Self-indulgent politicians paint a very stark picture of the country
By Ryle Dwyer
THE authorities absurdly suggested during the week that Conor Casby, the artist who painted the controversial portraits of Brian Cowen, was guilty of indecency, incitement to violence and criminal damage.
What was Conor Casby supposedly inciting? In one portrait, the Taoiseach was holding an underpants and in the other a toilet roll.
Was this incitement for men to change their underwear, or discard their underwear and go commando? What possible incitement could there be in holding a roll of toilet paper? The indecency charge was even more absurd and the criminal damage suggestion was just as ridiculous. By hanging the pictures in the gallery of Royal Hibernian Academy and in the National Gallery of Ireland the prankster provided a service by exposing their flawed security. One would understand the angst if the prankster drove nails through some valuable paintings, but not discretely into the walls merely to hang the two paintings.
The galleries should keep the pictures in position and I would confidently bet that they would attract a multiple of the usual number of visitors. Those galleries have received priceless international publicity thanks in no small measure to the government press secretary.
The whole thing would be hilarious if it was not so frightening. The press secretary sounded off because he undoubtedly believed that was what the Government wished him to do, and likewise the gardaí followed up the story. Would somebody please tell us why the gardaí are now wasting their time questioning Conor Casby?
In his radio programme last Thursday, Joe Duffy interviewed Marie Phelan whose son, Colm, was murdered in Galway on July 21, 1996 when he went there to attend a stag party. Gerald Barry killed him, but he was only convicted of a violent assault.
In 1998, while Barry was out on bail, he assaulted an elderly man living alone. The man was already blind in one eye, but as a result of the vicious attack, he also lost the sight of the other eye. For all of this Barry was sentenced to five years in jail, but he was back out in two years.
On October 8, 2007, Barry struck again. This time he murdered Manula Riedo, a 17-year-old Swiss student who had come to this country just three days earlier to learn English. We can only imagine the torture that her parents have suffered in losing their only child.
In addition to the horrific grief inflicted on her parents, think of the message this sends to the world about the safety of tourists in Ireland. This country had been attracting thousands of continental students to come here to learn English.
In 1997, when the Fianna Fáil element of the current Government first came to power, the party was promising zero tolerance and savaging the outgoing Minister for Justice, Nora Owen, who lost her Dáil seat in that election. This was the first in another whole series of confidence tricks, but confidence in Fianna Fáil is now at an all-time low.
The Irish Examiner suggested last week that politicians should get out of their cars and walk down the main streets of their towns and count the number of businesses that have closed.
I did it this week in Tralee and was staggered to find that 23 ground-floor business premises were shut on the length of the main street running east-west, but then on the various streets leading off in the north-south directions, there were a further 80 empty premises. Those included four public houses that have gone out of business.
Yet there is a lot of reckless talk about raising money by increasing taxes on the "old reliables." The pubs are already in trouble and raising their prices won’t bring in extra money. It will shut more pubs and increase unemployment.
Brian Lenihan has already admitted the last VAT increase cost the State more than €700 million because people simply avoided that tax by going North to shop. During the last recession we eventually learned the best way of raising money was by lowering tax. Indeed, slashing the corporate tax gave birth to the Celtic Tiger.
This week the Government defeated a Fine Gael motion to cut the number of junior ministers by up to seven. Ministers have been saying they are going to slash spending, but they have shown little willingness to cut their own spending.
"This motion constitutes one-thousandth of what is needed," Minister of State for Children Barry Andrews declared on behalf of the Government. "I cannot then but wonder why we are having a three-hour debate on such a minor issue during a time of serious crisis in this country."
What was his message — they are not going to cut even one-thousandth of their own spending? Barry Andrews already demonstrated his usefulness last year when he did not even bother to read the report about child abuse in the Cloyne diocese. Bishop John Magee has been sidelined because he did not act on the report, but the Minister of State of Children continues on sublimely.
He showed he was out of touch by not reading the report and Government has further demonstrated its disconnect with reality by using him as its spokesman on the issue of the junior ministers. No one was suggesting that any deputy should be made redundant. The proposal was that a half-a-dozen or so of the extra junior ministerial positions should be eliminated.
The Government is effectively laying off thousands of people, but don’t expect them to cut even one-thousandth of their extravagant perks. Bertie Ahern got a severance package of €68,000 just for stepping down as Taoiseach, and he will be entitled to €207,584 annually once he quits the Dáil. He will not even have to retire from working. He could make even more on the lecture circuit.
OF COURSE, this is not confined to members of Fianna Fáil; it is open to politicians of all parties. Most people have to retire before they can draw a pension, so why should politicians be any different?
