Adjournment Debate. - Detention of Irish Prisoner.

I wish to share my time with my colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív.

I am sure that is in order and agreed.

I thank the Tánaiste for coming into the House to respond to this matter. As Members are aware, Deputy Ó Cuív and I travelled to London on Thursday, 13 February to meet Róisín McAliskey in Holloway Prison. Proper arrangements were made for the visit. We were treated with courtesy and in a civil manner. We had an open meeting of 40 minutes duration with her. This was followed by a satisfactory meeting with the governor of the prison whom I found open, interesting and helpful. I make these points to separate rhetoric from reality.

Róisín McAliskey is entering the seventh month of pregnancy. She is slight and frail and has been undermined, psychologically, by the alien conditions in which she is being held. She is deemed to be a category A, high risk prisoner. The Government should press for the alleviation of these conditions which we found to be utterly disgraceful for a woman in her condition. They include a lack of physical exercise, a lack of association with others, surveillance at 30 minute intervals throughout the night and strip searching at regular intervals.

She is receiving medical treatment from her doctor within the prison. She has, however, been asked to sign a disclaimer to the effect that should anything happen to her or her baby she will not hold the prison responsible. She has not done so and both Deputy Ó Cuív and I encouraged her not to sign it under duress.

On our return we met the German and British Ambassadors. There is what I can only describe, politely, as a diplomatic fudge as each Ambassador informed us that their country does not oppose the granting of bail. I know the Tánaiste called in the British Ambassador and I am sure he had an interesting discussion with her. Perhaps that fudge can be cleared up. In this era of information technology two weeks after we visited her in prison the two embassies are giving the same message. The British Crown authorities and the German authorities are saying they do not oppose bail. The German Ambassador said that his Government did not have the power to do so nor was their opinion sought on this matter.

Years after the event Irish cases appear to get justice. The case of Bloody Sunday has been raised. The Tánaiste, the Government and our party are doing their best to bring the events of that day into the open, to secure a proper apology and to have all the facts ascertained. With the Guilford Four and the Birmingham Six justice was not seen to be done until years after the event and the same is happening in regard to the events of Bloody Sunday.

This matter is one of immediate humanitarian interest and concern and because of the nature of the pregnancy we cannot delay on this. I am pleased to record what we saw and those we met. We found her in brave spirits, but she was weak and very frail. We want this House to convey its concern about this case and how it is progressing.

Ba mhaith liom cuidiú leis an Teachta O'Rourke agus buíochas a ghabháil leis an Tánaiste as ucht teacht isteach agus éisteacht leis an gcás seo tráthnóna. Two issues concerning this case must be sorted out expeditiously. An explanation is owed as to why Róisín McAliskey is the first ever female pregnant prisoner to have been categorised as high risk, category A. The categorisation of prisoners is a matter for the British authorities. The conditions under which she is being held, which were well explained by my colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, are wrong in the circumstances. Lights are on in the prison 24 hours a day and there is constant strip searching even for closed visits. Open visits were afforded to her family for the first time last week. Closed visits do not afford visitors any contact with the prisoner.

The second issue relates to bail and the German authorities. A letter dated 19 February 1997 from Gareth Peirce of Birnberg & Co., Solicitors states that during a court hearing a representative of the Crown prosecution said that the Germany Embassy representative at the court had repeated that the Germany Government was opposed to the granting of bail to Ms McAliskey. There has been a step forward since then, but it has not resolved this issue. I understand a further letter issued from the German authorities to Birnberg & Co., Solicitors, but it has not clarified this matter in the way it needs to be clarified to expedite the possibility of bail being granted. It is important that the German authorities should be called on to state explicitly and to put in writing to the British authorities and the defence solicitor in this case that they are not opposing bail and that they consider it a matter for the British authorities. If that were done, it would enable the British authorities to grant bail in this case where a large surety has been offered if bail is granted.

Ba mhaith liom arís buíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as ucht éisteacht don chás seo. Tá súil agam go mbeidh ar a chumas achainí laídir a dhéanamh agus an cás truamhéileach seo, nár cheart éirí riamh, a réiteach.

I welcome this opportunity to inform the house of the actions I have taken with regard to the case of Ms Róisín McAliskey.

I understand fully and share the humanitarian concerns expressed by all those concerned about the circumstances surrounding her detention and the forthcoming birth of her child. In considering her case we should not lose sight of the fact that she is on remand pending an extradition hearing and has not yet had the opportunity to defend herself against any charges. There has been widespread concern about her condition in Ireland and Britain, particularly given her pregnancy. The House will be aware that her case has more recently attracted significant international attention, including on the part of Amnesty International and the European Parliament. I welcome the Parliament's decision this week to send a delegation of its civil liberties committee to visit Ms McAliskey on the proposal of Irish MEPs.

I am aware that the Deputy and her colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, visited Ms McAliskey as have a number of Irish MEPs and that other Members of the House intend to do so. My Department and the Irish Embassy in London stand ready to assist in this regard.

