I regret very much that the situation has arisen which makes it necessary to introduce this Bill at short notice both in the Dáil and this House. The main provision of the Bill is to authorise prisoners to be transferred to military custody in certain exceptional circumstances. This emergency has resulted from the riot and destruction which was carried out in Mountjoy Prison on the night of 18-19th May.
As as a result nearly 200 prisoners had to be transferred to other prisons. No other accommodation could be found other than at the military detention barracks in the Curragh for 40 of that number. At present these prisoners are nominally, at least, under the control of two prison officers but the real de facto control is exercised by the military authorities at the Curragh. Their powers in this regard are limited if not non-existent and would have to be rectified. It is the purpose of this Bill to give those powers to the military authorities.
I hope, when this transfer was originally made on Friday afternoon last, to utilise the military detention barracks at the Curragh as a purely civil prison but the demands on staff are so severe at the moment, as one might understand, that notwithstanding our considerable recruitment in the last year, I simply have not sufficient staff. The Army authorities are quite adamant and the prison authorities are in agreement that it is impossible to run the prison on a half-and-half basis. It must be either totally under military control or completely under civil control. Apart from that there is the difficulty raised by the location of the military detention barracks in or close to the centre of a fairly large complex of military buildings on the Curragh. The military authorities assured me that it would be impossible to have any sort of civil control over a building which is in the middle of a large military complex.
There is only one section of any great significance in the Bill, section 2, which provides for this transfer to military custody. At the moment there are approximately 40 prisoners in custody in the Curragh. Senators will be aware of the circumstances under which these transfers to Cork, Portlaoise, St. Patricks's, as well as to the Curragh, became necessary. There was a very serious riot in Mountjoy on the night of Thursday, 18th May and the morning of Friday 19th. It was the most serious disturbance in the history of our prisons. An enormous amount of damage has been done. It is impossible at this stage to quantify it in financial terms but it should run into some tens of thousands of pounds at the very least. Apart from the financial implications it means that only a little more than half the number of prisoners who could otherwise be confined in Mountjoy can now be kept there. I described in some detail in the Dáil the course of this riot and the events which occurred on that night.
There is one point which was raised in the Dáil and which was quite erroneous to which I should like to refer. It was apparently based on a newspaper report. This was about the question of a master key having been stolen or obtained from a prison officer. No such key was obtained. A key which opened a very small number of cells in one wing was obtained. This was all the officer was carrying.
Again it is not true to say that the officers immediately lost control or were unable to assist the beleaguered officers. They did so but did not succeed in releasing one of them, Chief Officer Lee, who was put into a cell and kept there by prisoners who had broken free. These prisoners at the time they attacked the officer were not in their cells. They had been on recreation and were returning to their cells.
The other officers in the prison held what is called the "circle" of the prison for upwards of one hour. There were very severe attacks from a considerable number of prisoners. Unfortunately, because of the ancient and unusual design of Mountjoy, it is possible, without going through the circle, which is the focal point of the four cell blocks, to get from one cell block to another through the roof. The roof is a matter to which I will be referring later in reference to the length of time it will take to reconstruct Mountjoy to an acceptable condition.
As a result of prisoners from the B wing, which is the remand wing for unconvicted prisoners, getting through the roof, they got into other cell blocks and broke locks on cell doors and released other prisoners. This, of course, had a cumulative effect, as Senators can well imagine.
The destruction was extremely severe and just about every movable fitting that could be broken was broken. A very large amount of furniture was smashed and a great number of doors of cells were ripped off their hinges or otherwise broken. Every window in the prison was broken and all the sanitary facilities as well as all the medical and dental facilities were smashed. The pharmacy was smashed and all the drugs stolen or destroyed. The people who instigated this destruction alleged that they had three demands. I dealt with the contents of those demands in the Dáil; they certainly were of no substance. It is particularly significant that they did not include a demand— this was subsequently issued apparently on their behalf—to be treated as, what they describe, political prisoners.
Indeed, the rioters, who in the first instance consisted for the most part of that particular type of prisoner, released people on that occasion whom on other occasions they have taken on themselves to refer to as ordinary criminals. To say the least of it, they certainly accepted the assistance of these so-called ordinary criminals in the orgy of devastation which followed. A demand was made, following a discussion between some of these people and an official of my Department, that no reprisals would betaken against them. I understood this to mean that no proceedings or prosecutions would follow in respect of the various crimes committed in the course of the riot. I immediately said that there could be no question of that demand being met. Those people were given half an hour in which to cease their activities and go back to their cells voluntarily. The Army who were equipped with CS gas and other riot-control equipment, were brought into the inner part of the prison where they could be seen by the rioters. It was made clear that the Army would be used if those people did not return to their cells. They did, in fact, go back to their cells within 15 minutes of that warning being given.
