Prisoners have made it clear that the “Terms of Reference” is key to any future progress.
The following transcript is taken from this debate:
91. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views in respect of discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the urgent need to implement the recommendations following the stocktake of the Maghaberry Prison agreement and, in particular, that the forum would be constituted under terms of reference that allow it to make decisions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28628/15]
Deputy Mick Wallace: As the Minister knows, a group of cross-party individuals has been going up North to Maghaberry Prison for a few years. The second-last time we were there was in November, and we were there again recently. Sadly, we have found that despite the Stocktake agreement supposedly being in place things have deteriorated. Does the Minister have any concerns in this area?
Deputy Charles Flanagan: Prison issues in Northern Ireland, in particular those affecting prisoners in separated accommodation, regularly feature in my discussions with Northern Ireland Minister of Justice, David Ford, MLA, and, on non-devolved matters, with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, MP. In my contacts, I emphasise the importance of building trust between separated prisoners and prison management in Maghaberry Prison. Trust has been damaged by the 2012 murder of prison officer David Black. The way forward will be through the implementation of the recommendations of the September 2014 Stocktake report of the independent assessment team, which reviewed progress in implementing the August 2010 agreement at Maghaberry Prison.
The Northern Ireland Prison Service and prisoners are agreed on the importance of implementing the Stocktake report. The appointment of a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross as the new independent chair of the prison forum should assist progress in this regard. To date progress has not moved as quickly as anyone would wish. It is my understanding that representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross have been actively consulting with all parties to the prison forum over recent weeks, including republican and loyalist prisoners as well as management in the prison to agree working methods.
Strip-searching, controlled movement and detention in the care and supervision unit of Maghaberry Prison continue as points of difference and tension between prisoners and prison management. It is important to bear in mind that a balance is required to be found between vindicating the rights of prisoners in restrictive imprisonment with the duty on management to ensure that an environment is created where the health and safety of staff and inmates are protected. There are differences in emphasis between management and prisoners in where the balance lies. This is further complicated by the differing responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Department of Justice and the Northern Ireland Office in respect of these matters. To effectively address these issues it is important that progress is shown.
My officials actively follow up with appropriate departments, the Northern Ireland Prison Service, the Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and prisoners on these and other matters. I am aware that the independent chair of the prison forum is seized of the importance of these issues. I was pleased last week to have an opportunity to meet a group of interested Deputies on this issue. I would be happy to keep Deputy Wallace informed of developments in this area.
Deputy Mick Wallace: I am informed of the issues. The Minister referred to trust. If I was the principal of a secondary school and there was a breakdown and things were not working out, many people would be pointing the finger at the principal, at me. I see no serious willingness in this area. We have met the prisoners, the governor and assistant governors. I do not see an honest engagement from management side in the prison. What we have witnessed in recent years is frightening and it is deteriorating, not improving.
Previously, when we brought up this subject the Minister said that there had been assaults from republican prisoners on prison staff. That did not happen and the prison governor confirmed it. There have been no assaults. The only assaults that have taken place have been on prisoners, not on staff. There have been complaints of verbal disagreements between prisoners and staff, but that is normal even outside prison.
Controlled movement has been condemned and there is no logic in how those responsible are operating. They have disimproved things. There is strip-searching. Individuals who were brought to hospital never left the sight of security forces. They were strip-searched going out and strip-searched coming back, despite the fact that they were handcuffed to security personnel all the time. No one could possible justify it. There is an effort on the part of the management of the prison to humiliate the prisoners. It is illogical. There is a better way to deal with this. I am surprised that the Minister is not forcing the issue and putting pressure on those concerned to see common sense.
Deputy Charles Flanagan: It is in everybody’s interest to advance matters. I invite the Deputy to agree with me that the recommendations made in the Stocktake report represent the way forward. The Northern Ireland Prison Service has accepted the recommendation made in the report that forum meetings take place at least once every two months with an agreed agenda. If there is an agreed agenda, the types of issue or individual grievance raised by the Deputy can best be addressed.
In December 2014 Mr. Tom Miller was nominated as chairman of the prison forum. However, this nomination was not acceptable to republican prisoners. Following a process of consultation, prisoners and prison management have agreed to accept a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross to chair the forum. Nobody could contest the independence of an individual of that status. The decision of the individual to take on the chairmanship of the forum was not taken lightly. It followed a period of intense organisational reflection, including on how best to maintain the integrity and independence of the organisation while acting as chairman. It is important that everybody work together.
I welcome the contribution of the Deputy but believe it is important that those concerned be in a position to move forward with the forum, the agenda items, the format of the agenda and the specific issues agreed in advance by both prisoners and prison management in order to deal with many of the grievances that persist.
Deputy Mick Wallace: We, too, welcome the involvement of the Red Cross, but the terms of reference will be crucial. The question of whether the Red Cross individual will have the power to be a decision-maker is paramount.
We have also met the Minister of Justice, Mr. Ford. Forgive us for feeling he is either unable or unwilling to implement his decisions on the ground. We have serious worries that there are people with a vested interest in trouble. We find it hard to get our heads around the fact that the recommendations made in the Stocktake report have not even been implemented properly. Those concerned have reneged on the controlled movement recommendation made in the report. There was supposed to be four and four, allowed to mix. There was three and three, allowed to mix. They went to four and four, but there was only a maximum of four allowed out at a time. It is actually a regression.
We fear there that are people within the security forces in Northern Ireland who, perhaps because of the loss of overtime or jobs, seem to have a vested interest in trouble. They almost like to see trouble coming from the community in reaction to how the prisoners have been treated within the prison. What is happening is irrational. We are not remotely interested in any republican sympathies but actually believe what is occurring is troublesome and problematic. The Irish Government should play a stronger role in addressing the irrationality on the part of the management of Maghaberry Prison and the Northern Ireland Office.
Deputy Charles Flanagan: If there is any perceived delay in the implementation of the recommendations made in the Stocktake report, it is important that the issues be addressed. The report, produced by the independent assessment team, was transmitted to Minister Ford and representatives of the prison late last year. It clearly addresses a number of grievances and issues on which progress should be made. It has not been possible to realise the full potential of the Agreement, partly because of a lack of trust between the prison service and separated prisoners, as adverted to by the Deputy, and also because of understandable concerns about staff safety, particularly after the brutal murder of a prison officer, Mr. David Black. However, the report did make a number of recommendations, including on full body searching, freedom of movement, the format of prison forums, family visits and the provision of education. I am sure the Deputy will concede that these recommendations have been largely accepted by the Northern Ireland Prison Service. I accept that implementation has been slow, but it is my understanding that the intention is to address these matters. I welcome the independent chairman and look forward to seeing matters proceed at a rate that has not been evident heretofore.