Seanad debates

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

5:00 pm

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin. According to current figures, between 800 and 1,000 Irish people are incarcerated in prisons overseas. The majority of these prisoners are held in England and Wales, with others in Europe, South America, Central America and Africa. The conditions in prisons in these countries vary greatly, with many decidedly below basic standards outlined by the United States. It was stated in the Irish Examiner last year that a disproportionate number of suicides occurred among Irish inmates at Brixton Prison in the early part of this decade.

The Report on Irish Prisoners Abroad by Chris Flood provides a troubling depiction of the conditions faced by and concerns among Irish citizens incarcerated in other jurisdictions. It is our responsibility as parliamentarians to try to ease the hardship of Irish prisoners abroad and their families by addressing and implementing the recommendations outlined in the Flood report. The key recommendations in the report are to:

Recognise there is a need to ensure best international practice is employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs in relation to the support it gives to Irish prisoners abroad; establish a new unit within the Department of Foreign Affairs . . . with the objective of overseeing prisoner welfare matters and keeping up to date with international developments in this area . . . establish a register of Irish prisoners abroad . . . [to] include information on family visits . . . establish that every prisoner overseas has a right to a consular visit at least once a year and twice in more difficult . . . countries [such as in Central America]; ensure that prisoners should be visited as soon as possible after arrest.

The Minister knows as well as I that many people enjoy a great deal of international travel and more Irish people will end up in prisons abroad. We need to ensure our citizens overseas have access to legal, consular and other support systems, including translation services. The families of prisoners overseas are often forgotten about. Some families cannot afford to visit them and are without any kind of support whatsoever. Families bear much of the burden of their family member's imprisonment, providing money for clothes, food, toiletries and telephone calls. We need to provide support for those families. If the recommendations in the report compiled by Mr. Chris Flood were implemented, that would go a long way towards addressing the very real human rights issues concerning Irish citizens. I make no judgment on why those people are in prison.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Government welcomes the debate. The motion has been tabled by Senator Mary White, who has been a strong advocate of the rights of Irish prisoners overseas. The debate relates to the Flood report. In 2005, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, asked former Minister of State, Mr. Chris Flood, to undertake the study. That request arose out of a commitment in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness to "identify the number of Irish prisoners abroad and their needs for services in prison". Mr. Chris Flood accepted the task and in August last year presented his report to the Minister who warmly welcomed it. Since that date, the Department has begun to implement its main recommendations. The Flood report is a seminal study into the needs of Irish prisoners overseas. It is well thought out and will serve as the template for future action in this area for many years to come.

I will outline some of the measures we have taken to implement its key recommendations. The report recommended that the Department establish a register of Irish prisoners abroad to include personal details of the prisoner, including sentence, health status and the last visit by a consular official. The Flood report also recommended that prisoners overseas should have a visit once a year, and more often than that if circumstances required. Those recommendations have been accepted and the Department has recently appointed a Canadian software company, following a tendering process, to install the appropriate equipment in the Department's information technology system. The new software system will allow the Department to compile an electronic register of Irish prisoners overseas.

The Flood report also recommended the establishment of a hardship fund to assist prisoners and their families in cases of particular hardship. Earlier this year, I agreed to provide €30,000 to the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas to operate such a hardship fund. That sum is in addition to the €220,000 provided in core funding for that organisation.

The Flood report also recommended that Irish embassies and consulates would have available lists of English speaking lawyers and provide advice on local legal systems to prisoners and their families. I am pleased to inform the Senator that recommendation has already been implemented.

The report also recommended that the Government would consider appointing additional honorary consuls in areas currently without permanent Government representation. New appointments have recently been made in Agadir in Morocco, Tbilisi in Georgia and Cancun in Mexico, as well as the re-opening of honorary consulates in Jakarta in Indonesia and São Paolo in Brazil. I pay tribute to our honorary consuls who, in difficult parts of the world, undertake countless visits to Irish prisoners on their own time and expense. I recognise also the excellent work done in the area by the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas.

Miscarriages of justice were examined in the report. Chris Flood was mindful of the very high profile cases involving Irish people in Britain. The report recommended the Government consider a financial contribution towards organisations working to overcome miscarriages of justice. Earlier this year, I agreed to the provision of €25,000 to the group founded by Paddy Hill, Miscarriages Of Justice Organisation, MOJO. That funding is earmarked for cases concerning Irish citizens.

The report also called on the Government "to seek to block [forced] repatriation [to Ireland]" of prisoners serving their sentences in Britain. As Senator Mary White is aware, the Irish and British Governments subsequently concluded an agreement covering that point and removed the threat of forced expulsion which had caused considerable unease among Irish families settled in Britain.

In discussing prisoners' rights, we must be mindful also of the rights of victims. At no stage do we seek to shield Irish people from the consequences of their crimes. We believe our citizens should be fully amenable to the local justice system. However, we have a duty to ensure Irish citizens are not discriminated against and are treated in a humane and decent manner. The Flood report measured the Irish consular system in this regard against other comparable countries. It concluded that we stood up well in any comparison but indicated areas where extra action should be considered. I have outlined some of those areas today.

I pay tribute to Mr. Chris Flood who undertook this complex study and refused any remuneration for the task. We all owe him a debt of gratitude. I thank also the public servants in the Department of Foreign Affairs who have worked diligently to implement the recommendations of the report.