Last week I personally conveyed my serious concerns about Róisín McAliskey's circumstances to the British Ambassador when she called on me at my office at my request on 19 February. I raised with her the conditions under which Ms McAliskey is being held, particularly in light of her now advanced stage of pregnancy. I questioned the need for Ms McAliskey to be regarded as a category A prisoner which has impeded open family visits and consultation with legal counsel. Her security categorisation also involves an excessive level of strip searching. While recognising that the question of bail was a matter for the courts, I strongly urged that the relevant authorities encourage a positive and early decision on bail on humanitarian grounds.

I also addressed the need to provide substantial reassurance now to Ms McAliskey both about the circumstances in which she will give birth, if she should remain in custody, and the question of facilities to enable her to take care of her new born baby. In particular, I expressed the hope that her partner would be permitted to be present during the birth and that she would not handcuffed or similarly restrained at any time during the birth. The ambassador undertook to convey my concerns to her authorities. My Department and the Irish Embassy in London have, on my instructions, been very active in Ms McAliskey's case and closely monitor all developments relating to it.

Following Ms McAliskey's first appearance at Bowe Street Magistrates Court on 27 November 1996, the embassy arranged for her to be visited at Holloway Women's Prison by her father, sister and partner. Over the weekend of 30 November-1 December she was moved to Belmarsh Prison, an all-male high security facility, and was reclassified upwards to high risk. Following this move, my Department received a substantial number of representations expressing serious concern about Ms McAliskey's health and the conditions in which she was imprisoned. This concern included the fear that she would lose her baby unless appropriate medical attention was provided. As a result, the Embassy made representations to the British authorities regarding her condition and they urged that appropriate medical attention be afforded to her. These representations were met with assurances from the British authorities that appropriate medical treatment would be provided.

After her appearance at Bowe Street Magistrates Court on 4 December 1996, Ms McAliskey was visited by an embassy official at Belmarsh Prison. On the basis of this visit further representations were made to the British authorities. Subsequently, she was brought to Greenwich and District Hospital for a scan on 5 December and brought back to Holloway Prison. The next day the embassy was involved in arranging further visits by her partner and her parents.

Following contact with Ms McAliskey's solicitor, Ms Gareth Peirce, in late December, the embassy again raised a number of issues regarding the conditions of her detention and sought clarification regarding the possibility of a transfer to a prison in Northern Ireland. The reply from the British authorities on the question of a transfer to the North was that there was no legal provision under which such a transfer could be ordered.

Ms McAliskey was visited again by an embassy official on 24 December. While she was reported to be in good spirits, her condition continued to give cause for concern. Further consular visits have been made by officials of the embassy to Ms McAliskey on 3 and 21 February 1997. Concerns expressed to them by Ms McAliskey during these visits have been subsequently raised by the Embassy with the appropriate British officials at the highest level. At the most recent meeting with the British side on 20 February, the Embassy reiterated the concerns regarding Ms McAliskey's circumstances and asked the prison service to address them as a matter of urgency on humanitarian grounds. Embassy officials again questioned the need for Ms McAliskey to be subject to such a high security classification, the appropriateness of closed visits to a woman in her condition and pressed the British authorities for movement on these issues. On the basis of a report from the Embassy, I am hopeful that there may be some improvement in relation to the question of closed visits in Ms McAliskey's case.

The general question of closed visits for republican and remand prisoners has been the subject of numerous representations by the Irish Embassy to the British Home Office and prison service officials. The issue will be raised again at a meeting with the British authorities tomorrow. I have expressed our humanitarian concerns about their impact on family contact and legal consultations, in particular within the framework of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

Officials of the Embassy have been present at a number of Ms McAliskey's court hearings, including her most recent appearance at Bow Street Magistrates' Court on 13 February 1997. The Embassy continues to keep in close contact with Ms Gareth Pierce who has advised that she has lodged a petition with the House of Lords regarding the decision, taken at Divisional Court level on 22 January 1997, to refuse an application for Ms McAliskey's release on the grounds that the German extradition request was in contravention of the European Convention on Extradition. The Embassy has been advised that this appeal will commence in advance of the full extradition hearing on 12 March 1997.

There has also been contact at senior official level with the German Embassy in London with a view to clarifying its position regarding the question of bail for Ms McAliskey. It has been stated at bail hearings on behalf of the British Prosecution Service that the German Federal Prosecutor's Office oppose bail for her. The Magistrates' Court has asked for clarification on this issue. I understand there were contacts last week between the German Federal Prosecutor's Office and the British Crown Prosecution Service for this purpose.

My Department and our London Embassy will continue to follow the case closely in the period ahead and, where appropriate, any concerns raised will be again taken up with the relevant British authorities.

I assure the House that I will continue to take a direct personal interest in Ms McAliskey's case. I also intend to raise the issue at my next meeting within the context of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference with the Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew.

The case of Róisín McAliskey and her unborn child has an obvious and compelling humanitarian dimension. However, as I stated after my meeting with the British Ambassador, if mishandled it also has the potential to damage the shared objectives of the two Governments in the cause of peace and reconciliation in these islands. The House will be fully aware that there are those who are only too ready to exploit such cases for their own purposes. Therefore, we will continue to closely monitor Róisín McAliskey's condition and urge the British authorities to treat her in a compassionate and humane way in the light of the forthcoming birth of her child.