Manifestos focus on reform, but does this extend to Ireland’s penal system?

Crime has been notably absent as an issue in this election campaign. From one perspective this may be positive – the cynical politicisation of crime and public fear in the 1997 election campaign is at the root of many of the problems in our criminal justice system today. By Liam Herrick of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) 

Our current responses to crime are costly, ineffective and are drawing many young people deeper into the criminal justice system, whilst failing to support victims at the various stages in the criminal justice process. Our prison system is bursting at the seams, and the older prisons in particular are in deep crisis with serious human rights issues identified by international bodies. These all must be addressed as a matter of political urgency.

IPRT’s Election Policy Statement – 10 Steps to Better and Safer Communities - sets out ten clear priorities for a programme of reform that will address the most serious problems in the penal system, with the goal of building a more effective and efficient system underpinned by respect for human rights and a commitment that imprisonment should be a sanction of last resort.   From this standpoint, we have looked at the positions of the main parties on crime and punishment issues.

Overall there are encouraging signs of an emerging political consensus around the need for penal reform and, in particular, the need for a reduction in the use of imprisonment for less serious offenders. What is striking is that the positions on justice issues generally are not divided on a left/right basis, which echoes recent developments in the UK, where evidence-led reform of the penal system is seen as much as a libertarian conservative as a socialist or social democratic priority.

Fianna Fáil

The FF Election Manifesto 2011 “Real Plan: Better Future” addresses just three issues: the economy, jobs, and political reform. It does not address justice issues directly, or indeed children, education, housing, health or poverty.

Fine Gael

The FG Manifesto includes a discrete section addressing “Crime, Justice and Drugs” – it is the longest of all the parties, and therefore receives the most attention here. As well as proposals addressing White Collar Crime, Policing, Judicial Reform and broad Law Reform, their proposals on organised crime and drugs include reference to the role of the prisons with regard to the drug trade, introducing x-ray scanners and mobile signal blocking technology to all prisons, and to prosecuting and cutting remission for prisoners found with mobile phones.

On prison policy, Fine Gael says it will “revisit the proposal to build a new prison at Thornton Hall and consider alternatives to avoid the enormous cost yet to be incurred by the state in building a new prison.”

Perhaps the most radical proposal is to merge the Probation Service and the Irish Prison Service “to provide an end-to-end offender management system and to reduce administrative costs.” A similar reform was put in place in the UK in recent years with mixed results.

On sentencing, it refers to: “overhauling current sentencing practices to ensure violent criminals serve their full term in prison”, which on its own is somewhat ambiguous. However, in the context of very positive proposals to end short term sentences and imprisonment for fine default and debt (proposals, it must be noted, already progressed by the current government) it may be interpreted as freeing up prison spaces to be used for violent offenders.

 FG also proposes an end to automatic remission, linking it to good behaviour, participation in education and training and completion of treatment programmes. In principle, incentivising engagement with services is a positive step, but problems have arisen in the UK where prisoners were not able to access services due to cutbacks. It’s also difficult to assess what impact this would have in practice as judges are currently cognisant of remissions rates when setting sentences. Moreover, there is some scepticism about the value of involuntary engagement with treatment programmes. Electronic tagging is proposed for high risk sex offenders on their release from prison to reduce the risk of reoffending.

 Among a number of proposals on drugs, eye-catching proposals include introducing a voluntary drug testing code in schools and the identification of ‘drugs free’ schools, which could prove controversial - but there is also a welcome commitment to targeting resources to “increasing the number of needle exchange programmes and rehabilitation places across the country where it is needed most”. The reference to carrying out a review of the Drug Treatment Court Programme (DTC) is somewhat non-committal, as such a review is already under way.

 In its proposals on Children, FG commits to a referendum on children’s rights and also commits to pre-school education in disadvantaged areas. Fine Gael’s proposals for wide-ranging public sector reform may also have impact in relation to prison accountability and oversight, but nothing specific is identified in the manifesto. Elsewhere they have committed to abolishing prison visiting committees, which make up 15 of the 145 quangos they intend to scrap.

 Labour Party manifesto

The Labour Party has previously published a more detailed policy document on penal reform, which includes proposals that IPRT would broadly support. Its manifesto, however, differs slightly in substance.

 In its manifesto, Labour include a section on “Reforming Policing and Justice”, which addresses victims’ rights separately with reference to practical measure to address delays in the bringing of cases to trial, and a number of proposals to support victims in the trial process.

