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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 18 Jun 1931

Vol. 39 No. 5

Private Deputies' Business. - Adjournment Debate—Mountjoy Prisoners.

The answer which I received here to a question addressed to the Minister for Justice with regard to the treatment of Messrs. Seán McGuinness and George Mooney in Mountjoy in consequence of the hunger-strike in which they indulged, has left me so dissatisfied that I take this opportunity of seeking further information on it and of registering a protest against the answer given to me by the Minister. In order to refresh Deputies' minds on the subject of why hospital treatment is necessary, it is well to go back to the answer to a question addressed by me to the Minister for Justice in which he said that George Mooney's health had suffered from his long period of confinement. That fact was admitted without any qualification. On 11th June, in the Dáil, the Minister admitted that the cell doors of Mooney and McGuinness were left open during certain hours. He further admitted that later, on his instructions, or on the instructions of an officer of his Department, that that privilege was withdrawn and the cell doors were closed. As a consequence these prisoners were compelled, when they could not get fresh air any other way, to destroy the cell windows in order to secure ventilation. The result of that action on their part was that they were put in strait-jackets. Each of these prisoners at that time, it is well to remind members of the Dáil, was in delicate health, particularly Mooney, who had been in what you might call solitary confinement for a period of nearly seventeen months. The Minister, of course, will say that it was of his own volition, but that is neither here nor there. The fact is that he was confined, and that that was bound to have an effect upon his health. McGuinness did not suffer from the solitary confinement, but he suffered from the excessive brutality which resulted in his spitting up blood, as was testified in a sworn affidavit of a prisoner who was released last week.

The consequence of this brutality and of the persecution indulged in in that prison was that the prisoners felt that they were not being treated as human beings, and feeling that some more desperate action was necessary to force their case on the attention of the Minister for Justice, and on the attention of the authorities of this Dáil, resolved to make the only protest that remained within their power, the desperate and, if I might so describe it from my own experience, the inhuman protest of a hunger-strike. The hunger-strike followed and lasted for eleven days.

There was a discussion here last week, and the Minister's attitude might best be stated in one sentence which he uttered in the course of his reply—"If these men choose to injure their health it is their look-out"— merely a repetition nine years later of the doctrine—"Let them rot; it does not matter." The Adjutant-General of the Republican Army called that hunger-strike off after eleven days on Saturday, and one would imagine that even sentiments of justice and charity, of which we hear so much from the Government side of the House, would have induced the Minister at least to take cognizance of the fact that the long period of solitary confinement which was endured by Mooney, and the excessive brutality which undoubtedly was inflicted on McGuinness, would have been sufficient cause for immediate attention after the effects of that hunger-strike. Evidently the Minister's heart has become a piece of granite. He is dead to all human appeal. His ears have been stuffed, and are incapable of hearing anything except the doctrine, "Let them rot." It is pure cussedness on his part, a refusal, in the way in which another Minister was described last night, to recognise a mistake.

We find him, in reply to the question addressed to him to-day, as to whether he had issued instructions to the prison authorities to provide adequate hospital treatment to prevent serious after-effects from this strike, stating that no special instructions have been issued in this case. The Minister for Justice, of course, never having had the experience of the horrors of a hunger-strike, fails to realise what exactly it means. He fails to realise that eleven days' hunger-strike, small period though it is, following upon a period of solitary confinement in the one case, and excessive physical torture in the other, must be met by medical attention over a period of not less than three weeks. We find him stating definitely and cold-bloodedly that no special instructions have been issued. We may take it for granted from that phrase, "no special instructions," that the ordinary prison diet is probably available for these two men. The ordinary prison diet, of course, is a thing which the Minister never has had experience of either. If he had he would be very slow about issuing instructions that men who had endured a hunger-strike for eleven days would secure nothing but the ordinary prison diet.

