Presidents Address To Annual Delegate Conference At Breaffy House Hotel Castlebar 2009
Delegates on behalf of the National Executive Council it is my great pleasure to welcome you to our 62nd Annual Delegate Conference here in Castlebar. I want to extend a warm welcome to the Lord Mayor of Castlebar; Councillor Kevin Guthrie.
I also welcome our colleagues from the British and Northern Irish Prison Officers’ Associations as well as representatives from the broader Trade Union Movement. I would like to welcome officials from the Department and members of the Irish Prison Service. I would have liked to welcome the Minister but due to supposed urgent Dail business he cannot attend. This would be perfectly acceptable, except when taken in the context of not having met the officers of this union since coming to office, it is then not acceptable! When the Ministers Office was asked to supply a Junior Minister none was forthcoming – so lets say we get the message.
This attitude shows a lack of interest in the work of prison officers and in the opinion and difficulties facing Prison Officers. Perhaps the absence is as much about the querying of air travel by Ministers recently, as it is about anything else – perhaps we’re just not worth a car journey to Castlebar! Well I believe we are well worth a car journey to Castlebar, we are on the front line – and we have been for many decades protecting our hard earned democracy. However, there is always next year – and I extend the invitation the then Minister right now, so that he or she can plan ahead and perhaps focus a little on what’s imporant!
I will firstly deal with an issue, which has caused immense concern and anger among our membership – namely the pay cut, not so cunningly disguised, as a pension levy. This massive injustice on prison officers and our colleagues in the Public Service, has affected all of our members. This blunt instrument has taken money from the pockets, not only of Prison Officers, but also from public servants everywhere in an attempt to isolate and demonise those of us that did not gain from the Celtic tiger. As if this was not bad enough we are being levied on money that isn’t even pensionable. I had hoped that the Minister was going to tell us today that we were going to receive our pensions based on the money that the Government is levying. Unfortunately not. Prison officers had no role in taking this country into the economic abyss – yet it is we – and not the wealthy bankers and their so-called entrepreneurial friends, who are paying the price.
For a decade or more we paid the exorbitant prices for everything from mortgages to washing powder; from cars to basic foodstuffs; from holidays to insurance. We entered into pay agreements with our employer and had verification of our commitments at all stages in these agreements. When our pay increases did not match the rate of inflation we still went to work and did our job in crumbling, dated, institutions that belied the colossal monies that they were costing the exchequer.
It is not my place here to expound on the variations of economic theory that led to this debacle and how we are to extricate ourselves from it. However I do know that a division arose between the public and private sectors where we were made to feel guilty for or complicit in the economic demise of our country. That somehow we were to blame because of our pensions for the golden circle filling their boots and for universal bad banking practices. That there was an ‘I’m all right Jack’ attitude in the public service.
To those of us who have friends and neighbours losing jobs and struggling to meet the mortgage payments on houses that will never reach the price they bought them for, it is an affront and an insult.
As public servants we took to the streets. Over 100,000 workers showed the depth of feeling on this matter on Saturday the 21st February. Still the revelations continued; senior banking officials wondering what was wrong with pocketing millions in bonuses and pensions when their own banks were being bailed out by us, the taxpayers. In some quarters these inflated ego, negligent, risk taking people, were being described heroes. These same bankers then have the temerity to question the cap on their earnings, as it will affect their pensions. My heart bleeds.
The real difficulty now as we are constantly being told is that of confidence. Whether it is as a borrower, a lender, a foreign investor or as a consumer we must believe that the money that we pay and give, whether in pensions, tax or loans and purchases is giving us value for money. It is difficult to see where this confidence should come from when the people that got us into this mess have still not been held to account for what they did. The blunt instrument that was the pension levy pandered to an IBEC agenda that has never had consideration for the workers of this country be they public or private sector. It would appear that the Government has not fully understood the extent of anger and resentment that the attack on the public services of this country has caused. We are being told to solve the problem that we did not create while being held up to scorn and derision for doing so. This money was not going to be sequestered in an offshore bank account but was going to find its way into local businesses and institutions and from there to stimulate growth in the economy. Now the money that is left is going to Newry so that households can protect their own constituency inside the hall door. The imposition of the pension levy was a poorly worked out and ill conceived move that I believe unless reversed will cause more discord and damage than it can ever hope to resolve. In the last week the Minister for Finance was observing how well we were accepting our pension levy; noting that in France they would have taken to the streets. This smacks of arrogance and conceit and maybe, just maybe at having spoken too soon.
