Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Session 2003-2004

11 February 2004


Chairman's comments on publication of the Report

Commenting upon publication of the Committee's Second Report, The separation of paramilitary prisoners at HMP Maghaberry, Committee Chairman Michael Mates MP said:

"The decision to separate the paramilitary prisoners at HMP Maghaberry, which was taken with some haste in the summer of 2003, was a complete reversal of prisons policy for Northern Ireland.  In our view the decision was not made simply on grounds of safety, as was suggested at the time, but in order to avoid further damage to community relations at a particularly fragile point in the peace process. The reasons why this happened are entirely understandable, but the decision was nonetheless a dangerous one for those who have to implement it.

Having made that decision, the Government must accept full responsibility for the implementation of separation and the additional demands it will place on the resources of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Our inquiry has uncovered a number of areas of prison management where further support is urgently needed:  these include problems with staffing levels, security systems which need updating and accommodation which is officially recognised to be unsafe. The regime for ordinary prisoners has suffered badly because of the drain on resources which separation represents. All these must be addressed as a high priority.

We were of course very much aware during our inquiry of the poor state of relations between prison staff and Prison Service management.  We found that some of the concerns raised by staff were justifiable; others were not.  Communication between those involved was generally poor. We have stressed that steps must be taken to improve the dialogue between the two, and to reassure staff that they have management's full support in the difficult task they have been set. 

HMP Maghaberry is an extremely complicated institution.  Even before separation, it had to deal with the various demands of housing high-security prisoners alongside remand prisoners, and female prisoners alongside immigration detainees. With the additional complications of separation Maghaberry simply has too large and complex a burden to bear:  we are therefore asking the Government to take a fresh look at the prison estate to see if it is now time to create a third adult prison in Northern Ireland.

Some will look at our recommendations and say that we have set the price too high.  We believe we have not.  The line which has been drawn must be held at all costs, regardless of the pressure which the paramilitaries may exert for further concessions in future.  There is now no turning back."