It is well to anticipate him in this. He will state that the medical authorities in the prison are giving due attention and will undoubtedly give the requisite medical supplies to these men. I have had some experience of prison doctors under the Free State Government and of what the prisoner who endures a hunger-strike receives in the line of medical attention, and I want to tell the Minister that unless special instructions are issued to the medical authorities in Mountjoy it is quite likely that these men will be allowed merely the ordinary routine food of the prison. If that is so after eleven days' hunger-strike it is quite possible that their health will be permanently injured, and if their health is permanently injured, despite what the Minister says here that it is their own look-out. I charge him with the responsibility, and if they die I charge the Minister for Justice in this Dáil with the moral murder of these two men. It is no use getting away from the fact by drawing red herrings across the trail and introducing side issues as to the type of criminals these men are. The Minister for Justice knows very well that those men are not criminals. He has learned nothing, his ears being stuffed and his heart being dead to the appeal of human sentiment from the long struggle of Irish political prisoners in British jails for political treatment. He has not learned the fundamental fact that all these struggles in the years that have passed have left something which prisoners can go on, and if he does not desire, as I said the other night, to lay up a heritage of bitterness and animosity which may result in calamity, I would suggest to him to take a more human and more broad-minded view of this. I would suggest to him, apart from anything but pure Christian humanity that men who have endured suffering deserve something more than the cold-blooded, granite-like reply that was given to me to-day. The Minister probably will gloss over these facts, but I would put it to him that if his prison medical authorities are of the same calibre and of the same mentality as the Governor of Mountjoy and as the prison warder, Sugrue, have proved themselves to be, then there is little hope that there will be any result from the medical authorities in Mountjoy. These two officers in Mountjoy have proved themselves to be ——

The Deputy should confine his criticisms to the Minister. He is not entitled to criticise people who are not here to defend themselves.

I am trying to show that the Minister has issued no special instructions to the medical authorities in Mountjoy, and if their mentality is anything like the mentality of the Governor and of the chief warder, then these prisoners have very little hope.

I suggest to the Minister that if he does not like the idea of bending the knee just a little by conceding even medical treatment to these men, it is far better to concede that treatment and humble his superior pride just a little bit than to be faced in a week or maybe two weeks—one never knows— with probably the death of one or two of these men. I am not trying to make the case more serious than it is. I have seen men driven mad in Mountjoy from a hunger-strike. I have seen men who came out of that strike in 1923 with their health ruined. I do not want the same thing to happen the two types of Irishmen such as Seán McGuinness and George Mooney are. I put it to the Minister that if he wants to avoid the responsibility for being classed in history as being just as guilty of insane persecution as those who persecuted the Fenian prisoners—if he does not want to be classed in history as just as guilty as those men he cannot continue this policy. But if he does not, and if he wants to give some semblance of justice to the type of office which he bears, then I put it to him that his duty is at once to give a different answer to the question which I asked from the answer given to-day. I put it to him that if anything happens these men, if they die as a result of the treatment which they are getting, and if the medical attention which is required is not given to them, no matter how he tries to dodge responsibility, he is guilty. I put it to him further, that even if they do not die, but if their health is permanently injured or impaired, and they become wrecks, just as many Fenian prisoners became wrecks under the British system of persecution, the responsibility will not be theirs; the responsibility will be that of James Fitzgerald-Kenney, Minister for Justice. On him the guilt will rest, and on him the responsibility for whatever consequences may occur will fall.

The answer which the Minister has given to this question is an insult to the House. The position of the Minister is that he is the servant of the House in respect of a particular Department, and is bound, when asked by any representative of this House for details upon any question of such importance as this, to give the full details, and to tell exactly what the position now is as regards these prisoners. Instead of that, he only tells us in a few brief words that he has given no special instructions in reference to these two men who, so far as the public generally know, may be upon the verge either of insanity or death. We are entitled to have the full details with reference to these two men, no matter what their actions have been. We are entitled to know from the Minister what has occurred between him and the Visiting Committee. The Visiting Committee, as the Minister knows, have under the prison rules a very large measure of power. They must visit every week, and when any punishment is proposed to be meted out to any prisoners they must be consulted in the matter. All we hear from the Minister is that no special instructions have been issued in the case of these two men. They have been on hunger-strike. They have gone through a very severe period, which must have injured their health, as we know from the experience of others who have gone through the same kind of treatment, and whose health has been very severely injured. A large number of the general public are anxious about them. Another section are extremely anxious about the condition of these two men and they are exasperated. It is the duty of the Minister to let us know the full facts as to how these men are getting on.

