Delegates firstly I would like to extend a warm welcome to you all at the conclusion of what has been an immensely challenging twelve months. I wish to pay tribute to the Lord Mayor of Killarney, Councillor Michael Gleeson for his entertaining and insightful speech this morning. As a Corkman I enjoy meeting Kerrymen in April, it’s towards the end of the summer that things aren’t quite so cordial. Or successful for that matter. I also wish to welcome our colleagues from the Britain, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I wish to acknowledge and wish well our colleagues from Scotland Mr. Derek Turner on his forthcoming retirement. Most notably I also wish to welcome our friend Brian Caton, on this his final visit to us as, General Secretary of the British POA. Brian is retiring soon and will be moving on to pastures new. So on behalf of conference I want to wish you the very best in whatever you may do and be assured of our continuing friendship and support.
We also welcome the Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform Mr Dermot Ahern and his officials from the Irish Prison Service. It is indeed an honour to welcome you to our conference. Its two years since your appointment – and this is the first time we have met – which is more than disappointing. Such slights are not lost on us Minister and you now have an opportunity to rectify them. An opportunity such as this where you present your views – and we ours, in front of our membership should not be lost. Anyway the last Minister we had at our conference ended up being the Minister for Finance three days later – so things could be worse.
At this time I also want to remember our colleagues and former colleagues who passed away in the past year.
I dealt with overcrowding in our prisons last year and it will most likely be on the agenda again next year. Colleagues it is a sad indictment on the management, planning and progress of the IPS that I must refer again to the difficulties of overcrowding and the consequent danger that it poses for our members at the coalface of what is the most stressful job in this country. A quick review of the figures for Cork, Mountjoy and Castlerea will illustrate the magnitude of the difficulties that Prison Officers have to deal within institutions that were designed to deal with much fewer inmates. On the 8th and 9th of December last Cork Prison had a prisoner population of 326 in an institution designed for 168. Mountjoy Prison has had a prisoner population high of nearly 700 in an institution originally designed for 489 but currently with a ‘bed capacity’ of 573 and this, prior to the opening of the Separation Unit in March of this year. The impact of having to deal with this level of overcrowding was apparent on numerous occasions in the last twelve months where there were serious disturbances that had to be addressed by Prison Officers that led to injury requiring hospital treatment. It is well established that the job of the prison officer is the most stressful of all such employment – and it is inevitable that overcrowding will add to this.
We are of course being told of the increase in prison spaces that should alleviate this problem. We are being told of the new wings opened in Portlaoise, Castlerea, Wheatfield and the Separation Unit in Mountjoy. We are not reminded however of the closure of Shanganagh Castle, The Curragh and Fort Mitchel that led to excessive pressure being put on our members for sake of Political expediency. Had these institutions remained open the levels of prisoner occupancy would have been much reduced and we would have had a safer environment to work in. But lets address the solutions being forwarded supporting the official sides contention that overcrowding is being addressed. Firstly, in the short term, the decision by the IPS to change the ‘capacity’ of prisons by ten per cent. On first hearing this development I thought that eventually we were being listened to. Not so. The revolutionary idea was to increase what they were saying the capacity was. For example if a prison was running at seven per cent in excess of its real capacity then an IPS ten per cent increase in capacity would result in the prison being three per cent within operational parameters. This must rate as one of the worst examples of the enduring smoke and mirrors policy of the IPS yet. My reaction to that is – who thought that one up!
Secondly, there has been the medium term solution which has been outlined earlier with the opening of the various extensions. Here at least we can see that we were listened to in some manner or form. This has been an argument fought by this Association for some considerable time and most pointedly in the last three years. We have reflected the appalling conditions that our members have had to work in. I would like to think that these developments have been exclusively as a result of our representations of prison officers but this is not the world we live in. Internal reports, reports from the Inspector of Prisons and even the Visiting Committees have reflected these conditions. But even within these solutions there is still some number massaging. The then Governor of Castlerea made comments referencing the new unit in Castlerea as having fifty new spaces. When it came time to open – hey presto! These spaces had doubled to one hundred. In Portlaoise their unit had also increased significantly from the sixty places outlined at the start of negotiations. The provision of these spaces, while welcome, requires appropriate staffing. The bricks and mortar aspect of prison overcrowding does not in itself address the real issue of adequate staffing.
