What has been said here today has been very frank and useful. I thank the witnesses for sharing their thoughts with us on what is happening in Maghaberry. Those of us who have been there frequently would say that the witnesses have expressed very succinctly what we believed. I initially became involved in the prison issue back in 1994. I spent about three years on it and was over and back, mainly to Britain, at the time, although I did visit prisons in the North and once or twice in the South. I did not expect to get back into it in 2011.
Between 2011 and today, I have been in and out of Maghaberry with various colleagues, mainly Deputies Clare Daly, Mick Wallace, Maureen O'Sullivan, who I think has been on virtually every visit, and Thomas Pringle, Senator Frank Feighan and some other Deputies and Senators who have been in and out on occasion. For nearly every prison visit, we have paid another visit to Belfast to talk to the Irish secretariat, to Ministers, to the Prisoner Ombudsman, to the head of the prison service and so on. Some people have been receptive and some have not. It would take too long to outline who has and who has not.
Every detail the witnesses outlined is correct. There has been no movement on controlled movement or strip-searching. Having recently visited Portlaoise Prison on a number of occasions, the big difference there, as opposed to the loyalist wing or the republican Roe House, is human relationship. We can write all the rule books we like but if the horse does not want to drink, the horse will not drink. Even when some of the witnesses' reports came through, it was one step forward and two steps back. A way was found within the small print of the rules not to act within the spirit of the thing.
Someone asked where we should go from here. Compared with the period between 1994 and 1997, it is much more complex now because of all the different jurisdictions involved. Once devolved government came about in Northern Ireland, I expected that there would be some collective involvement by the parties in the Executive on what happens in the prisons. We tried that and were clearly told that the Minister of Justice is the Minister of Justice. One side in the Executive is for reform, while the other side is against reform. Once one side is against reform, nothing happens. That creates an astounding and frightening political paralysis.
Two prison officers are dead. Mr. Bunting seemed to articulate something - I do not want to misquote him - that I adverted to a few times for which I was severely criticised. I have suggested that it is likely to be not unconnected to the prison regime. In other words, what happens in the prison has an effect outside the prison. None of us can prove that in law but intuition would suggest the connection is likely. When the prison officer, Mr. Gray, a very fine person, was killed, within a week or ten days the dirty protest ended. It breaks my heart to think that because of intransigence across the system this risk is continuing unnecessarily; it cannot be allowed to fester.
A number of things could be done. First, the Executive could provide enough money to hear cases expeditiously and eliminate the need for long periods on remand. I do not know how to deal with the cases where there seems to be internment without trial in the form of arresting people on suspicion of offences, bringing them to court, the court case collapses because there is literally no evidence and they are let out the door again. That is another issue. I do not know whether they have human rights cases there but that seems to be totally unacceptable.
I take it that the introduction of the equipment is a Northern Ireland Office issue. It would be fair to say that there is a certain amount of sympathy at the top of the system and as it went to implement these things down the line there seems to be a problem. If there is an instruction from on high - for example, from the head of the Northern Ireland Prison Service - that certain modern equipment is to be used, do they have the power to be able to influence that and force people to comply? The witnesses have been in, as have representatives of the international Red Cross. I accept what the witnesses have said about threats on the Internet, etc., which are totally unacceptable, but it goes on.
In dealing with an intractable problem, the person who is likely to gain most is the first mover. Many people think in negotiations she should be the last mover, but my experience always tells me that the first mover really puts it up to the other side. In this case, since the position of power lies with the authorities because they have utter control, modest first moves should allow them to go to the other side and request reciprocation.
Can the witnesses confirm, as they seem to have said, that for all of the allegations, and in cases convictions, against these people, they are not irrational? Sometimes people in the prison population have mental illnesses and so on. Their conduct could not be answered for because they could not answer for themselves, not because of any badness but because of mental illness and so on.
Both here and in the North, if the segregated republican prisoners give their word not to do something, they seem to stick to that. Therefore, if the authorities do a deal, then a deal is done and they will not act in a capricious manner. There tends to be a group dynamic and they act as a group, which might be a good thing in certain ways, but it can pose its problems.
We normally meet the Secretary of State separately from the Minister. Should a joint meeting be sought between the head of the prison service, the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice and the Secretary of State so that if one was passing the ball somebody would have to catch the ball because they could not put it off to a further meeting three months later. That issue needs to be dealt with.
The witnesses have, of course, covered the licence issue. I got involved in 2011 because Gerry McGeough was imprisoned for something that had happened in 1982. Should the licence be absolutely indeterminate? Down here, a prisoner released on licence would normally have committed murder or something at that level. However, much shorter sentences attract licences in Northern Ireland. Should there be a period after which the licences for those released on licence following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement should come to an end just as special arrangements were made that it was two years in prison? If somebody has done something awfully wrong, there is a court and he or she can be convicted. However, the power to say to somebody, "I'm not going to tell you and once I tell your barrister what the problem is they cannot discuss it with you" seems to be an absolutely incredible power to have.
I am sorry for going on, but five long years have been put in on this. I doubt if a month has passed in the five years that I have not been up in the North dealing with this issue. It has been the most intractable political problem in which I have ever been involved. Like the witness, on many occasions I ask myself if I am mad to keep coming back, but when it is so serious it is very hard to walk away. It has proved incredibly difficult to deal with and it does not seem to be open to any kind of rational assessment.
Dealing with the authorities here seems to be totally different. While the physical conditions in Portlaoise Prison are not great, there is a better approach in terms of interpersonal relationships. This can be seen from the minute one enters the room. It is an approach that if the prisoners are fair, they will be dealt with fairly. This means that all involved - prison staff and prisoners - will have happier lives.
Some members of the committee may never have been to Maghaberry Prison. The chances of a prisoner escaping from Maghaberry Prison are slim. As some of those present might know I had a relative who made a rather dramatic escape from a British prison at one stage. Anyone entering Maghaberry Prison is required to give a fingerprint and have a photograph taken. After passing through a series of turnstiles, one reaches the yard. After that, one passes through a very tall gate with barbed wire.
Then one goes through a double door, and one is only inside when one goes through another double door to get into the wing. As Mr. Bunting said, just like that, the whole prison can be closed down in two seconds. Even within the wings there are turnstiles, and if the prison is locked down, one can be held in the recreation areas. Believe me, there is no way out. The idea that the prisoners might suddenly all metamorphosise through all the security and wind up walking down a road in Maghaberry defies logic, given the fantastic technology in the prison that would seem to me to make that an impossibility, particularly because of the centralised control, whereby the whole prison can be locked down literally at the flick of a switch. It seems to be all about one thing: "We are bosses, we control you and we own you."