Seanad Éireann - Volume 184 - 28 June, 2006

Adjournment Matters. - Prison Building Programme.

  Mr. Bradford: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and welcome her willingness to listen to my concerns about the possible building of a new prison at Spike Island, County Cork, and the impact that will have on the tourism industry in the Cork region and on the heritage and history of Spike Island.

The island boasts a heritage and history unrivalled by any other international site of its kind. Spike Island transcends many of the most noted heritage sites in the world, such as Fort McArthur, Fort McHenry, Alcatraz, the Citadel at Halifax, Robben Island and many more. The difference, however, is that while many of these have had their historical value utilised to benefit from tourism, Spike Island is on the brink of having its heritage desecrated with the tourism benefits for the region lost forever. That may not be the Minister’s desire when he proposed to build a new prison on Spike Island but that will be the effect.

Spike Island has been mentioned as far back as 635 AD. The island was chosen then as the site for a monastery by St. Carthage, who had been granted the land by a local chieftain. He stayed on the island for a year before moving on to set up the centre of major ecclesiastical importance in Lismore and he left a community of monks on the island. In the early ninth century, the island and its monastery is believed to have been attacked by the Viking raiders who entered Cork Harbour. In the 12th century, Norman raiders took ownership of the land in the name of the king and a series of grants of land and leases followed. Oliver Cromwell used the island in the mid-1600s as a holding centre for those who were [644]being transported to Barbados. In 1792 convict labour was used in the building of Fort Westmoreland, a classic star shaped fortress built to enhance the fortification of the harbour in conjunction with Fort Camden and Fort Carlisle.

In the late 1840s, the practice of sending convicts to Australia diminished and Spike Island was used as a penal colony until 1883. There was a high mortality rate among convicts on the island, who were buried in unhallowed ground in unmarked graves on the west of island. Those graves would be disturbed by any new building. John Mitchel of the Young Irelanders was imprisoned briefly in 1848 prior to his transportation to Van Diemen’s Land. Such heritage is unique and should be protected.

During the War of Independence, prisoners were held on Spike Island but in 1938 the island was handed over by the British to the Irish Army. It was renamed Fort Mitchel and the Army remained on the island until 1979. There was a military prison on the island and then the Irish Naval Service was given the land in 1994. Since then and until 1994 there was a juvenile and general prison.

The island has a penal history but also a monastic heritage. It is a unique site and should be declared a natural heritage site, before we seek for it to be declared a world heritage site like Alcatraz and Robben Island. When we speak about people’s concerns and objections about the development of a prison on the island and the building of a bridge on to the island, it is fair to say that many of those who are objecting are putting forward a case for alternative prison accommodation in other parts of the general area. They are not suffering from the NIMBY syndrome. It is not that they do not want a prison, but that they want to protect Spike Island’s heritage and history and they genuinely feel, as I do, that the building of a new prison and of a bridge linking it to the mainland would desecrate the island and its heritage and history. This matter needs to be examined urgently by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister to ensure that an historic monument of enormous international proportions is saved, retained and developed as a vast tourist facility for east Cork, County Cork and the country.

  Miss de Valera: I am deputising in this debate this evening for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell.

I thank the Senator for giving the Minister this opportunity to clarify the intentions of the Irish Prison Service on the proposed prison development on Spike Island. The need for a new prison to alleviate the current overcrowding at Cork Prison has been well documented. More recently the Inspector of Prisons in his inspection report on Cork Prison condemned the facility and acknowledged that space at the institution is at a premium.

Officials from the Irish Prison Service, in conjunction with the Office of Public Works and professional advisers, are developing proposals for the construction of a new prison complex on Spike Island to replace the existing Cork Prison. [645]The new facility will address the overcrowding and inadequate facilities associated with Cork Prison and will, in addition, offer significant improvements in the areas of work, training, education and medical services as well as providing predominantly single cell accommodation with in-cell sanitation facilities.

The new prison complex on Spike Island will allow the Irish Prison Service to strengthen measures to ensure drugs are not smuggled to prisoners. For example, the new complex will locate exercise yards where drugs cannot be propelled into them and new visiting facilities will eliminate the potential for passing drugs to prisoners on visits.

In addition to eliminating supply routes, the new complex will provide modern medical and other facilities to allow the Irish Prison Service to meet the commitment in its recently published Drugs Policy and Strategy, to deliver a broad range of high quality interventions to support drug abusers in attempting to conquer their addictions. Modern facilities support the staff delivering these interventions by providing them with the best tools and environment in which to carry out their work.

The commissioning of the bridge will facilitate the development of new prison facilities on the island to replace the existing outdated accommodation at Cork Prison. The OPW has been instructed to prepare the relevant planning procedures including an assessment of the environmental and related issues arising to enable the construction of a bridge to the island. The Minister has been advised by the OPW that this planning process will commence by this summer. As soon as the planning requirements are complete it is intended to commence construction of the bridge, which will take approximately 18 months to complete.

The contract for the bridge and the prison facilities will be placed following public tender and the Minister has instructed the OPW to prepare the design and other works which are required prior to the issue of the tender for the construction of the bridge. Outline plans for the island prison facilities are being developed at present and these will be finalised later this year. The Minister is not at this stage in a position to give an estimate of the amount of land required for the prison development or the costs of the project as this will be the subject of a public competition.

The Minister does not propose to change his plans for a new prison development including a bridge at Spike Island. He does, however, note the concerns raised regarding the history and heritage aspects which arise in the context of this development.

The implications, if any, on the heritage, archaeology or related aspects of the proposed developments will be addressed in detail in the course of the planning process which will be undertaken in due course. At that stage, all of the relevant material including properly balanced assessments of the various issues, including archaeology, will be made available as part of the [646]public consultation process which it is hoped should commence later this year.