Presidential Address to the 69th Annual Delegate Conference, Athlone, 28th April 2016

April 28, 2016

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, Tom Farrell and I would like to extend a warm welcome to the Irish Prison Service Officials here today.

Regretfully our Minister cannot be with us today. I would like to extend a particularly warm welcome to our fellow Trade Unionists, the national media, our invited guests and especially our delegates, who are present here today. For many of our delegates this will be your first Conference, I hope you enjoy the experience and take something from it that will help you in your role back in the Branches. I also wish to extend sympathies to the families of our friends and colleagues Jason Mills, Cloverhill Branch, Fergus Bolster, St Patricks Branch and Linda McGrath/Moran Training Unit Branch who have passed away since last year’s Annual Delegate Conference. To our members who were victims of serious assaults or serious threats to their safety or involved in other traumatic incidents while carrying out their duties on behalf of the State over the past year, I extend to you the best wishes of all present here today. I would like to take this opportunity to extend our deepest sympathies to the family of Prison Officer Adrian Ismay who was horrifically murdered in Northern Ireland in March this year.

Delegates last year in my address to Conference I referred to key issues facing POA members like Pay, Recruitment, the Safety of Staff, Violence, Drugs, Gang Culture, Motivation, Morale and of course the Industrial Relations climate. Well delegates I am sure you would agree that nothing has improved; in fact I would say that our plight as Prison Officers has gotten more serious. The consequences for Prison Officers on the ground floor have become even more challenging. In this address unfortunately it’s incumbent that I again have to refer to such issues again while also addressing major issues such as equal pay and the privatisation agenda.

Pay Restoration

The Lansdowne Road Agreement represents a start to the unwinding of the grossly unfair FEMPI legislation. This past year has seen us secure the first element of restoration of the pay and conditions taken from Prison Grades since 2009. In that time, I need hardly remind you, that Prison Grades have suffered two, and in some cases, three pay cuts in income and have seen substantial dis-improvements in their conditions of employment. This despite the fact we currently live in the fastest growing economy in the EU. It is therefore not sustainable to maintain the imposition of emergency legislation on Public Servants. The pace of the unwinding of this unfair legislation needs to be accelerated and with a background of growth rates of 7 – 8%, Prison Officers cannot be expected to wait until 2018 for the next phase of restoration. I want my message here to be very clear – Prison Officers like other Public Servants were dumped on when the economy and public finances were in trouble so we are entitled to expect to see the benefits of the recovery, sooner rather than later.

As the economy grows with others in the private or public sector seeking or securing increases in pay Prison Officers must and will be part of that process. We have paid our dues we must now reap the benefit. Aside from our pay determination, on the backdrop of a booming economy we are asked to accept the unilateral decision to abolish the Rent Allowance for new entrant Prison Officers. This was a deplorable decision and anybody responsible should be ashamed of themselves. This allowance for decades comprised a component of Prison Officers basic pay and was viewed by Government as basic pay as it was by numerous commissions and the Benchmarking Body which stated that such allowances must be regarded as an intrinsic part of the pay of the grade. The authorities must recognise that the POA cannot stand over a situation where we have two people standing on a Prison landing doing the exact same work and they are on two different pay rates. There is no fairness in that and our Union was founded on this principles of fighting for fairness and protecting Prison Offices and we will continue to work on our members behalf to eliminate such unfairness and restore this cut in pay for new entrants. Every Prison is below its authorised figures, where are the recruits?

Last year I raised the issue of recruitment to our service. I have read with interest some announcements relating to other uniformed services, regrettably not a mention of the Prison Service. This is very disappointing and puts a further strain on an overstretched service. All of our prisons are now below authorised staffing levels and this is simply not acceptable.
The risks inherent in an understaffed prison are plain for all to see – this is not rocket science. If we operate an understaffed prison this very quickly becomes common knowledge and the risks for prisoners, prison officers and all involved in the service increase. The Minister and IPS must fight for the service, reduce the risk to all involved and ensure that all our prisons are fully resourced at all times.