Delegates in my speech last year I held out great hopes for the now inappropriately named two-year review. Our first meeting on this matter was in May of last year where the Cork method of detailing was to be employed and where it was outlined to us that there would be numerous sections of the prison service burrowing away on the various elements of the document under review. Since that time there have been only 7 meetings and mostly on the issue of equalisation, which required recourse to the Labour Relations Commission to complete.
In January of this year we had a meeting with IPS to break the two-year review into sub groups to make the process less cumbersome to administer. We have tried to have regular engagements of these sub committees to deal with the areas of concern that you forward to us. We were told that there was a huge amount of work and energy being channelled towards this process. We outlined that we were available as always to progress matters. Progress, however, is something that is painfully slow especially when a meeting at the LRC is cancelled unilaterally .The reason for this cancellation was a need to prepare for the Public Accounts Committee in spite of the fact that they had been notified of their date before the committee some two months earlier. But more of the Public Accounts Committee later.
Unfortunately this entire process remains slow, to the detriment of our members on the prison floor, who are not garnering the benefits of the agreement as we believe they should. Individual managers still have the misguided belief that they have complete autonomy in the distribution of hours. In the most prevalent ongoing development within the Irish Prison Service we have hours being utilised for tasks that are outside the accepted parameters purely for the purpose of filling posts that are not agreed, in tasks that are not understood by the review group using methods that are not part of the agreed document. Indeed, in a noteworthy example, we have had a ruling of the LRC on the Training Unit effectively ignored.
Given the present economic situation it is surely in all our interests that this process should gain fresh impetus and the process of avoidance and delay by IPS officials be abandoned so we all can move forward once and for all to the completion of this process.
It is unfortunate, Delegates that the subject of prison overcrowding and violence continue to find prominence on our agenda. And I ask again how and when will this matter will be tackled and addressed. Last year we highlighted the difficulties facing our members on a daily basis as a result of overcrowding. You will recall that last year an internal audit was conducted by the Irish Prison Service, which indicated that overcrowding was a serious difficulty in Mountjoy. The terms ‘pressure cooker’ and ‘warehousing’ were used to illustrate the mounting difficulties in that institution. This report was in line with the 2007 annual report of the Visiting Committee that had found figures of 570 unacceptable. This figure of 570 is now the target figure for the IPS for Mountjoy. By the way last weekend Mountjoy had 654 in custody. The Minister himself accepted that overcrowding was unacceptable in a modern prison service; he would probably agree with me today but we’ll never know.
On the 12th July 2008 over seventy prisoners took control of the D Shops area in Mountjoy causing extensive damage and posing a serious threat to the integrity and security of the prison. After a difficult intervention by staff the riot was quelled and peace was restored. This did not come without cost. Most of our members thankfully escaped without serious injury. One of our members however sustained extensive facial and dental damage requiring a series of operations and a lengthy recuperation. This officers’ only fear through this most traumatic of incidents was not his own wellbeing or personal sacrifice but whether he would be penalised for his sick leave upon return to duty. This reaction is hardly indicative of a healthy working environment.
On February 2nd there were 660 prisoners housed in Mountjoy – hard to believe. On the 5th March there was also serious overcrowding when another difficult situation erupted. This situation was dismissed by the Prison Service as having been ‘minor in nature’ in spite of the prison having to be locked down and warnings regarding staff safety while off duty having been issued by the senior Chief Officer. It would seem that this debacle is set to continue until yet another individual loses his life in a violent manner while in custody.
And I have learned from my colleagues in Cork that 314 prisons were housed there recently – a prison with a capacity of 150. What are we at can I ask?