If there are no special instructions we must assume that they are getting ordinary prison diet. To give men coming off hunger-strike ordinary prison diet is to commit murder, either slow or fast. These men may survive, but their health will be permanently injured and they will wither away afterwards, but in either case the responsibility of the Minister is that these men should receive special hospital treatment after they have come off hunger-strike. They have, of their own volition, come off hunger-strike, and if the Minister had any scrap of humanity or statesmanship he would have done the large thing in this matter, and he would not merely have seen that they were given hospital treatment, but he would have reinstated all the privileges which they have claimed as honourable men. These men are making a struggle for special treatment, not to be considered as low-down criminals, and in the course of that struggle they have suffered severely. In view of that suffering, if the Minister had any largeness about him, he would certainly have granted these privileges to these men, and not taken up an attitude which is cruel so far as they are concerned, which is exasperating to the outside public, and which is insulting to the members of this House.

I cannot claim to have any inside knowledge regarding the present physical condition of the two men concerned, but if there is anything in the statement made by Deputy Mullins and others, and some of the statements we have seen published, namely, that these men have been on hunger-strike for eleven days, I can say from information which has been given to me, as well as from what I know, that McGuinness is not the type of man who can stand the strain of eleven days' hunger-strike without some kind of special treatment at the end of it. All I wish to say is this, and I believe I can say it on behalf of all parties in the Offaly area, that taking into consideration the circumstances in which McGuinness was originally arrested and the charge upon which he was tried and found guilty, and what happened during the intervening period, the Minister will be well advised in the interests of peace in that area to release McGuinness. If he was generous enough to make a gesture like that he would find that the unnecessarily provocative action which McGuinness adopted, and which led up to his re-arrest on a recent occasion, would not be repeated.

This is a rather curious debate. We had, of course, all the usual rhetoric. We had it from Deputy Mullins, and "the echo echoed softly the sounds that fell." We had Deputy Mullins' rhetoric reproduced in more gentle terms by Deputy Little. The curious thing is that they all proceeded upon a completely baseless assumption. Before I come to the definite and specific facts of this case, I should like to remind Deputy Mullins that if some people have learned nothing, he seems to be essentially the person who has learned nothing. The Deputy does not seem to know that there is an Oireachtas in this country. He does not happen to know that the Oireachtas rules this country, and that all the jails and prisons are under the Oireachtas. Why he talks about British jails I fail completely to understand, except the Deputy—I am sure against his own better judgment, because the Deputy is not wanting generally, at any rate, in average ability, —wants to try and get a little cheap notoriety—very cheap notoriety indeed.

To get down to the specific facts of the case, to use Deputy Mullins' own phrase, these men did indulge in a hunger-strike. They deliberately chose to go on hunger-strike. We debated the other night the matters which preceded that hunger-strike. I placed the accurate facts before the House. Of course, Deputy Mullins has to repeat a completely inaccurate statement that the men could not get fresh air and had to break their windows. The men had the ordinary ventilation in their cells and broke the windows simply because a privilege which they had received, and which they had violated and abused, was withdrawn from them. That any brutality was used towards them by the Governor or chief warder or anybody else is an unfounded calumny. It is very easy for Deputy Mullins, or any other Deputy who desires cheap notoriety, to get up and make baseless statements against men who do their duty.

That is based on a sworn affidavit, and there is no use trying to get out of it that way.

It is easy for him to get up and make charges against men who do their duty to the State. That is the cheapest method, I suppose, of ingratiating himself with a body of persons that it is no credit to anybody to be associated with. It is said I have done a most shocking and awful thing. I do not know how hard my heart is, how deaf my ears are, but in this particular case no special instructions were given. Why should special instructions be given? We have a perfectly competent medical staff in Mountjoy to deal with the case of every single prisoner. These men went on hunger-strike, and after a certain time they came off hunger-strike. As a matter of fact, prior to the conclusion of the hunger-strike Mooney was removed to hospital—I think the day before he came off hunger-strike—and he has been in hospital and is receiving hospital diet. The other man, McGuinness, when he came off hunger-strike was not put on ordinary prison diet. He was given diet suitable to a man in his condition, commencing with liquid diet, and was then gradually brought on to diet suitable to a man who has not taken solid food for a considerable number of days. These men have been perfectly competently and correctly treated. There is another thing, and that is that in the case of such men as these there was no need, there never will be any need, for any instructions to be issued. The prison authorities, and especially the prison doctors, know their work and carry it out admirably, and there is no need for anybody to give special instructions to them.

