Having signed the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons in August 1986, and despite repeated promises and commitments, successive Irish Governments failed to publish the necessary enabling legislation to allow us to ratify the convention. Today I am pleased to be part of a Government that is delivering on its commitment to Irish prisoners overseas and to their families at home.
The Bill in essence provides a procedure for facilitating the transfer of sentenced persons from foreign States to this State and vice versa so as to allow them to serve their sentence in their home country. I welcome the fact that it will additionally allow us to give effect to the EU agreement on the application of the convention among member states of the European Communities. Thirty-one States, including all the other EU countries have already ratified the convention and it is timely that Ireland has now produced this enabling legislation.
The number of Irish born nationals in foreign jails today is approximately 600 and it is estimated that those wishing to be repatriated amount to between 40 and 50 in the first year and five to seven thereafter. Although the majority of Irish prisoners abroad are in English jails a significant number, some 20 per cent, are estimated to be in other countries including France, Germany and the USA.
The passing of the Bill will enable us to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons without further delay and, in essence, will help in reducing the severe punishment that has been endured by the families of prisoners over the years.
That punishment takes a variety of forms: the financial hardship alone of funding visits to loved ones hundreds or even thousands of miles away can severely restrict the number of visits a family can make, or even rule out any possibility of visits. There is no statutory right to financial assistance for those visiting relatives in prisons overseas. For those existing on social welfare, any money provided is entirely at the discretion of the local community welfare officer and rarely comes to more than two-thirds of the cheapest fare, with no allowance for accommodation. The long journeys involved make it almost impossible for elderly parents or infirm relatives to visit prisoners and this leads to great emotional stress. For young families, long journeys represent a formidable hardship. Even journeys to the most accessible jails abroad involve a boat journey, train journeys, taxis and overnight accommodation.
Families of Irish prisoners convicted of politically related crimes have even further difficulties to face. These problems can be exacerbated by "ghosting"— the practice of moving a prisoner from one jail to another without notice resulting in the relatives, at best, having to replan and reschedule their visits and, at worst, arriving at the gates of a jail to find that the prisoner has been moved hundreds of miles away to another jail. Relatives visiting loved ones imprisoned in Britain are under constant threat from the Prevention of Terrorism Act. They risk intimidation, detention, strip-searching, deportation and even exclusion from the State.
Now more than ever, particularly in terms of the peace process, it is of the utmost importance that we address the issue of those Irish prisoners convicted of politically related charges. Today there are about 30 such prisoners held in the UK, and while the conditions of imprisonment for these prisoners have always been harsh, in recent times they have deteriorated alarmingly and this is a cause of concern for everyone interested in the developing peace process. Eleven of these prisoners are now serving their twentieth year in prison and none of them has been given any indication of a release date. The treatment of these prisoners differs from that of similar prisoners convicted in Northern Ireland. Had they been sentenced in the North they would have been released many years ago. That they were sentenced in Britain makes them different in the eyes of the British administration. The youngest of these was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975 for using a fire-arm to resist arrest. He was 17 years old at the time.
Prisoners from Northern Ireland convicted of politically related crimes in Britain have never, with any ease, been granted transfers to jails near their homes and families. Transfers have followed hunger strikes, force feeding, and legal challenges rather than an obvious decision by the British Government to move prisoners from their overcrowded and claustrophobic prison conditions in England to the relatively under-occupied North of Ireland prison accommodation. Most Irish prisoners convicted of politically related crimes are held in what are called "special secure units". These units were first introduced in the 1960s and their use was to be reviewed on a regular basis.
It is unclear what reviews, if any, have been carried out, or what conclusions have been reached. The units are in fact prisons within prisons. People held in them have no contact with the general prison population. The units are small, usually holding at most eight to ten prisoners, with limited facilities. Prisoners are monitored at all times both by prison officers and on camera. Prisoners held in SSUs are not allowed to participate in any of the normal jail activities such as going to the library, church, the main gym or playing fields. Therefore, the range of activities possible within the unit is severely restricted.
A number of observers have expressed concern at the oppressive nature of SSUs. Many believe that prolonged detention in such facilities can only be detrimental to a person's health and well-being. Today Irish prisoners held in Belmarsh Prison are being subjected to a savage regime which denies them visits for six months, access to exercise facilities, access to religious services and access to education facilities. By all accounts hygiene is appalling and all the prisoners are suffering from headaches, gastric problems and skin complaints.
The right of prisoners' families to reasonable and meaningful access to their imprisoned relatives is being blatantly flouted. Irish prisoners in Belmarsh and Full Sutton prisons are being subjected to the worst conditions seen in English jails since the 1970s. It is common knowledge that the conditions of imprisonment of Irish prisoners convicted of politically related crimes in Britain have always been harsh and severe. However, it is British Home Office policy to ensure that prisoners are housed as near their families as possible. This is not designed as a concession to prisoners, but to facilitate family relationships and rehabilitation of the prisoners.
