Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Questions (10, 15, 67)

Clare Daly

Question:

10. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the number of citizens being held in prison in Northern Ireland without being tried or charged, in one case for over three years; and the steps he has taken to address this issue. [41052/13]

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Thomas Pringle

Question:

15. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the contacts he has had with the British authorities in relation to the number of citizens being held in prison in Northern Ireland without being tried or charged; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41179/13]

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Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

67. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the extent of his engagement with the relevant authorities in Northern Ireland and England on the human rights of prisoners in Maghaberry Prison, particularly in relation to those imprisoned and where due process is not being followed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41053/13]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10, 15 and 67 together.

I am unaware of any case in which citizens are being detained in prison in Northern Ireland without either having been charged or convicted. There are cases where persons were convicted and were subsequently released on licence and have been re-incarcerated on the basis that they are in breach of their licence condition.

The devolution arrangements agreed in 2010 provide that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland remains responsible for national security matters. My officials in the British-Irish intergovernmental secretariat in Belfast continue to raise appropriate prisoner cases with their British counterparts. I have on a number of occasions raised the Government’s concerns about a limited number of related licence revocation cases directly with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Policing and justice powers were fully devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive in 2010 following an all-party agreement reached at Hillsborough Castle. This was a positive development for partnership government in Northern Ireland and a boost to the peace process. Completing the devolution of policing and justice powers to the executive had been a very high priority since 1998, as successive Governments, supported by all sides of this House, recognised that building and strengthening confidence across the community in policing and justice was essential to the success, legitimacy and sustainability of the devolved institutions and to embedding peace.

In April 2010, David Ford MLA was appointed Minister of Justice and assumed responsibility for policing and criminal justice policy. Prisons policy forms a central part of the Department of Justice's remit and an executive agency, namely the Northern Ireland Prison Service, implements prison policy in Northern Ireland. A Prisoner Ombudsman is also appointed by the Minister of Justice for Northern Ireland and operates completely independently of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. The Prisoner Ombudsman and his team investigate complaints from prisoners and visitors to prisoners in Northern Ireland as well as deaths in custody.

An early priority for the Department of Justice was the commissioning of a major report into prison reform. In October 2011, Dame Anne Owers made far-reaching recommendations related to prison reform in Northern Ireland. I understand that steady progress has been made to date in implementing the recommended reforms contained within that report. I wholeheartedly agree with Minister Ford's analysis that delivery of a reformed justice system has a major part to play in building and protecting a more positive future for Northern Ireland.

I also agree with recent comments he made praising new recruits to the Northern Ireland Prison Service for their commitment to the new prison service. In looking forward to a better future for the several hundreds of recent recruits, I am sure the House will join me once again in condemning the brutal murder of their colleague, prison officer David Black, last November by dissident terrorists.

With the devolution of policing and justice, the Government’s primary responsibility is to ensure the systems in place are robust and consistent with the principles and values of the Good Friday Agreement and the other agreements for which we are co-guarantors. The Government’s position continues to be that the full implementation of all of the recommendations of the Owers report remains the most effective way to ensure conditions within all prisons in Northern Ireland are of an acceptable standard. I have discussed this with Minister Ford in recent times and we are of one mind on this matter.

The use of language is important. Revocation of a licence can sound harmless but in reality what we are talking about is people convicted of crimes who did their time and were released on licence but who were picked up many years later and put in prison without any charges being put to them or without any questions. The reality is people on this island have been de facto interned. Other Deputies will deal in detail with the case of Martin Corey but he is a 63 year old man who has been in prison for three and a half years and who has yet to be questioned. His legal team does not know why he is there and he is not privy to the charges against him. This is an appalling violation of human rights. It is like having our own Guantanamo Bay on our doorstep. All of us roundly condemned the murder of prison officer Black. We signed the book of condolences when we visited Maghaberry Prison but that has nothing to do with the issues being raised.

A number of Deputies attended Newry courthouse this morning for the hearing of Stephen Murney, a young man who has been in prison for almost a year because the state has failed to put charges to him. His legal team are confident he has no case to answer. The evidence against him is flimsy yet he will lose a year of his life in prison. The Tánaiste has to do more and the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland, Mr. Ford, has a hell of a lot more to do in this regard.

Some of these cases are before the courts and therefore I do not intend to comment on individual cases. Policing and prisons are now devolved functions in Northern Ireland. It is a matter for the Northern Ireland authorities. Some people who had been convicted of offences were released on licence, but that was not unconditional. Conditions were attached to the releases. They have been re-arrested and processes have been followed. The British-Irish intergovernmental secretariat has discussed these cases but I cannot publicly comment on individual cases that are before the courts.

I take it from the Tánaiste’s response that the Government is happy with the system of administrative internment that is in operation in the Six Counties at the moment where people’s licences have been revoked for no apparent reason. No explanation has been given for their internment at the whim of the security services in the North and the British Government. From the Tánaiste’s response, can I take it that the Government is happy with the situation? Is that a proper reading of his response?

The Tánaiste referred in his response to the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Does the Government consider it acceptable that visitors to the women’s prison should be strip-searched by prison officers without any apparent reason when returning from visits?

When discussing these issues we need to be measured in our use of language. The term “internment” applies to the mass arrest of a large number of people in 1971 who were taken into custody without committing any offence and against whom no charge was brought. They were held for a very long period. This is not comparing like with like. We are dealing in these cases with individuals against whom there were convictions, who were released on licence, and part of the licence was that they could be re-arrested in certain circumstances. Whether the persons should have been re-arrested is ultimately a matter that must be determined through the processes available to them.

With regard to the conditions in prisons, the running of prisons in Northern Ireland is now a matter that is devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive. The Northern Ireland Prison Service is responsible for prison conditions. Reforms recommended by Anne Owers have been introduced. I welcome the comments made by the Northern Ireland Prison Service director general, Sue McAllister, that the recommendations of the Owers report are and will remain the key driver for change across the service. The Government fully supports the position as the most effective way to ensure conditions within all prisons in Northern Ireland are of an acceptable standard.

The Minister indicated he did not wish to comment on particular cases because processes are ongoing. The people to whom we refer have been denied due process. They fit the criteria of people who have been interned. They are in prison but there is no charge against them. They have not been questioned by the PSNI. I do not know how the Minister cannot call that internment, because that is exactly what it is.

Martin Corey has been in prison for more than three and half years. He still has not been questioned by the PSNI or told why he is in prison. His legal team, whom we met, cannot get any answers. That, to me, is internment. He should have been entitled to a parole hearing more than a year ago but he is still waiting. He was in court in Ballymena last Friday. The court hearing was to begin at 10 a.m. but it did not start because he could not be brought from the prison in time. He arrived at 10.40 a.m. – a 63-year-old man in handcuffs accompanied by two prison officers. It was then decided that he was still a security risk so the hearing was delayed until more officers could attend. The hearing eventually took place at 12 noon. The closed hearing continued until 4 p.m. and he is due to return to the court next Friday. That is not due process and it is not legal. It undermines the Good Friday Agreement, the Weston Park Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement. That is the basis of our concern.

I did answer a specific written question from Deputy O’Sullivan on that particular case yesterday. Mr. Corey is a convicted prisoner who was released by the British authorities under licence in 1992. The licence was revoked in April 2010 by the Secretary of State. The issue has been before the courts. A Supreme Court decision was taken on it. Court proceedings are ongoing and therefore I do not wish to get into the detail of the case other than to say that we have raised the cases with the British authorities and we will continue to keep a close eye on proceedings.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.