The third option has been the comic progression of the Thornton Hall project which at its very best estimate of completion won’t take prisoners for at least four years. To portray this as the panacea for all the ills of the prison service while remaining just beyond the horizon is another example of hopeful planning. In our recent biennial meeting with the Director General of the Prison Service the forthcoming solutions were just more of the same; Open new areas with less staff and hope that there are no more prisoners sent to us. Even the solutions forwarded by you last year, Minister, of electronic tagging, the fines bill and restorative justice have proven to be hopeless. This sense of hopelessness is borne out by the recent figures in custody which show over 5,000 ‘on the books’ with over 4,200 in custody. This reflects a growth of over 700 prisoners in the last two years which in itself reflects the largest year on year growth of prisoner population in the history of the state. When this is coupled with the numbers on temporary release you get a sense of how desperately dangerous the situation is. It is all very well to have more judges, more court sittings and supposedly more Gardai on the streets but all of these efforts are futile if there is a logjam at the end of the system that cannot be adequately administered.
This is the case unfortunately – as just when we have supposedly improved capacity – we have a moratorium to contend with. Because delegates we know that understaffing has the same implications for Prison Officers that overcrowding has. It still means that we are being left without the supports to do our job that are so drastically required. New buildings are well and good but without sufficient Prison Officers to staff them – they could be burnt out shells before too long All this occurs against a background of escalating violence and gang culture in our prisons. In prisons across the state the level of violence whether it is ‘prisoner on prisoner’ or ‘prisoner on officer’ has grown at an alarming rate with hardly a week passing without stabbings, assaults or worse having taken place. These groups, while vying for control of the drugs trade see the prison system as a proving ground and each gang will viciously protect that patch or the consequences for them will be dire. Meanwhile, prison officers, those charged with maintaining control, are becoming fewer while gang recruits are growing because for many prisoners there is more safety in belonging to a group rather than standing alone. Minister, we need a place to put these people and a regime that is robust enough to protect those that have to deal with them.
In a time of dwindling budgets it would be well for Ministers to refrain from the practice of being penny wise and pound foolish. If you as Minister are forced to rebuild a prison instead of creating a new facility this is in my view a flawed policy. In this week alone a Prison Governor has retired citing overcrowding and dangerous conditions among her reasons for retiring, and this in one of our more recent facilities. On the same day a member of the Visiting Committee has reiterated the appalling conditions that this union has highlighted in advance of his stepping down from his position. Even if you choose to ignore and diminish what we say surely it is advisable to listen to your managers and those that are neutral on the issue. On that I call on you Minister to ensure that prison officers have safe environments within which to do their jobs. Just to be helpful in that regard we are more than willing to lock up more bankers and less fine defaulters.
Another hardy annual is the implementation of the Proposal for Organisational Change, specifically the equalisation element of it that has been neglected for so long. It would stand to reason that any agreement has to be fair and that fairness should be transparent. For far too long we have had our people being forced to work annualised hours. You know colleagues that had equalisation been properly applied, this would have had an equal distribution of working time within and across grades. This issue has long been the subject of deliberation at National Monitoring and Review and a document was eventually finalised at the Labour Relations Commission. This document if properly adhered to would provide management with adequate cover while guaranteeing our members equity in attendance. Many of the hours now being sanctioned are hours that would never have received sanction in the era of overtime. Many hours were sanctioned for early starts or dinner hours but not so many for unsocial hours. In an era of fiscal responsibility every government department has been told to ‘work smarter’ and work better. Here we have a concept that predates the collapse of the financial institutions and was agreed between the parties as a means to fairly implement the proposal for Organisational change.
However there have been difficulties in implementation of this agreement due to poor local enforcement. The reason, colleagues, is that some of our grades have been adhering to the Orwellian concept that ‘some are more equal than others’. Some grades are in the enviable position that they can detail themselves work at times that are not unsocial and leave the more unsocial elements of work to those of us that have to be centrally detailed. Delegates, there is not only an onus on management to ensure equity there is also an onus on us as representatives to ensure equal treatment and that every member understands that being in a union means believing and supporting the ideal of equal treatment.
