Dáil debates

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions

Prisoner Welfare

1:35 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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2. To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the conditions under which a person (details supplied) is currently being held in Belmarsh Prison; and if he will raise directly with the British Government the concern that this arrest and imprisonment is a breach of the commitments made at Weston Park, and assurances given by the PSNI and British Police Services. [31019/13]

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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This individual was arrested on 20 May under the Counter-Terrorism Act while transiting through Gatwick Airport. On 22 May he was charged in connection with terrorist offences committed in 1982. He is being held in HM Prison Belmarsh in south-east London where he has been designated as a category A high security prisoner. The Irish Embassy in London is providing consular support and assistance for the individual and in regular contact with the prison authorities. An official of the embassy visited the individual on 29 May and a further consular visit is due to take place this week.

As the case is now before the courts, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on specific aspects of the case, even if all of the relevant facts were known to me. I would say, however, that from the outset of the peace process, the need for an accommodation with the past has been recognised. The Good Friday Agreement underlined the importance of acknowledging and addressing the suffering of the victims of violence. It also committed both Governments to providing for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners convicted of scheduled or similar offences.

At Weston Park in 2001, both Governments accepted that it would be a natural development of that programme if prosecutions were not pursued against supporters of organisations on ceasefire against whom there are outstanding prosecutions, and in some cases extradition proceedings, for offences committed before 10 April 1998. The circumstances at issue in this case, therefore, were comprehended in the discussions at Weston Park. In 2005 the British Government introduced a Bill aimed at providing a legislative basis for addressing these cases but this measure did not secure the necessary political support and was withdrawn in 2006. In the past three weeks, I have had two discussions with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and on each occasion I have stressed that the need to find an adequate way of addressing these cases remains as important today as it was in 2001.

The G8 in Fermanagh last week was a showcase for what the peace process has achieved in Northern Ireland but pride in what has been achieved is rightly tempered by the knowledge that significant challenges remain. These can only be addressed through sustained attention and support from the British and Irish Governments as co-guarantors of the process. I believe that ongoing work to give practical effect to the commitments already undertaken must remain central to our efforts. I look forward to meeting again shortly with the Secretary of State to discuss these issues.

1:45 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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While the question is specifically about Mr. John Downey it also concerns another Irish citizen, Michael Burns, who was arrested in similar circumstances. The two Governments should not underestimate the anger these arrests have caused among Republicans and people across the island. The arrests were in breach of the Good Friday Agreement, Weston Park and the commitments made by the British Government at that time. John Downey and Michael Burns received confirmation letters from the NIO in 2007 stating that they were not wanted by the PSNI or any British police force for any offence and that they were therefore free to travel. Does the Minister accept that arrests like these undermine the confidence placed in the police service and the justice system and reduce the value of solemn agreements made by all parties, particularly both Governments?

They are not isolated incidents. There are other vindictive and hostile cases which we have discussed in this House, involving Marian Price, Padraig Wilson, Gerry McGeough, Martin Corey and others. There are two aspects to these cases, one is the political aspect in the clear breach of the Agreement. The second is that it is also having an impact on Mr. Downey's family. He has been in jail for six weeks and his family has not had access to him. His local representative, Deputy Pearse Doherty, has been refused a representational visit. A neighbouring MP, Pat Doherty, has been allowed to visit but has been told that he will not be allowed to make a similar visit in future. Clothes were sent in but it was a week before he got them. There is a lot of vindictive behaviour in this case. An Phoblacht was banned because of its Irish content despite the fact that other prisoners do not seem to have a problem receiving other foreign language newspapers. It is having an impact at the political level and the family level.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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There are several aspects to this case. First, there is the strictly legal aspect and I am being careful not to stray into that. I am sure Deputy Crowe fully understands that. Second, there are the conditions under which he is being held. This has been raised by our embassy in London. Some issues relating to health matters were raised. The issues concerning visits have been raised. Since his arrest there was a consular visit on 29 May and another is scheduled for today. We have facilitated access by an elected official, Pat Doherty MP, to the prisoner and there was a request for expedited access for Deputy Pearse Doherty. The embassy in London has made representations to the prison authorities regarding his health and his medical needs including mitigating the conditions under which he is being held. It is clear that this arrest has a significant impact on others in similar circumstances and their wider circles. Both Governments have long ago agreed on the need to find a way of sensitively addressing those who had been involved in paramilitary activity. I have discussed this with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on two occasions and I hope to meet her again about it in the near future. Our officials continue to have regular discussions on these issues.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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The big question people are asking is why did this happen now. The big consequence is for those other individuals who have been given similar assurances by the British Government, in the form of letters of assurance that the British police are not interested in arresting them and that there are no charges outstanding against them. These people are asking what impact this will have on their lives.

In respect of this case there is a pattern in that the authorities seem to be attacking John Downey and his family by not granting them access to the jail or legal representation. It is an unusual case but the fact that others are being arrested now too will have an impact. What message is this sending out to those who supported the peace process, including Mr. Downey? I welcome the fact that the Minister is going to try to reinvigorate discussions on the on-the-runs. It is an area that has to be dealt with and yes, we do need to deal with the pattern.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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I have been in contact with the Secretary of State about this case. My Department has also been in contact with officials on the British side about it. There are two principal issues here, first, the conditions under which he is being held and the category A status that has been assigned to him. We have discussed these issues with the British authorities. The second, wider, issue is the letters this man and others have received from which they concluded that they were not being sought by the police service or the legal system. The Deputy referred to these letters. This man had travelled in and out of Britain on several occasions and had not expected that anything of this kind would happen. There is a concern, which I understand, for people who have received those assurances and are now looking at this case and wondering about their own situation. We must get clarity and assurance on that. I am very conscious of that and of the impact this and the other arrests to which the Deputy referred are having on a wider circle of people. I am discussing this with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.