Moreover, the expenses paid to politicians and many civil servants continue to bear little relationship to their real expenses. Those amount to tax-free perks.
Politicians who are over 65 are entitled to free rail and bus travel, but when they avail of this they are still entitled to claim the same travel expenses as if they paid. If the Government is serious about tightening up on expenses, it should eliminate the abuses by politicians immediately.
Faced with rising unemployment, higher taxes, reduced services and a Government that refuses to lead by giving proper example, we may be on the cusp of a very dangerous situation.
Noel Whelan, who has never hidden his admiration for Fianna Fáil, recently predicted there would be a general election in June as a result of violence.
In the past, emigration always provided a safety valve for the economic ineptitude of any government, but that is now closed off by the global situation. If the Government tries to introduce savage cuts without giving leadership by demonstrating that the politicians are prepared to share in the pain, we could be in for serious trouble.
During the mid- 1950s, there were only three prisons, in Ireland (Republic) with a daily average in custody of less
than 400. Crime rates increased dramatically during the early seventies.. This period, coincided with the unrest in Northern Ireland and the ravaging of our cities by the heroin scourge. From less than 20,000 recorded indictable offences each year in the 1960s the figures soared to over 100,000 in 1983.
From the early 1970s, the daily average number of prisoners began to rise, exceeding 1,000 in 1975.
In 1983, prison governors were for the first time permitted to accommodate more than one person per cell. However, thispractice did not provide adequate relief and increasing reliance was put on Temporary Release (TR) as allowed under the Criminal Justice Act 1960.3 Bythe mid-1990s, the crime rate was at an all-time high, the prisons were overcrowded and the safety valve of Temporary Release( commonly known as "The revolving door" system) was bringing the system into disrepute.
In 1994, the Department of Justice put the demand for extra prison accommodation at 210 places but by 1997, this had risen to 840.
A change of Government in 1997 resulted in a further revision to 2,000 places and a major prison building programme was at last begun
These additional prison cells were to form part of Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform John O’Donoghue,s much hyped."Zero Tolerance" approach to crime.
The reason for this policy shift lay, in large part, in the law and order politics which followed the murders of Garda Jerry McCabe and journalist Veronica Guerin in June 1996 and a number of fatal attacks in rural areas earlier in that year (McCullagh, 1999). These killings were followed by public demands for action which were translated into promises of more police, more prisons and more repressive legislation
Serving time in prisons such as Mountjoy where up to 600 habitual offenders occupy a Dickensian prison originally built to house 400, is seen as a rite of passage. Being arrested and eventually incarcerated is viewed as an inevitable hazard of the profession, and even a positive outcome by the criminal. in 1970 there were 750 prisoners in irish jail representing 25 per 100,000 population and they were served by 264 prison warders.
By the year 2000 there were 3,009 occupants representing 80 per 1000,000 head of population served by an incredible 3,200 staff. A one to one ratio.!
The Garda annual statistics massage traditionally divided indictable crime into three major categories: crimes against the person (e.g. murder, wounding,rape); crimes against property with violence (e.g. burglary, arson, robbery); and larceny (e.g. shoplifting, car theft, fraud).
On average, the latter two categories have accounted for about 97 per cent of recorded crime each year since 1960. Violence against the person accounts for just over 2 per cent of the total. The same classification is used by the prison service to record persons committed to custody under sentence.
In 1994, 47.9 per cent of adults committed to prison received sentences of less than three months, but only 1 per cent of those in custody on 1 January 1994 were serving three months or less. This translates into the immediate release from prison of short term prisoners within 24 hours of being admitted.
Today this revolving door system continues to releases such short term prisoners (averaging 50 per week in mountjoy Jail alone) within days of their incarceration, as the prison management struggles to maintain space for hardened criminals, murderers rapists and those serving serious drug offences and armed robbery etc.
A fourth Garda category is known simply as "other offences", and includes matters as diverse as obstructing clergy during services, corruption and conspiracy. In recent years, this category has accounted for approximately 0.5 per cent of recorded indictable crime. (Instead we have a pertual chat show in the Tribunal Theatre in Dublin Castle )
In 2000, a new classification– headline and non-headline – was introduced (An Garda Síochána, 2002). This largely mirrored the indictable/non-indictable classification, but made direct comparison with previous years difficult. The usual four categories of "indictable" crime were replaced by ten groups of "headline"crimes.In 2000.
176 larcenies of motor vehicles were recorded by the Gardai compared with 15,964 unauthorised takings.Unauthorized taking is a non indictable offence. Massaging of criminality statistics by Gardai management have even conspired to reveal a "fall" in crime since 1995.This constant propaganda war on truth however masks an steady increase in crimes of lethal violence.