I have been criticised in some quarters for not having sent in the Army earlier to restore order and for not having delivered this ultimatum previously but on that night I found myself in the position where a senior prison officer was being held hostage by these people. I knew well that these people were capable of taking human life and might well decide to do so. We were also under the impression for part of that night that three other prison officers were being held as hostages because three officers uniforms were apparently acquired by these people in the course of their rampage and were donned by prisoners at a distance from the circle which gave the impression that possibly three other officers were in there. I was, therefore, faced with the dilemma that if I moved in quickly and heavily against these people I might well cause either serious injury or even death to the officers who were being held hostage. For that reason I moved more slowly than my own instincts would normally lead me to move against these people.
I have also been criticised for the fact that a serious riot took place on that occasion and it was said that I should have ensured that no riot would ever take place either in Mountjoy or in any of our prisons. I can answer that criticism very simply by saying that I could have ensured and could continue to ensure in the future that no riot would take place but the methods that I, or anyone in my position, would have to use to ensure that would be to make life perfectly unbearable for all prisoners in our prisons. Our prison population now amounts to approximately 1,075 people. Any question of rehabilitation of our prisoners in those conditions would be out of the question.
I regard prison primarily as a place of training and rehabilitation, not as a place of punishment. The confinement and loss of liberty in a prison should be the extent of the punishment, in my view. While there is a loss of liberty to move outside in the ordinary world, the loss of liberty within the prison itself should be kept to a minimum if we are to have any hopes of rehabilitating all who go there, particularly bearing in mind that many of those who go there are men and women who perhaps never got a chance in the world outside. In many cases the aid, assistance, advice and, indeed, the kindness which they receive in prison are received by them for the first time in their lives.
I could have prevented that riot but the cost of doing so would have been so high socially and might have had a damaging effect on those who visit our prisons from time to time that I would not be warranted in doing it. I regret very much that such an event took place but, at the same time, I make no apology for it because, in the two years since I became Minister, in any discussion in the Dáil on my Department in so far as there was any criticism of the prison system it was that we put too high a premium on security and that we did not do enough to rehabilitate prisoners.
It is evident to anybody who looks at it that the two things are not compatible; maximum security and maximum rehabilitation. What we have done up to last Thursday was, I thought, a reasonable compromise between the two. There was reasonable security and, at the same time, there was a reasonable chance of aiding, assisting, rehabilitating and educating those in the prisons. I have no doubt that what we did up to then in the way of security was more than adequate for the normal prisoner we receive in our prisons.
Unfortunately, we had in the remand wing of Mountjoy Prison at that time a group of people who are not normal prisoners by any standards and who abused their position in the prison and, in particular, in the remand wing, which is used for unconvicted prisoners, to such an extent that this very regrettable event occurred. Not only have I to think of the other prisoners but I have to think, in particular, of the other remand prisoners and bear in mind that they are unconvicted prisoners and that they may never be convicted and may, in fact, be perfectly innocent.
I want to take this opportunity of saying, as I said in the Dáil, and as I said at a press conference last week, that the actions of all the prison staff in Mountjoy on that night was tremendous. I was very proud of what they did and I think the whole nation should be very grateful to them for their bravery and for their dedication to duty.
I have described the exceptional dedication of, for example, Chief Officer Lee. That is typical of the prison service as a whole and I am very glad to be able to say that. On that night, too, the Garda and the Army were there very quickly in large numbers. They prevented the escape of anybody and prevented anybody getting outside the inner part of the prison. Not alone did nobody escape but there was never any possiblity of anybody escaping. I am extremely grateful to the Garda and to the Army for all they did that night, particularly when they were subjected to attacks outside the prison by hooligans and thugs who always seem to gather on occasions such as this. Those thugs were inspired by a small group of anarchists and enemies of democracy.
The length of time which this Bill will remain in force was fixed in the Dáil today: it is until 31st May, 1974. However, it is subject to the proviso that if it should prove possible to do away with military custody before then, Dáil Éireann could pass a resolution taking section 2 of this Bill out of it before 31st May, 1974.
I think I met all sides and all views fairly in the Dáil last night and today. I accepted a number of amendments and put down a number of amendments myself. I do not think that any Member of the Dáil had any genuine cause for complaint about the way that this Bill was handled and I hope the Seanad will find it acceptable and will enable it to be passed very shortly so that it can be signed by the President, if at all possible, tomorrow.
In the Dáil I did not spell out some of the legal difficulties. Perhaps I could say a little bit more about them here. They were referred to in the Dáil by Deputy O'Higgins. There is a very grave danger that certain very dangerous or potentially dangerous people could succeed in their habeas corpus applications. I want to state that for that reason I ask Seanad Éireann for their co-operation in ensuring that we can keep our prison situation totally under control and prevent letting loose on the community any people whom it would be in the national interest to keep in custody, and who have been remanded in custody or sentenced by the courts of this land.