Anti Trade Union Activity
In the last twelve months our Vice President has secured the dubious distinction of being the longest serving probationer in the Irish Prison Service. A distinction you will agree delegates, that he is none too impressed with. He was extended because it was said that he was not performing his tasks adequately. Yet he was able to provide training schedules for the entire prison that were not implemented through no fault of his own. He was also the only promoted grade that was performing duties at a lower level in his institution in accordance with the equalisation document. He was obviously one of the officers less equal than others. Karl’s sin apparently was that he was representing you in spite of forwarding all documentation to management as he was required to do. This is not isolated to just Karl. Gabriel was promoted to work in a shop in the industrial area that had been open for nearly thirty years. The shop closed down. An unfortunate coincidence perhaps as other areas had to be changed also and the officers therein were reallocated similar work. The difference however was that Gabriel was not afforded the same opportunity as everyone else. These instances of intimidation are not isolated to the individuals but family members have inexplicably found that their working lives are affected where they had hitherto unblemished records.
There are also the smaller but no less telling snubs like the recent conferring of certificates in custodial care. During the Proposal for Organisational Change negotiations the elevation of our members from having a basic standard of education to an academically accepted level was central to our bottom line. A belief in lifelong learning should not only be paper exercise but an aspiration of all workers. At the conferring ceremony speech after speech was made and a really jolly backslapping event it was. We were told how everyone played their part, officers, management; both local and national, the college, the training centre, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all. Of the Union, not a word. We were like the 8 month pregnant bride, that while there were smiles all round no one wanted to mention the obvious extra guest. These issues were so serious that at the recent pay talks the Labour Relations Commission had to issue a letter advocating the use of its advisory service not only to us but to the AHCPS in order to address the ongoing industrial relations difficulties. In any working environment all views should have the ability to be heard and all opinions have the right to be voiced regardless of consequence. It is perhaps ironic in this context that the equality responsibilities have been taken from under the Justice banner and banished to another department of government- Community and Gaeltacht affairs. One would hate to suggest this transfer of responsibilities had anything to do with a diminution of power or reduction of responsibilities.It does however seem strange to separate the concept of justice from that of equality, perhaps it was just another coincidence.
While I am aware that this form of treatment does not fall under the nine grounds it is now perhaps an opportune time to include a tenth, that of trade union membership or activism so that we can continue our work without fear or favour as it should be.
Code of Discipline
Delegates we have been beset since 1996 with a code of discipline procedure that could have been drafted by Margaret Thatcher. If you have your collar button open or drive a bus down the A Division then under this code you are liable to receive the same punishment, as there is no cognisance of degrees of severity of offence or any maximum or minimum tariff per offence. Not only that, but even if you’re local Governor is satisfied that the punishment is sufficient, it can be increased even further by the Minister or the head of the Department. This not only limits the powers of the local governor, which in the normal run of things is not such a bad idea, but it also limits the scope for local representations by both sides that would be fully aware of all elements of the incident that may be able to arrive at a fairer judgement. While not diminishing the ability of the head of Department to vary or reduce the punishment it should be accepted that locally those that are most aware of the details surrounding the case should be in the best position to decide what the maximum tariff should be.
We are currently bringing a case to Europe that if successful means that you are entitled to legal representation at a code of discipline hearing. It would seem logical that if there is provision for dismissal for every offence then each individual should be entitled to the best defence available in order to protect themselves adequately. The courts in this country do not deem it to be the case so it is left to us to pursue it further. So, Delegates it is against this background that national officers are now in dialogue with the Irish Prison Service to try and find a new code that will have fairness, objectivity and transparency as its core objectives. We can only hope!