A detailed breakdown of committals to prison is not available after this date and is unlikely to become available. A report was published in 2000, covering the years 1995 to 1998 (Irish Prisons Service, 2000). It contains only a sketchy overview. This is a significant data deficit, especially as the increase in crime and the rise in imprisonment began in earnest in 1996. Post 1994, we know something about the stock of prisoners (daily average prison population), but not about the flow (numbers committed to prison over the year). Either figure can be used to calculate an imprisonment rate.
Criminals however know the truth. Under a Fianna Fail government petty criminals do not serve time at all in prison.(Six months sentences or less). Even hardened criminals receive early release. Corrupt politicians never see the door of a prison. The citizens of our towns and cities pay the price.!
I had occasion to visit the "Joy"(Mountjoy jail) recently on a sightseeing tour. we were only allowed to see the women's and the men's ' institute of correction' .The juvenile prison was off limits. I was impressed by the womens prison.
It had all the hallmarks of a very caring and humane regime, whereas the mens section was everything you saw in the film "The birdman of Alcatraz",a genuine victorian prison, with vaulted ceiling, cells of floorspace about 10ft x 6ft, and one tiny window measuring about 18 inches by 18, near the ceiling.
These beehive cloisters are probably similiar to the space your average monk occupied on Skellig Michael a few centuries ago. The womens cells are not much larger except for their modernity. An average of 550 male prisoners occupy an institute build over a century ago, to house 400 maximum. The warder told me that the prisoners confined in these small spaces frequently "topped themselves" until about 4 years ago when they were permitted a TV in their cell and the suicide rate fell immediately.!
Walking through the corridors,and glancing at the faces of the inmates, I realized that only the most unrehabilatative individuals occupied this prison.There was a hardness about them that was frightening. The last time I met an individual like that, was an encounter with an ex vietnam war veteran who had returned to live in Ireland. I could feel the dehumanization in his very demeanour. it was like talking to the shell of a living ,feeling person.I felt he had seen death. Not only seen death many times,t but witnessed it inflicted carelessly, violently, and without compunction.In Mountjoy,I got the feeling that the men incarcerated here were the worst of the bad,almost beyond human redemption. Their main gripe was that their legal representatives had let them down.I was somewhat bemused when one of the warders told me that there was a fair amount of body snatching "for profit" going on in there, in that some solicitors were "ambulance chasing" and exhorting their faithful clients to persuade other inmates to change their free legal representation in their favour, on the basis that they would have received a shorter sentence if they had been better represented by Smart & Clever Solicitors,or whoever.
It was fascinating to visit the execution house, and although there was no hangman's noose visible, the original wooden trapdoors which sprang open on the instant to release a soul into eternity, were still very much in evidence. Interestingly the last soul to fall through those weight bound apertures was a young Kerryman vwho had been convicted of murdering his girlfriend and who went to the gallows protesting his innocence. A few years after he had departed this life it was established that he was indeed blameless. Thank heaven the gallows is no longer with us, given recent revelations with reguard to similiar miscarriages of justice. All in all it was an interesting day.
The new prison intended to replace Mountjoy Prison at Thornton Hall in north County Dublin will house at least 1,200 male, female and juvenile inmates ,according to Minister McDowell,when it opens in 2010- but will be designed to allow for its easy extension in the future.
"Those tendering for the new prison, which will replace the existing Mountjoy Prison on Dublin's North Circular Road, will design, build, finance and maintain the new facility. The maintenance contract will run for up to 35 years. The maintainance obligation will probably preclude any non irish contractor from tendering.
At the existing Mountjoy Prison, where about 900 inmates are housed, overcrowding has become a major problem in recent years,and the "revolving door" in operation to this day, means that every week approximately 50 prisoners are presented for acceptance,many of whom are released within days(those with 6 month sentences or less)
When had the privilege to visit Mountjoy Jail very recently ,and the staff there confided that their greatest nightmare is the prospect of any large Garda station's commanding officer doing a 'spring clean' of the numerous outstanding arrest warrents lying in their filing cabinets.
The warder- to-prisoner ratio has risen in the past ten years from one warder to three prisoners to one-to-one in 2007
Will Thornton Hall be overcrowded the day it opens.?
What's the point in Draconian Legislation to tackle criminals- when there is no place in which to incarcerate them?
Prisoner set to sue over Mountjoy death cell
Dearbhail McDonald( Sunday Times 2006)
A PRISONER detained with 20 other men in a holding cell in the basement of Mountjoy prison, where Gary Douch was killed, was granted leave to sue the jail for damages just hours before Douch was beaten to death by a fellow inmate on Tuesday morning.