As far as the present health of the prisoners is concerned, McGuinness is completely recovered and is in his normal health. Mooney is in hospital and still receiving special diet. Of course, Mooney is a man who refused to take exercise for a very considerable time. If you confine yourself in a cell and practically never leave that cell your health will most undoubtedly suffer, and Mooney has run himself down, and on top of that he has proceeded, to use Deputy Mullins's phrase, to indulge in hunger-strike. If he does so, naturally you cannot expect his health will be completely unimpaired, but he is not in danger or anything of the kind, and he is not confined to bed. I really have nothing further to say on this matter. The treatment that is given to these men by the medical officers in Mountjoy Prison has been correct and proper, and if these men wish to go on further, if they wish to make fools of themselves by refusing to take exercise, that is their own look-out.

This refusal to take exercise, as I have already told the House, has had a very strange origin. There were a couple of men who called themselves, I think, "social war prisoners or class-warfare prisoners." A couple of these men had just about a fortnight of their sentences to do. They got in touch with Sweeney and McGuinness —not the McGuinness in this instance, but another who was in prison at the time—and these fellows succeeded in getting Sweeney and McGuinness to join them in a refusal to take exercise. They were out of prison at the end of a fortnight and Sweeney and McGuinness then found themselves in the position that they had long terms to do, and by following the example of others they have put themselves in this position. I should have thought that if Deputies had sympathy with these particular individuals or the two men who have now taken up the running from Sweeney and McGuinness, that is, Mooney and the other, they would urge upon them to take the commonsense point of view and to make their prison life as easy as possible for themselves. If they wish to make prison life difficult for themselves, that is entirely their own look-out.

As far as Mooney is concerned, I intend to adopt precisely the same attitude in his case as I did in the case of Sweeney and McGuinness. In the case of Sweeney and McGuinness they were let out before their time; that is to say, they had earned no remission marks, and could have been kept in for the entire period of their sentence. They were not kept in for the entire period of their sentence, and were allowed out at the expiration of the period at which they would have been let out if they had conducted themselves properly in prison. I intend to take the same attitude in this case, because I think these persons have made prison life so unnecessarily hard for themselves that they may be fairly given the same remission of sentence as they would have got in the ordinary course if they had been properly conducted prisoners, but it does not follow that the precedent which I have set in the case of Sweeney and McGuinness, and which I intend to follow in Mooney's case, is a precedent that will be followed in every case if people insist on following up the course they did.

May I ask the Minister if he is satisfied that a continuation of the incarceration of Mooney in a cell without allowing him access to the open air for exercise will not have a detrimental effect on Mooney's health? As I understand it, this prisoner has never been a very strong man, and if the Minister has seen his way to extend what he considers consideration to the prisoner in the matter of the remission, I think he might at least allow him to get exercise during the remainder of his period. After all the remaining period is not so long that it matters one way or the other, and it is not worth the Minister's while fighting for anything more.

Deputy Derrig astonishes me. Has he never listened to a single debate upon this question, or was he asleep while Deputy Mullins was speaking—and it must be rather difficult to sleep while Deputy Mullins is speaking, for otherwise I cannot understand the particular question the Deputy has put. Everybody knows except Deputy Derrig that Mooney is not only free to exercise, but it has been urged upon him to take this exercise, and he has been told that he is very foolish not to take this exercise. He has not been confined in his cell. At the time that he should take exercise he deliberately keeps himself in his cell and refuses to take exercise, and if he wishes to take that line it is his own look-out. But for Deputy Derrig to get up here and ask why this man is not allowed to take exercise, when everybody in the House knows he is free to take exercise, and when I believe Deputy Derrig himself knows it, however innocent he may appear——

I deny your statement altogether.

My answer is that not only is this man allowed to take exercise but it is strongly urged upon him that he is to take exercise.

Just one question. Can the Minister tell us whether this prisoner is at liberty to take exercise and not to associate with prisoners that he thinks are of a different class to himself? In other words, is the choice given to the prisoner to take exercise by himself or else remain in his cell?

No, certainly not; the man has got to obey prison discipline.

Does not the Minister know that men have been driven mad by solitary confinement?

If the man wishes to drive himself mad why does the Deputy encourage him? (Interruptions). There would be much less of this if Deputy de Valera had the courage to get up —— (renewed interruptions)-

The Dáil adjourned at 11 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 19th June.