Minister for public service, Ruairí Quinn, objected 30 years ago to proposals for Ireland to sign a European Convention which would allow for the transfer of Irish prisoners held abroad back home because of the existing overcrowding problem in Irish prisons.
Cabinet papers from May 1986 show there were fears that ratification of the convention would also add pressure on the Government to seek the transfer of terrorist prisoners from Britain.
Minister for foreign affairs, Peter Barry, supported the signing of the document notwithstanding concerns there might be difficulty in accommodating such prisoners in already overcrowded facilities in the Republic.
However, he claimed the scale of the issue with terrorist prisoners in Britain had diminished in recent years.
Figures from the British Home Office showed there were 50 Category-A Irish prisoners in British jails at the time compared to 86 in 1983. Mr Barry said many of those prisoners were from Northern Ireland or would not wish to be repatriated here because of family ties in Britain. In total, there were 635 Irish-born prisoners in British jails at the time.
Mr Barry said Ireland was already under pressure from the Irish community in Britain to ratify the convention. He warned the Government that Britain’s recent ratification of the agreement would open them to greater criticism over a failure to sign.
Most other EEC countries, as well as the US and Canada, had already either signed or ratified the convention which came into force in July 1985.
Mr Barry acknowledged that as under the European Convention the cost of transfers was borne by the receiving country, Ireland could face quite high charges over the transfer of prisoners, especially if they were subversives.
Attorney general John Rogers advised the Government that a constitutional challenge could not be ruled out, although he did not believe the transfer of Irish prisoners back to Ireland from prisons abroad conflicted with any provision in the Constitution.
However, Mr Quinn opposed signing the convention because of “stretched prison resources.”
He claimed there was no merit in Ireland being party to a convention which it felt it could not properly honour.
Mr Quinn recommended postponement of the signing until such time as the accommodation situation in prisons improved.
Mr Barry said he believed Mr Quinn’s views were “unduly pessimistic”. He claimed such difficulties should be considered in the context of ratification rather than signature of the convention and, in any case, there were sufficient safeguards to deal with such problems as they might arise.
The Fine Gael deputy leader said Ireland should sign the convention because of its humanitarian principles.
He agreed with the view of the minister for justice, Alan Dukes, that a reservation or declaration could be entered at the time of ratification which would state that the availability of prison accommodation and the existence of close ties with Ireland would be taken into account when considering requests for transfer.
Overall, Mr Barry recommended Ireland sign the convention, adding there was total liberty to refuse requests under its terms. He conceded that the Government was likely to face strong pressure to support request for transfers and subsequently to commute sentences of returned inmates.
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