On Monday morning John Mac Menamin, a High Court judge, adjourned a full hearing of the prisoner’s judicial review application until October to allow John Lonergan, the governor of Mountjoy, time to respond.
That evening Douch, who was serving a three-year sentence for assault, was moved to the basement and placed in a holding cell with six others. He had asked for a transfer to a safe cell for his own protection after telling wardens that he feared for his life. In the early hours of Tuesday, he was beaten to death by a prisoner.
Three separate inquiries are now under way into Douch’s death at Mountjoy, where five inmates have been viciously assaulted in recent weeks.
If the High Court declares that the circumstances of the prisoner’s detention at Mountjoy amount to cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment, it could open the floodgates for hundreds of offenders detained in substandard conditions in Irish prisons.
Now housed in Mountjoy’s main C wing the prisoner, who was moved to the basement following an assault in the main prison, has lodged a false imprisonment and compensation claim for the two weeks he was held in a 14ft by 9ft cell with up to 20 others. The prisoner claims that conditions in the holding cell are in breach of his constitutional rights and the European convention on human rights.
In his affidavit, which has been seen by The Sunday Times, the prisoner says he was in a 24-hour cell with 20 others and was forced to sleep on a bench. There was one toilet in the cell, but despite the fact it was blocked inmates continued to use it. The prisoner also claimed there was no running water and he had not been able to wash or shave for more than two weeks.
"The [prisoner] is subjected to sanitary, sleeping and eating conditions which fall far short of what is acceptable," say the papers filed in the High Court. "The regime fails to maintain the minimum terms of human dignity, respect and bodily integrity to which the applicant is entitled."
The case, the latest in a series of court actions against Mountjoy, highlights the extreme measures prisoners are taking to address conditions.
Two months ago a prisoner who was forced to sleep overnight in an overcrowded cell crawling with mice and cockroaches, lost his High Court bid to be released from Mountjoy. Lawyers acting for Jonathan Duffy, who brought an emergency claim for release under a habeas corpus application — used to remedy illegal detentions — claimed he was moved out of the cell because he brought a court action, rendering his action "moot". The prison denied Duffy was moved because of the threat of legal action.
The government was warned by officers at Mountjoy that the failure to curb violence could expose the prison to litigation. Because of chronic overcrowding, the punishment B wing is also used as an overflow for inmates awaiting transfer to other prisons. Holding cells are used to safeguard at-risk inmates, but overcrowding is leading to violence in the so-called protection units.
"Vulnerable inmates are at the mercy of violent inmates and serious assaults [sexual and otherwise] may occur, as has been the case in the past," said John Ward, the former secretary of the Mountjoy branch of the Prison Officers’ Association, in a report to the governor in December 2003. "The prison is failing in its basic duty of care and the very essence and basic requirement of the court order as contained on the warrant: ‘to safely keep the body of’ is being recklessly and flagrantly disregarded. This, in turn, leaves the state open to litigation."
By Michael Brennan Political Correspondent
Thursday December 06 2007
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has admitted that action needs to be taken to deal with the situation in which some 36,000 people are said to be evading bench warrants for their arrest.
The scandal was highlighted in a number of recent serious crimes, including the house party shooting of Donna Cleary, whose suspected killer was the subject of a bench warrant.
During leader's questions in the Dail yesterday, Mr Ahern accepted that the system needed to be tightened up.
However, he said he found it hard to imagine that there were 36,000 outstanding bench warrants, which are issued by judges when a defendant or witness fails to turn up in court.
"While I do not know the total figure for people who have evaded the system, I imagine it is small," he said.
Labour party leader Eamon Gilmore said the figure of 36,000 had been obtained from the garda computer system on November 25. He added that there were 111,453 outstanding warrants in total, which was "equivalent to the population of a large five seat constituency".
This included 4,000 committal warrants issued by judges to allow gardai arrest convicted offenders who should be in prison, he said.
"I would like an explanation as to why these people are not being arrested."
Mr Ahern rejected the suggestion that a significant number of people never turned up in court on foot of bench warrants.
"Some of the cases would relate to people for whom a warrant was issued and they either forgot about it or were sick," he said.
In many cases, those with outstanding bench warrants are arrested for another offence or their offence related to the failure to pay a court fine, he added.
He also rejected a suggestion by the Labour party that social welfare offices notify gardai when a person with an outstanding bench warrant turns up to collect a payment.
He said debt collectors were being used to retrieve court fines under a pilot project, and that the Fines Bill -- before the Dail -- would further reduce pressure on the system by allowing people to pay fines in instalments.
- Michael Brennan Political Correspondent