On behalf of the National Executive Council it gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to this year’s Annual Conference of the Prison Officers’ Association. I would like to extend a warm welcome to the Mayor, John Crowe. I would like to extend a warm welcome to the Minister Frances Fitzgerald and her Officials from the Irish Prison Service. I would like to extend a particularly warm welcome to our fellow Trade Unionists and the national media, guests and especially our delegates, who are present here today. I would also like to express our best wishes to our colleagues and families who were the subject of recent assaults in the hope that they have a speedily recovery. Delegates, before I get into the body of this speech, I wish to preface it by saying that this has been one of the most difficult and challenging years in my experience as a representative of this organisation. We have in the past had attacks on our pay, we have had attacks on our conditions of service and as all Prison Officers know we have had brutal physical attacks on our members and through each and every assault the intentions of the attacker were laid before us.
We knew Michael McDowell’s intentions way before they came to fruition and dealt with it as we have always done, with professionalism, with integrity and with unity. We know what some prisoners are capable of and as far as we are supported we can prepare. But this year, despite our verified achievements, we have seen a u turn by IPS Management, a sea change of approach to the Partnership Model. To quote the waiter delivering champagne to George Best and Miss World in cash strewn hotel room ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ It is a difficult one to understand but I do hope to paint you a picture..
There was no open declaration of intent to change agreed processes, no clear message to us as a Trade Union that the partnership process was at an end but a long term strategy of ‘presenteeism’ – attending at meetings and not engaging, a series of ‘pseudo- engagements. As the country’s coffers filled up getting louder and louder the real reform of our place of work was becoming a dim distant memory. A succession of empty promises and false commitments can only work once. We want the message to go out from here delegates to the Emperor and all his court. We see you and you are wearing nothing! Where are we now?
Minister, when we met with you, we expressed to you our concerns for the safety of our Members and the path of confrontation which we are on. I want to thank you for taking the time to come here today because it gives me the opportunity for the first time to address you publically. But what is alarming Minister, even though you expressed support, our plight has deteriorated even further. We have had even more stabbings and your IPS Directorate for their own reasons wants to extract even more from Prison Officers and their families. Make no mistake Minister we are at the crossroads, on the one hand is partnership, progress, reform, dignity, success, industrial peace, on the other is Dictatorship, Conflict, Stagnation, Industrial Unrest, Failure, Director General, Minister it is your choice ?
Haddington- The Long Road to Pay Restoration
Much needed pay discussions are due to commence. Trade unions must act together to restore and enhance the pay and conditions of workers. The contribution of Prison Officers has been immense. We have given enough; we paid the price for others, and now its payback time. The priority now for the POA and the Public Service Unions is to ensure the full restoration of pay cuts and restoring the overall living standards of Prison Officers and other Public Servants. But before we start writing the cheques in anticipation delegates, you must be aware that the Director General and his team have unilaterally walked away from the verified methodology of achieving cost savings to their preferred option of taking more money from the families of prison officers by way of further pay cuts. When every other corner of the Public Service is getting ready to breathe a much deserved sigh of relief, in the dim corner of justice that is prisons, our place of work, we have to deal with this injustice. But even the darkest of corners can be brightened and I would like to extend our thanks to our comrades in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and particularly the General Secretary, Patricia King for the support shown to our union at a difficult stage in our recent negotiations. At that time Patricia showed the true core value of Trade Unions – Unity is everything – It is something our detractors will never fathom in their relentless ego centred pursuit of power. I would like at this stage to wish her well at the beginning of her time in a very difficult job and to assure her of OUR support for her and our continued support for Congress.
The Safety of Staff
And now Minister, we come to the section that there is no half way point, that there is no equivocation, that there can be no dilution of purpose. Six Stabbings in Six weeks – No, No, No, the physical safety of our Members must always our top priority. In February this year, we had the vicious assault on two of our colleagues, who were seriously injured by a highly dangerous prisoner form Portlaoise Prison who was known to pose a threat. We also had a number of Officers stabbed in the Midlands Prison when they intervened to quell a disturbance and more recently in Mountjoy Prison at 8.15 in the morning, before most people had their breakfast; three Officers were viciously attacked by a deranged prisoner using a lethal weapon with two Officers sustaining serious injuries to the head and face. They will have to live with that for the rest of their lives.