If perhaps the Minister and IPS concentrated on solving problems instead of spinning the message the way they wish things to be instead of the way things really are then maybe we could work towards solutions. It is only recently that they have acknowledged that there is overcrowding. This departure is not in the interests of assistance or clarity; it was just that the situation is so bad that they couldn’t deny it any more. If anyone is passing down the north circular road and they see prisoners coming out of the windows don’t worry; it is not an escape; there just isn’t any room left inside.
We have looked time and again for the tools to do our job correctly and empower us to do our jobs well. The phone blockers that were installed in the Midlands Prison with such fanfare and hype have not been introduced in all institutions. This measure has only had limited success in any event, given that phones are still being smuggled into that Prison. It is only recently that the issuing of bullet proof vests for certain escorts has been sanctioned by the prison authorities. Up until then we had to rely on the charity of our colleagues in the Gardai. In the aforementioned riot, or incident as the IPS call it, we had our riot gear stored in such a haphazard a manner that leaking water and rats urine covered the gear, that we were not only were expected to put on but that we did put on. Ah yes! Handy old pensionable job being a prison officer!
I believe that the glaring inefficiencies that have blighted the entire subject of overcrowding and staff safety are bordering on neglect. When everyone, including your own internal audit, are telling you that you are wrong it might just be time to start listening or is this the age old civil service approach of defending what has happened where blame allocation and damage limitation become more important than addressing the real problem.
The opening of areas in prisons this year are, while welcome, presenting with problems of their own, where the requirement of staffing has been left to the last minute in spite our warnings to the contrary. The easily predictable debacle of overcrowding was put on the long finger while a previous minister closed three working prisons. The heralding of the opening of prison blocks should be seen for what it is – a necessary exercise that was delayed too long and will present with staffing difficulties.
Delegates, this is not a point scoring exercise, the debate would be long over if it was. It is a question of the protection of our members that do a job that many commentators would quail at, in circumstances that no prison officer deserves.
The right to representation is a cornerstone of our organisation, the Trade Union Movement and citizen’s rights generally. Inherent within that belief is that there has to be mutual respect. We never expect to have all our views accepted but we absolutely retain the right to have them heard.
In the last twelve months there has been a worrying development in certain institutions where intervention by local POA representatives is either avoided, ignored or in one particular case, refused with the representative demeaned to a degree that went far beyond the ‘industrial’ nature of industrial relations. Portlaoise Prison has withstood all the elements of the Troubles, to which we all hope and pray never to return. Through this entire time staff went about their duties, difficult and onerous though they were, in a professional manner. Our members there recognised that they were at the coalface of difficulties that many thought would never end. Incidents on the back streets of Belfast or in the Oval Office affected their daily work practices and routines, which they tolerated for the greater good of all. They showed a flexibility that often belied their contribution. Unfortunately this was cast away in one fell swoop, not by way of negotiation and compromise but unilaterally by way of diktat. So now in an institution that for years was a symbol of our nation’s difficulties, where progress and dialogue should have had a more telling significance than elsewhere, we find a place of work that has abandoned these tenets as being inconvenient and cumbersome. This union avoidance is not localised to there however. On a national front our Vice President has had his probationary period extended for essentially having the temerity to attend meetings on your behalf. I would like to welcome Karl and thank him for his attendance today. When an attendance arrangement was agreed with the local manager for Karl the IPS promptly undermined this arrangement in an attempt to pick our team for us. Not only that but Karl was told that he would not be cleared for any special leave in order to attend to our issues. Karl is not alone in the receipt of this pressure but he is the best example. Delegates what happened here was the membership of this union selected one from among us to represent us and the IPS exercised a veto that it does not have. It would appear that when partnership was abandoned at the highest level that it was not long in filtering through to the prison service.
BUT. If our unions’ history has taught us anything it is the importance of adaptation to circumstance.
We have before us at this conference a motion based on a report that was compiled by an independent consultant derived from interviews with branch committees that changes the way we do business. This report, in part, addresses the frailties and susceptibilities to interference by management in the operation of our union. As with all independent reports it will spark debate but the great thing about unions is debate is something that is encouraged and holds no fear for those of us that seek progress.