Delegates, at this stage you are all well aware of the manner which we, as public servants were appallingly treated last December. Negotiations with the Government were undertaken in good faith and with a view to address the atrocious mess that we had no hand, act or part in. Against the background of media bias and a Government fronted IBEC agenda the unions put forward a methodology that recognised the difficulty this country was in. This plan had the provision of temporary unpaid leave at its heart and was accompanied by substantial negotiations on the terms of a transformation agenda. Both elements of which would have been difficult for any union leader to return to their membership with, but this was faced up to by the unions as part of our commitment to the society that we know we are fundamental to. However the IBEC propaganda machine went into overdrive and the back benchers decided that it was time to yet again do the popular thing and in the latest episode of gombeenism forced the trade union movement into industrial action. This was followed by a barrage of self congratulation and mutual back slapping. The loneliness of leadership and the burden of management were cited by one and all. Where was this leadership when the bankers were taking our country apart brick by brick to the extent that our children’s children will be forced to atone for this debacle of greed and selfishness? Where was it when the golden circle was being lauded by one and all as heroes? It was nowhere to be seen. If prison officers were to behave in the same cavalier fashion none of us would make it home at the end of the working day.
Prison Management came with an agenda to totally transform the way we work and are remunerated. While there were eleven points on their agenda there was really only one: Our Rosters. Over the course of four days we held out for an alternative to be put to our people so that the dull, unimaginative and prohibitive solution of imposing an extra 24 days per annum through the abbreviation of our working day would be pushed back. We were fully aware that this proposal would never be accepted by our membership. If anything it shows how out of touch with their employees the Prison Service is. They still don’t understand that when you work under the conditions that we work in, the most important part is to maintain our family life in as normal a manner as is possible. Their solution would not have solved the problems of the Prison Service. It would have been like putting a plaster on a cut artery. All the same problems would have remained and yet another round of crisis management would have ensued. But delegates, I am not going to tell you that this struggle has ended, far from it, it has only begun. But in the coming months and years we will be able draw strength from the decision of conscience that was made here today. It is the same decision of conscience that rests with the members that we serve in the coming weeks. I hope in that decision that our deliberations today will provide guidance and leadership.
But, those in the corridors of power should take heed that should this pay deal fall or if the terms of the transformation agenda are thought to be too onerous, do not say that it was out of fear or arrogance that it was rejected because we, above any other worker in the public service, have no fear of change as we have shown in the past. Rather out of a sense of anger and outrage at the slipshod way our bankers were allowed to pillage and pilfer the futures of our children and get away with it. Rather with a sense of betrayal at the unfair and inaccurate manner in which frontline workers were portrayed in some elements of the media and allowed to be portrayed as such by our employer. Rather out of a sense of exhaustion and frustration at working in deteriorating and dangerous conditions with more and more being expected of you and less opportunity to accomplish it. Rather with a knowledge of mistrust as the revelations from the Moriarty Tribunal come to light with the ‘dig outs’ and the tawdry misuse of office that it has highlighted. Minister if the walls come tumbling down and you ask yourself- ‘where did it all go wrong?’ I suggest that you don’t point in the direction of the unions rather point the finger of blame closer to home.
In conclusion, Delegates the deliberations of this conference will live with us for some considerable time to come and the decisions we have made have been for the protection of our members and their terms and, most importantly, conditions of employment. These are difficult times; a time for unity, a time for working together so that we maximise the impact and strength of the union movement, but they are also defining times and the decisions of unions that are made in the coming months will affect and define generations to come. It is for this reason that we have accepted the grave responsibility upon us to get this right for now and always. Delegates in this my last speech to conference as President I wish to say what a signal honour it was to hold this office for the last three years and that I am equally honoured to be able to continue to serve you. I also want to thank and compliment all of you here today and all our members around the country for the Trojan work done on behalf of the state since we last met a year ago.
I wish to congratulate Stephen, Tommy and Karl for retaining national office and to Paul for his election as Information Officer whose achievement is more noteworthy as he is the first National officer from Cork Prison for a considerable period of time. Finally, I wish to quote from a speech Teddy Roosevelt gave in 1910 called The Man in the Arena. It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena………who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
It is therefore with this in mind that I urge this Conference regardless of consideration of Victory or Defeat that we become the doer of deeds not the critics with cold and timid souls.
Go raibh maith agaibh go leir.