The IPS hierarchy and Prison Management need a reality check. Physical violence against Prison Officers continues unabated. Today our prisons are the most dangerous places of work in this country. We remain to be convinced that the hierarchy and management at all levels are grasping the seriousness of this situation. But in case there is any confusion we all knew the risks when we signed on the dotted line. But we also thought that when there were requests for Garda assistance that we would be supported. We also thought that violent, disruptive and mentally challenged prisoners would be treated accordingly ensuring our safety. Minister, we have a legitimate right to have proper safety systems in place to protect ourselves against such individuals in each institution. I do hope and pray that we will not have our first tragic statistic to commemorate next year. It is for this reason that we are calling for mandatory consecutive sentencing for those who assault or injure Prison Officers in the performance of their duties.
Delegates, we were bombarded by IPS with the much vaunted but ultimately hollow Dignity at Work project, where we were told we were going to be valued and our input was going to be recognised. Let us test this commitment. We have a motion before us delegates – that would allow prison officers to have unfettered paid sick leave in instances where they have been injured on duty, similar to the methodology available to our colleagues in the Gardaí. I challenge IPS to give their commitment today to put this sick leave adjustment in place immediately in front of all here in order to demonstrate their stated commitment to Prison Officers for all to see.
Like other uniformed services it is essential that a competition for recruitment commences immediately. Almost every Prison is operating under its authorised staff numbers. We lodged a claim at the Departmental Council for the commencement of a recruitment process. The answer from the IPS was negative, as usual. Minister, you must realise that following sanction to recruit it will take at least 18 months before any new recruit Prison Officer sets foot inside a Prison. In eighteen months allowing for usual retirements the situation will be of a magnitude that even your own safety management system will not be obtainable. There is also a massive shortage of Nurse Officers operating in our Prisons. One in five of these positions are vacant. We need Prison Officers on the ground now. I am now calling on you Minister, not only to commence a recruitment drive now, but also to instruct your Officials to expedite measures to allow PASO Grade Staff the opportunity to become Recruit Prison Officers immediately.
So delegates, if and when, these new arrivals materialise what will there be there to greet them. Unfortunately it is going to be drugs, drugs and more drugs. Earlier this year the IPS announced that the war on drugs was going to manifest itself with a three pronged approach; Enhanced Screening, Drug Free areas and confidential help lines. Great plan however….
The POA suggested at the commencement of the searching at the gate in 2008 that EVERY person should be screened. “Drug Free Areas” is not a new concept just a hardy annual that will always be supported by any fair thinking individual and has had various attempts in the past. A confidential help line will only allow the gangs to subvert proper procedures by setting up some unwitting fool coming in as a decoy while some other method is employed to get drugs into prisons. It is the gang leaders that should be properly isolated for the safety of all Officers and Prisoners alike. We are told that any attempts to isolate these individuals will be resisted in the courts and will get significant support in some quarters. Minister we are saying loud and clear to you if you take these individuals on and make real attempts to safeguard our members you will have our absolute support. We all know the problems the real challenge is doing something about it. To paraphrase Warren Buffet, of all people, “It’s not enough to predict the rain. You’ve got to build an ark”
Industrial Relations Climate
Delegates as an organisation we face a new challenge. It is very obvious that despite savings already achieved through the sacrifices made by our members; the Irish Prison Service wants to abandon the joint approach to reform to one of dictatorship. For reasons best known to themselves the IPS Director General and his Officials have decided at this critical time to adopt an adversarial approach in regard to the reform agenda? I am unsure as to what school of management thought this approach is emerging from – if any? Is it ironic that your officials adopt this approach when there is 1000 less prisoners in custody surely placing a real opportunity of reform for all stakeholders in jeopardy? This is not a time for dictatorship Minister – and in this context we are not referring to you. As an organisation, our track record for reform and organisational change has well been established and verified. From the introduction of the Annualised Agreement in 2005, Croke Park 2008, and now Haddington Road we have played a key role in the reform of the prison system. Only two years ago your predecessor Minister Alan Shatter stated at our Conference………..
“The constructive and careful leadership provided by the POA reflects the dedication and professionalism of your organisation as does the calm, committed and considered approach that you take in representing prison officers throughout the State. You go about your work with dedication and decency” Constructive & Careful leadership; Dedication &Professionalism; Calm, committed and considered; dedication and decency; professionalism and commitment; Minister I’m not a gambling man but I’d put a substantial bet with you that none of those words featured in relation to us during your recent briefings from IPS. Grant Thornton the independent verification consultants for the Public Service Agreement- Croke Park on behalf of the Government concluded: And I quote; ‘’The completion of the Task Reviews was facilitated by significant engagement and cooperation between all the parties concerned’’.
“Our analysis of all the relevant documentation shows that the methodology used to estimate potential annual savings is sound and the estimated savings declared by the IPS management are reasonable”.