Message to Members
There is one sensitive issue that I referred to last year that I want to refer to again briefly at this conference. The vast majority of our members work hard and put their lives on the line day in day out. As recent events may have shown a very small minority of prison officers may be tempted or indeed forced to break the law and take materials into prison, which are prohibited. This is unacceptable – and I want to say it loud and clear here again to-day – if you break the law you bring all of us who try to do our job as best we can into disrepute and you will not have the support of this organisation.
Public Accounts Committee
On the 27th of March last the Irish Times carried a story that if it were not so tragic it would be funny. The article outlined how at the Public Accounts Committee the previous day the Irish Prison Service was being asked to answer for their expenditure of public funds. A fair enough procedure we would all agree and one that is necessary to show that all the checks and balances in public life are functioning well and that we are all getting a good bang for our buck.
The question then arose in the course of discussion about how one hundred million euro did not go to tender. The Chairman described himself as being flabbergasted as to how 100 million could be spent in this manner. All of these contracts that did not go to tender also all went to the one construction company. Examples of this spending are an all weather sports pitch in Castlerea –as well as a recreation facility (5.8 million) and a new control room (5.5million) two new houses (1.1 million). All this has occurred while prison officers in some prisons have a portacabin as a staff toilet. And they wonder why we complain!
But whether this procedure is acknowledged as being as being acceptable and within the rules laid down is a matter for Bernard Allen, Roisin Shortall and others on the committee. Whether the rules should be changed is also a matter for them as also is the question of accountability and propriety.
What is a matter for us is that the reason for these ‘lapses in judgement’ apparently was the Prison Officers’ Association. We are unfortunately well used to these excuses. Last year we had the payments that were due to us under the proposal for organisational change deferred as the money had been spent elsewhere; this year we had the money that was allocated under the prison vote to the medical aid being allocated to other projects and now we have the most recent judgement lapse.Yes Delegates we were to blame because apparently the IPS and POA were locked in ‘Titanic’ negotiations. Their staff were under pressure and operating on a ‘burning platform’ which ‘drove them into making decisions of this nature’. This, in spite of there being only two officials from the Irish Prison Service constantly working on this project. As excuses go this is right up there with the dog ate my homework. As for working on a burning platform it is hard to feel sorry for someone on that platform with matches in one hand and a can of petrol in the other.
In conclusion delegates, there are some points that I would ask the IPS officials and our Minister in abstentia to take from this conference
Firstly when an issue arises of mutual concern whether you like what we say or not it is probably best to listen to us as nobody in the royal court ever told the emperor that he was naked. That was always left to the outsider. This coupled with an indefensible and ham-fisted restriction on our operations only ever reflects poorly on your office and makes progress all the more difficult to attain.
Secondly the entire debacle of overcrowding and the attendant loss of discipline and control in our prisons must be addressed as matter of urgency before one of us is seriously hurt or worse. This does not mean a fresh raft of spin and excuses but a coherent policy that has prison officer safety at the heart of the solution.
Lastly, the Government appears to be adhering to the Hilary Clinton line where she said that you should never waste a good crisis. The pension levy appears as if it is straight from this line of thought. It is also apparent in that every facet of our dealings with the IPS requires the finance imprimatur. While this will earn a slap on the back to people I generally don’t assist, it is important to recognise that while this economic crisis is continuing there will still be prisons, and most importantly prison officers. It is important that both are functioning when this comes to an end. This short-term gain will garner a long-term loss when people are poorly treated and the perception of unfairness gains currency. Where the restrictive actions of one Governor are perceived as the norm and the race to the bottom occurs where one manager tries to outdo the other to impress those in high office can only end in conflict that could easily be avoided. This, to a workforce that has endured much in the service of our country under circumstances that could have been avoided. And as always, I want to compliment prison officers for their outstanding work all around the country over the past year, which is the reason that I remain proud to be President of our union.
Finally just a word to the Minister for Finance – at least I met him! – acts of patriotism are nothing new to us – we have been doing it for years.
Go raibh maith agaibh go leir