There are a number of punitive proposals included under ‘strengthening the justice system’, including: post-release civil orders (such as restraints on consumption of alcohol, curfews, or restrictions on the use of the Internet by those convicted of child sex offences); a violent offenders’ register; and a proposal for “re-harmonised and extended detention periods for all violent and serious crime to avoid anomalies that now exist”.

 This last proposal is somewhat vague but might be interpreted as calling for harsher sentences. While Labour propose that the prosecution should be able to make a submission to the court on the appropriate sentence, they say that this should also include drawing attention to non-incarceration options. More generally, they are proposing a Sentencing Bill which will set out aggravating and mitigating circumstances towards greater overall consistency and transparency in sentencing. Increased community policing, youth justice and diversion are all named as priorities for Labour.

On prisons specifically, in ‘A more effective prisons policy’, Labour commits to enshrining in law the principle of imprisonment as a penalty of last resort for non-violent offenders, along with an increased emphasis on community service orders. The party also commits to a greater use of open prisons for appropriate prisoners, and the expansion of the drugs court. Labour also make more general commitments to address overcrowding and drug use in Ireland’s prisons.

 Green Party manifesto

The Green Party dedicates a specific section of its manifesto to Prison Reform, with very clear commitments to:

  • Establish a Working Group on Penal Reform to develop alternatives to custody.
  • Abolish plans to relocate Mountjoy to Thornton Hall and instead review options to refurbish and extend the present building. The Greens are the only party committing to the scrapping of the Thornton Hall project.
  • Remove children under the age of 18 from St Patrick’s Institution.
  • Legislate to place the Inspector of Prisons on a fully independent and statutory footing, explore the possibility of establishing an Ombudsman for Prisons and ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT)
  • Explore the possibility of developing an after prison support system, with one agency coordinating fully integrated supports for accommodation, education, employment.

The Greens also commit to setting down a timeline for the full implementation of the Victims’ Charter and to ensuring that all Garda trainees receive comprehensive training in victims’ care and victims’ issues. They also bring forward proposals on human trafficking and white collar crime.

Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin’s manifesto includes proposals to increase the number of Gardaí and Community Gardaí on the ground, focusing on building better relationships between the community and the Gardaí. It also prioritises the tackling of organised crime, including a proposal to invest all monies confiscated by the Criminal Assets Bureau in those communities worst affected by crime.

Sinn Féin also plans to introduce sentencing guidelines and judicial training to ensure that sentences handed down are appropriate to the crime committed and proportionate to the harm caused to the victim and the community. There are no specific references to prisons issues.

United Left Alliance (Comprised of: People before Profit Alliance, Socialist Party, Workers and Unemployed Action Group).

The parties that make up the ULA have not included any specific proposals for reform on crime, sentencing or prisons in their manifesto (‘programme’).


Benchmarking the manifestos against what IPRT sees as priorities for progressive penal reform (as identified in 10 Steps towards Better and Safer Communities), both Fine Gael and Labour are bringing forward broadly progressive proposals, many of which build on some of the measures proposed, but not completed, by the outgoing Government.  At the same time, both parties are also suggesting more severe punishments for violent crime. The Green Party manifesto commitments are more specific than those of the two larger parties and more directly address some of IPRT’s ten priorities for penal reform.  Sinn Féin has not gone into as much detail as the others, but the broad thrust of their approach to justice weights policing and prevention over punishment.  Fianna Fáil’s approach, which avoids any specific policy commitments in justice, health or education, is striking and makes it difficult to get any sense of what they might do in Government.

While there are commitments to address overcrowding and to increase the use of non-custodial sanctions as an alternative to prison, no party has specifically stated that it will reduce prisoner numbers, nor are there any references to tackling serious human rights issues in prison, including ‘slopping out’. The Greens are the only party to commit in their manifesto to ending the imprisonment of children in Ireland (Labour has included this in its policy document on penal reform.) The detention of women receives no specific mention.

Both Fine Gael and the Greens emphasis accountability across the board; the Greens specifically mention reintegration and rehabilitation in their manifesto. (Fine Gael addressed this in its Reinventing Government policy document.) And all parties, with the exception of Fianna Fáil, seem to recognize the benefits of prevention and early intervention, with emphasis on making our communities safer.

Overall, there are plenty of grounds for optimism that the next Programme for Government will build on the modest statements about penal reform in the previous Programme.  At the same time, there are a number of key issues around sentencing where more reactionary proposals will have to be resisted.