Following riots at Strangeways Prison in England, Lord Justice Woolf reiterated the importance of housing prisoners near their families. However, Irish prisoners convicted of politically related offences have never been granted transfers to jails near their homes and families in the North of Ireland. It was only following pressure from legal campaigning and professional groups that the British Government was forced to acknowledge that Irish political prisoners are systematically refused transfers from England to the North of Ireland.
An interdepartmental review group was set up in 1990 to examine the effects on families of having to travel to England to visit their relatives in jails there. The report of the review, the Ferrers report, was published in November 1992. Its key findings were the very minimum that could be made in the face of the clearest possible evidence of hardship caused to prisoner's families. Disregarding Home Office policy that prisoners should be housed near their homes and families the Ferrers report established a new category of "temporary extended transfers" for Irish prisoners convicted of terrorist type offences whenever the prisoner has family connections in Northern Ireland.
Many would ask what is the problem with temporary extended transfers? The first is that almost two-and-a-half years after the publication of the Ferrers report only eight prisoners have been granted temporary extended transfers. Two have been granted permanent transfers. Approximately 30 sentenced Irish political prisoners in England still wish to be transferred to the North.
The second problem is that the Ferrers report excludes prisoners with families in the Twenty-six Counties from temporary extended transfers even though a land journey anywhere in Ireland is easier than travelling to England. Irish prisoners in England are held as prisoners of the British Government and as such can be held anywhere within what is described as the United Kingdom. National or ethnic origin is not allowed to determine where other categories of prisoner are held.
The third problem is that prisoners transferred remain under the authority of the British Home Office rather than the Northern Ireland Office. This means that the prisoner can be returned to England at any time at the whim of the Home Secretary. This causes anxiety and stress for families who are trying to rebuild relationships after many years of infrequent visits.
Why have so few prisoners been granted temporary extended transfers? The British establishment is continuing its relentless practice of handing down the most savage sentences it can and ensuring the worst prison conditions and ill-treatment of prisoners and their families that it can get away with. The Ferrers report was commissioned and published not as a gesture of goodwill but as a result of the legal, professional and campaigning challenges to the systematic refusal to transfer Irish prisoners convicted of political offences. No one has to be a believer in conspiracy theories to note that the production of the Ferrers report has effectively bought off much liberal criticism of the British Government on this issue although it has failed to implement it fully. Professional and liberal organisations took the view that something was being done and everyone should wait and see. However, prisoner's families rightly take a different view.
What are the effects on prisoners' families of the continuing refusal to transfer such prisoners to Ireland? There is a feeling that the British Government is deliberately playing malicious games with the lives of Irish political prisoners and their families, giving rise to division, fear, anxiety and suffering. Some prisoners have been promised transfers but they have not been implemented. Others have been told that they are to be transferred but following the breakout from Whitemore jail recently these have been cancelled. Prisoners are being "ghosted" in spite of pre-arranged visits. In essence, prison conditions have deteriorated to the point where some prisoners are receiving "closed visits", that is, with a pane of glass separating the prisoner from the visitor. Conversations in Irish have been ruled out and many prisoners convicted of political offences continue to be held in solitary confinement.
Last week I received a letter from a woman in Belfast who has relatives in prison in Britain in which she pointed out:
It is now eight months into the ceasefire and the British Government are not showing one ounce of good faith towards Irish political prisoners and their families. Prisoners' families continue to be harassed under the recently renewed Prevention of Terrorism Act. Fear, debt, isolation and infrequent visits are the reality of travelling to England to visit an imprisoned relative there. Prisoners are repeatedly ghosted in spite of visits being pre-booked. Children see their imprisoned parent at intervals of up to two years. Visits in Irish have been terminated; closed visits, i.e. between glass panels with no physical contact, have been reintroduced and elderly relatives are unable to travel. Irish political prisoners in England are being held in solitary confinement. They are suffering skin complaints, vomiting and diarrhoea and serious allied weight loss. Prison conditions in England have deteriorated dramatically to the point where the health of prisoners and their relatives is severely affected.
She asked Members of the Oireachtas to help in bringing to an end the suffering of prisoners' families by securing the transfer of Irish prisoners from England to the North so that they can gain meaningful access.
With the development of the peace process it was hoped that this issue, with others stemming from the conflict in the North, would be resolved. It is unfortunate that the response to date from the British Government has been negative in the extreme. Many would suggest that the British administration is deliberately provoking trouble with the prisons. To date prisoners have shown great restraint in the face of provocation and are seeking to resolve the issues without engaging in prison protests. If they are to resolve the issues they will need the continued assistance and intervention of all those who wish to see the peace process further developed at this critical stage.
For several years humanitarian organisations have not only been campaigning for the transfer of prisoners from England to the North but also to ensure that the Government would ratify the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners. Now that the enabling legislation has been introduced it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the officers and members of the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas and the Committee for the Repatriation of Irish Prisoners for ensuring that this item remained near the top of the political agenda. I also thank and pay tribute to the Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, for ensuring that this Bill was introduced at an early stage and the former Minister for Justice, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, for her efforts.
I pay tribute in particular to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Spring, who from the day Labour entered Government made this issue a priority in the Government's programme. I thank him for his continuing efforts to resolve the difficulties arising with regard to Irish prisoners in Britain.