Assaults on Prison Officers

Prison life has become one of appeasement of the offender while Prison Officers continue to be the subject of vicious assaults. Official figures show that there were 91 assaults of prisoner on prison officer last year which is approximately two per week. In some quarters this reduced figure compared to previous years has been heralded as a triumph. It’s not a major triumph for the 91 officers who were assaulted last year? – believe me. Somewhere in the white noise that has become public opinion, and this opinion is at its most strident within the IPS, it seems that it is ok to only punch a prison officer. Nothing short of outrageous violence is deemed worthy of availing of the new Serious Physical Assault Scheme. While this extension to our sick leave provisions is welcome it is largely inadequate, as all of you are aware. Officers are presently out on long term sick leave arising from assaults that apparently do not fit the criteria. A more appropriate name for this scheme would be the – ‘Bleeding in Buckets with Permanent Disfigurative Damage Scheme’.

In the past year several prison officers who were seriously injured and unable to return to work; on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer – had their pay cut and consequently were unable to pay their household or medical bills. Neither the Accommodations Policy nor the Serious Physical Assault Scheme were equipped to deal with the situation these officers found themselves in – through no fault whatever of the individuals involved. And my colleagues in Mountjoy will know who we are talking about? No state employee should end up on the breadline because they have been viciously assaulted at work and are unable to return in the short term. This is a disgraceful situation. I ask again that – where officers are injured as a result of an assault on duty, and are no longer fully operational as a result of that injury, that they are facilitated within the service to work in an appropriate area with no loss accruing to them until they regain full fitness and return to work. This surely is not too much to ask?

Gangs

Delegates for those of you who have attended many of these conferences the inclusion of gangs as an item in this speech is nothing new. What is new this year is that we may actually get a hearing arising from the horrendous feud that has erupted on our streets. According to a recent newspaper article we are given credit and acknowledgement for keeping those gang members in our charge alive. The article is correct.In one such, three of our colleagues went into a crowded Mountjoy exercise yard where a relation of one of the main protagonists in the current feud was being hacked to pieces. The three officers pulled him from certain death. Most online comments afterwards were asking – why did they bother? They should have let him die! Etc But for prison officers the obvious question is why are vicious gang members allowed to congregate and carry out such an assault? And believe me any one of those officers could become the subject of a prisoner complaint. In the same newspaper article we prison officers were credited by ‘an anonymous Garda source’ for keeping a lid on the number of deaths on the outside; as a prison murder or attack can have immediate and terrible ramifications in our communities. But our question is delegates why should prison officers have to charge into an exercise yard to do the right thing? Why have we not established a system of isolation, where membership of these groups has a limiting benefit, and based upon hard earned Garda and prison based intelligence, these gangs and their members are isolated and kept apart from the general prison population? Remarkably – it is very clear that some of the most difficult prisoners seem to be rewarded for bad behaviour.

Last year you heard about the birthday cake being delivered to a very difficult prisoner by the authorities; well let me tell you the service has improved. We have since witnessed the delivery of a fully stocked fish tank to a prisoner who constantly flouts the system and is an ongoing threat to prison officers. What next – a fully funded two weeks in the Spain to catch up with old friends? Although, a word of caution – some ‘old friends in Spain’ might not be so welcoming! The status quo cannot remain. We must – and this is the responsibility of the Minister and the Prison Service – develop a system that removes the power from the gangs and the gang members within our prisons by whatever means are necessary. Otherwise the entire prison system is failing society and especially the section of the prison population, who are not involved in thuggery. We have to question this agenda of appeasement; rather than making the membership of a gang something to be avoided or hidden. While it seems inappropriate to mention Winston Churchill in the centenary year he did have the best definition of an appeaser as being ‘one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last’! And this week we have heard the calls from our colleagues in the Gardai who rightly want more sophisticated weapons to deal with the gangs. Prison Officers have been refused access to any equipment which would assist to protect themselves or colleagues under assault. We are still working on the Gandhi principle of deploying the ‘peaceful protest’ – that is after we have come back from casualty.