Maybe Grant Thornton were wrong too Minister.
Under Haddington Road using IPS costings 9 million euro savings are achievable (75%) with twelve months to go before the agreement expires. Minister no other Public Service organisation has made equivalent savings, achieving such a mandate, under the terms of the PSA. Last year we received the Outright Winners Award from the Public Sector Magazine for our contribution to the Prison Service. In spite of all the difficulties that this year has brought we are the outright winners for 2015 also! Not only that but this year it is for excellence in the Public Sector.
But wait a minute maybe they are wrong too!
Minister the acts of provocation by your officials has been nothing short of a disgrace. Not only have your Officials ignored agreed positions, attempted to withdraw from the Industrial relations machinery contained in the HR Agreement, but they have also authorised and instructed senior Managers to instruct and train Gardaí in how to do the job of a Prison Officer. Site visits by Gardaí and the Army have taken place in all Prisons throughout the Country. We have no wish to resort to Industrial Action but we may have no choice. We want to return to the normal Industrial Relations model, the joint approach, but in doing so let us be clear, our preference for constructive engagement is not a sign of weakness, but it is a sign of our strategic and pragmatic approach to the real challenges we face. For their own reasons your officials want to create an Industrial Dispute in the Prisons? Let’s just see where that takes us! Minister we are requesting your intervention so that we can enter into positive engagement where our representatives are treated with respect and courtesy as part of a positive process.
Motivation / Morale
As I said earlier I believe we are at a crossroads. In my twenty seven years I have never seen the motivation or the moral of Staff so low. Minister I think the following will paint the picture for you….
A major component of any loss of morale is when there is a breakdown of trust and common sense. We believe that Prison Officers should be held accountable but where serial multiple complaints continue to be taken seriously then we are undermined. When there are no findings of vexatious complaints in spite of hundreds of findings of unfounded then we feel the deck stacked against us. When there are no preliminary investigations on the bizarre allegations then we wonder where is the common sense in that? Our good names are as valuable as yours and to diminish them only weakens our morale further.
I as president and my colleagues on the Executive have engagement with Prison Officers on the frontline in all our prisons – on a daily basis. We know how hard they work, we know their issues and their concerns. I have over 20 years’ service, as do most of my colleagues on the Executive, and I have never experienced such low morale among Prison Officers as in recent months. You as Minister have a responsibility for our service must recognise that our people are our biggest asset – and this morale crisis and utter deflation of Prison Officers must be addressed. It is as unacceptable as it is real. We believe that this is an absolute imperative for you to begin the road back to regaining the support of Prison Officers who continue to do their duty in spite of Senior Prison management’s best efforts at provocation.
Minister you have gone on record saying you support Prison Officers in carrying out their duties. With all due respect Minister bearing in mind what I just have articulated I would have to question such sentiment.
The POA has a long track record of instigating change, reform and innovation. The present attempts to exclude the POA from workplace reform initiatives is destined for conflict and failure and will be seen as ultimately the return to the adversarial mode of conduct that had been in place previously. But let me be clear the manner in which your management team behaved will not be forgotten, as Michael Collins said about Lloyd George “I find him to be particularly obnoxious. He is all comradely, all craft and wiliness- all arm around the shoulder – not long ago he would have had me at a ropes end” Even our greatest heroes have had to deal with the likes of this and while Collins eventually did fall – it was not to a Welsh hand. Delegates there are two issues which I want to mention. Firstly I want to acknowledge the contribution of all our members in their unqualified support and unity they showed throughout the year. Their actions and the solidarity you have shown will ensure our Union will continue to prosper. And secondly the goodwill displayed by our members every day of every week ensures that Prisons operate effectively for everyday of every week. Nobody and I mean nobody, should underestimate or take for granted the value of such cooperation and goodwill.
Delegates this Administration has been around for many years now and we are humbled at the resounding return of all the National Officers which demonstrates that the confidence that our membership have shown in us to take them through the hard times is still in place for hopefully the better days to come. The theme of our conference is Protecting Prison Officers, which is not only our job but our privilege to do. Now more than ever that motto is being tested and now more than ever we will not be found wanting. Minister, hopefully none of us will be confronted with the murder of a Prison Officer while on duty and if senior IPS Officials don’t face the stark reality of staff safety, this could easily be visited upon us. Let the message be loud and clear the POA, this Administration, these people before you here in this auditorium are on the move, we are up for the challenge, and whether others do so or not we will continue to protect Prison Officers all over this Country.
Ladies and Gentlemen thank you very much, let’s get to work.