Now we’re set to intern immigrants and lock children up with criminals

IS it OK for us to introduce internment without trial in Ireland? Of course, we would seek to ensure that the only people interned were black people. Would that make it OK?

And is it OK that we are now pushing ahead with the building of the largest prison we’ve ever had, and have now decided to lock children up there as well as adults? They’d be teenagers, of course, and they’d all come from pretty tough backgrounds. Would that make it OK?

The answer to all those questions is no. It’s not OK. It doesn’t even make it OK if we do all those things while saying as little as we can about them. But apparently, we’re going to do them anyway.

I don’t know what it is about the Department of Justice. It seems to have the most extraordinary effect on civilised, decent people. People like Brian Lenihan, for instance, someone I would regard as both progressive and very able — a likely future leader of his party, with all the potential to be a good one.

But in the last week spokespeople for his department have confirmed that he intends to incarcerate children “as an interim measure” in Thornton Hall, the State’s new mega-prison which will be ready for occupation in three years.

And now they have confirmed that “the department is looking very seriously at bringing forward proposals, including legislative elements, for detaining certain selected protection applicants with a view to processing their claims quickly and efficiently to finality”.

In case anyone misunderstood what this means, Department of Justice sources went on to clarify that the proposals are intended to lock up certain asylum seekers, selected on the basis of their nationality, while their applications are being processed. They’d be locked up in new detention centres, yet to be built.

Their nationality would be their crime, and the basis on which they would be locked up. And of course they’d be locked up in the first place because the “system” would have every intention of deporting them anyway, as soon as their applications would be processed. We’d be inventing a system based on the dialogue of an old western:

“You can’t hang him, sheriff, he hasn’t had a trial.”

“Well, let’s give him a fair trial, and then go ahead and hang him.”

I remember as a younger man protesting against internment without trial. I can

remember an awful lot of members of the minister’s own party taking part in those protests, too, and the then leaders of the minister’s party threatening recourse to international law if internment without trial was introduced. It was young, white Irish people who were being interned, of course, and the British government that was interning them. All those young, white Irish people were suspected of involvement in republican activity, or even just of support for the republicans. In reality, their crime was their neighbourhoods. The great majority of people interned without trial in those days were from the same type of community.

I remember protesting then not because I was a republican supporter — I wasn’t — but because there was a truly fundamental principle involved.

Without a trial, based on a proper charge, there can be no justice. To be deprived of your liberty because you’re poor, or from a nationalist area, or black, is a fundamental denial of justice.

And what if you’re a child? There are, to be sure, a number of children in Ireland who need to be kept in detention, and have been ordered to be detained by the courts.

Generally speaking, the courts in Ireland instinctively follow the principle in article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says: “No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be … used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”

So if children or young people are in custody, we can be reassured generally that they are there for good reasons and in accordance with the fundamental principle of justice.

But Article 37 goes on to say: “Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child’s best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances.”

At the moment, the majority of young people who are given a custodial sentence by the courts are detained in St Patrick’s Institution, part of the Mountjoy Jail complex. St Patrick’s caters for young men between the ages of 16 and 21, and can accommodate up to around 200 of them. Inmates occupy single cells, are locked up most of the day and are entitled to a half-hour family visit once a week.

Some of these prisoners are children. They’re children in the eyes of the law and children in every respect that matters.

Despite the best efforts of prison staff, it has not been possible to separate them adequately from adult prisoners. The late Mr Justice Kinlen, the State’s inspector of prisons, described St Patrick’s as a warehouse, an indictment of the Irish people, and an institution of which the Oireachtas and the Government should be ashamed.

AND of course the practice of incarcerating children in adult prisons, apart from being inherently dangerous and desperately counter-productive, is a flagrant breach of Ireland’s responsibilities under the UN convention.

Because it is wrong and dangerous to lock up children alongside adult criminals, the Government has been thinking for some time about the need to build a major child detention facility. This ought to be able to accommodate almost all of the State’s young offenders and remove children from the prison system.

But while preparations for Thornton Hall are galloping ahead — the Department of Justice expects it to be fully operational in three years — no decisions have yet been made about the facilities needed for children. There are some smaller centres available, but apparently the need for a national facility has required a lot of deep thought and analysis, but no action.

And so someone has come up with the bright idea of a so-called “interim solution” — as soon as Thornton Hall is finished, why don’t we lock the kids up there? Think of all the savings we’d make on security and staff — even more economies of scale. And there’d be fewer visitors to worry about since Thornton Hall is so far away from public transport. And sure we might get around to building the correct facilities at some time in the future.

Surely we can do better than that?

Locking children up with adult criminals is a recipe for disaster. If we’re really serious about turning our newest prison into a breeding ground for criminality, we deserve to be locked up ourselves.

More in this section