Industrial Relations Climate

I spoke last year about the conduct of Industrial relations in the Irish Prison Service in particular the move away from the progressive approach, witnessed during the Croke Park Agreement and first year of the Haddington Road Agreement, to the old adversarial way of conducting Industrial Relations that produces nothing and stifles progress. The abandonment of the Sectoral Process by Prison Management was an enormous retrograde step. I would like to thank our Sectoral Chair Mr. Michael McLoone for his efforts during those engagements. However a new chair has been appointed and let us hope the new Sectoral process being set up by the WRC will be successful and that Prison Management will not walk away from this forum. We wish the new Chair Aibhinn Ni Suilleabhain every success and best wish. However before we start getting excited I have to inform you that we still have an IPS Directorate who prefers Union avoidance tactics rather worthwhile engagement with this Association with regard to Industrial Relations. Well Delegates, union avoidance is not going to happen. It is far better for long term industrial relations and the maintenance of industrial peace that the parties work together to reach honourable agreements that meets each other’s needs. An example of the challenges we faced highlights the approach of the Official side because earlier this year we had to go before the Civil Service Adjudicator to have legitimate subsistence due to our members restored. It was quite amazing that some individuals within the Prison Service tried to use the Haddington Road Agreement, which was designed to stabilise pay levels until next year, to take away an allowance which was agreed many decades ago. The Adjudicator found in favour of the POA case; but why was taxpayers money and POA time wasted in challenging the payment of an allowance that had no place or mention in the Haddington Road Agreement. Why I ask?

Last year we also successfully made a case to the Civil Service Arbitration Board, as the environmental allowance being paid to members in Portlaoise Prison was being withdrawn. This allowance has rightly been paid to members over the years to compensate for the very different and highly charged political environment in which they work. We have automatic weapons used in Dublin, we here mention of all sorts of quasi republican groups in society and we had the horrendous murder of a prison officer in Dublin. It seems to me that the Prison Service devote a lot of time and effort in endeavouring to block legitimate allowances due to our members. It might be more advisable to pay these fully legitimate allowances and save the taxpayer in the overall context. I would ask our Minister and IPS to acknowledge our contribution to-date and for the IPS to re-engage on a mutual basis in the interest of both parties. It’s time to get real and for you to support your staff who work on behalf of the State.

Vexatious Complaints

One of the biggest concerns of prison officers, apart from the threat of vicious assaults on themselves and their families, is being the subject of a vexatious complaint. Such a complaint, with no basis whatever, can bring the career of a good and hardworking officer to a halt. This is just not right. In fact the better you do your job as a prison officer, complying with rules and procedures, the more likely you are to become the victim of a vexatious complaint. Prison Officers continue to be the subject of vexatious complaints with no form of redress for the Officer concerned. And everyone in the system knows that most are vexatious complaints – and yet we go through process after process to prove that the complaints have no basis – and through all of this the prison officer is in limbo. When the complaints are shown to be vexatious and most are; there is no issue whatever for the person making the complaint. He can go away and make another complaint the following week; as has happened. On this issue we have been invited by the Ombudsman to a seminar with a number of speakers on this very subject. But before we get overenthusiastic at the prospect of this process being addressed I wish to draw your attention to the recent comments of the Chairwoman of the Garda Ombudsman Commission, High Court Judge Mary Ellen Ring. Commenting on this very matter in the Gardaí, Judge Ring stated that – the Garda Ombudsman’s Office had an appalling success rate in bringing prosecutions against people alleged to have made vexatious complaints against Gardaí.

While we understand that to gain a criminal conviction requires a high level of proof we must accept that such complaints are for the most part being used as a tool to undermine the rule of law in prisons. If there is to be an Ombudsman for the prisons their credibility will be tested on this issue alone. The excessive scrutiny that our members have been subjected to under the most trying of conditions will have to not only abate but be seen to have abated. Morale is at an all-time low with little or no job satisfaction which is another common ground we have with the Gardaí. Last year we made it clear to the Minister that if you supported Prison Officers in our daily lives that we would reciprocate. We all expected this to be a tough job; we understood that our working environment is the hardest in the country; we understood that along with other civil servants that we would suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous speculation- only temporarily though- but what we did not expect was that every facet of our working lives would be teased apart on the flimsiest of allegations with no tariff for the accuser.

I hope that some of you saw the recent TV3 documentary on our prisons – did you notice the threat to a Prison Officer on camera. Can you even begin to imagine what is said to Officers off camera, – not unless you are a Prison Officer? On this TV program the General Public would also have seen what we have to deal with in respect of Drugs in Prisons. We all know that there are multiple problems both for Prison Officers and prisoners arising from drugs in Prisons. The drugs market is a violent market within prisons as it is elsewhere. There is extreme violence where prisoners and Prison Officers are regularly injured and we are well aware that some prisoners who are drug free entering prison become addicted while in prison and this simply should not be happening. When there is widespread use of drugs the prospect of rehabilitation which we must all strive towards is much less likely to happen. The POA suggested at the commencement of the searching at the gate in 2008 that EVERY person should be screened. We again call for such screening to be introduced and for the gang leaders responsible for smuggling drugs into our Prisons to 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 problem – the real challenge is doing something about it.

Privatisation

Delegates I come now to what I think is one of the most important parts of my address here today. I am of course referring to the future of PSEC. When we met the Minister last year she indicated that she had no intention of Privatising or outsourcing any element of the Prison Service. Well delegates I want to inform you that it is the intention of the IPS Directorate to outsource PSEC at the earliest opportunity. The Service is being run into the ground. There can be no other motive for not implementing initiatives such as video linking, implementing proper service level agreements with the Court Service and there is no effort to reduce the level of assists from Prisons. It’s not the Staff of PSEC who fail to address these issues. I want to acknowledge their contribution to the reforms already introduced. Delegates for those who think that outsourcing of PSEC would give relief to the Prisons in terms of the redistribution of Staff – I want to warn you that it wouldn’t. Privatisation would have got a foothold with it the thin end of the wedge. Well it’s not going to happen.

The evidence is there and in case there is any doubt can you explain why Prison Service management have refused to publish the Transformation report? Why are IPS Officials conducting a further review of PSEC without the participation of the POA? Why have the IPS refused to implement a pilot project in Limerick Prison that would have allowed the escort Staff to be utilised more efficiently in servicing the Prison while doing escorts? There can be no other logical reason other than it’s the intention to create a situation where there is little option for Government but to outsource the escort service. Private companies should not be allowed to make a profit on the misery of others in this state. The state has a declared responsibility to keep our prisons secure and to do all in its power to rehabilitate prisoners. Privatisation would simply mean reneging on that responsibility and farming it out to the lowest bidder. In many American States a quota system exists where the prison population has to be maintained at a particular level or the state is fined; ensuring high levels of incarceration with the only rationale being the accruing of massive profits for big business interests. The level of gang violence in their system is also the stuff of Doomsday scenarios. That would not be acceptable to the POA nor do we believe would it be in the best interests of Irish Society.

In the UK where privatisation is in train – I would ask that those seeing privatisation as some sort of magic wand to check on the bottom line. Despite the promises of a cheaper prison system this may not be the case. The IPS officials with a privatisation agenda should check those UK figures before advising the Government of any ‘new cheaper solution’. And of course the day to day cost is just part of it. If our prisons do not stick with the rehabilitation agenda, which is much less likely in a private system – then the overall cost to the Irish taxpayer will be much greater in the long run. We warn or Minister to tread with privatisation – and I would ask her to check the small print before signing off on any such a project?

1916 Commemorations

Firstly I want to complement our members who represented our service to such a high standard in the ongoing 1916 commemorations. On Easter Sunday we had members involved in the Main Celebratory Parade in O’ Connell Street and members providing a Guard of Honour at the Stonebreakers yard in Kilmainham gaol for President Higgins. Within the Trade Union movements contribution we played a major part with our members carrying out the role of the Irish Citizen Army at numerous events including Sunday 13th of March, Presidential Guard of Honour Liberty Hall, Sunday 20th of March, Raising of the Starry Plough Flag at 12 noon by Granddaughter of Molloy O’Reilly and Sunday 24th April the actual day that the rising commenced there was the Presentation of the 1916 medal at Liberty Hall immediately followed by a March to the GPO for a reading of the Proclamation. I did notice some very good coverage of our members with and a picture with President Higgins in one of our national newspapers – and this is to be welcomed. Well done to all involved. I also take this opportunity to complement our fellow uniformed services, mainly the Defence Forces and the Gardaí for the vitally important role they have played in these celebrations. All of you have done this country proud and all of us now feel part of and proud of the legacy of 1916.

Conclusion

The 1916 Proclamation asks for equal rights for all citizens’ – regrettably some Prison Officers now feel that they don’t get a fair hearing from those in authority, that should not be so.

With this in mind that I want to tell you that this Association was founded in 1947 and we have together faced many challenges together over the decades – and this year will prove to be no different.

From the fight against the recruitment of lower paid Prison Officers, if this should happen, to the Privatisation agenda, to the restoration of our pay it is vital we stand together – united.

I want to thank you all here today for taking the baton of representing our members into the future, we will leave this Conference in the knowledge of the challenges that we face.

We together won’t be found wanting.

Thank you.

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