Dáil Éireann - Volume 268 - 01 November, 1973

Committee on Finance. - Mountjoy Jail Escape: Statement by Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach: The Government and, I am sure, the public, have been [1114] shocked by yesterday afternoon's escape of three prisoners from Mountjoy Jail. I have obtained reports on the matter from the prison service and the Garda Síochána. The Government, yesterday evening and again today, considered these reports and decided on certain actions.

First, I want to assure the House and the public that all possible efforts are being made by the Garda Síochána to apprehend the three escaped prisoners and to put them back in jail where they belong. Events over the past few years here and particularly in the Six Counties have contributed to keeping before the Government of the day the question of the adequacy of our defence, police and prison security arrangements. The strengths of the forces upon whom we rely to carry out those arrangements have, in particular, been of concern. As you are, no doubt, aware my Government are continuing and are, indeed, stepping up the Army recruiting campaign. a further increase in the strength of the Garda Síochána is also proposed.

In relation to prison security it must be recalled that there has been great pressure for the relaxation of the old custody procedures for prisoners. There has been such relaxation in relation to amenities, visits and outside work, all of which were known to carry the danger of making it easier for plotters to bring off surprise coups. The reports which I have received about yesterday's escape indicate that the Governor and staff there operated the present security procedures to the maximum and instaneously. Nevertheless, the escape occured and it has revealed a certain weakness in the prison security systems.

The Government have decided that prison security systems must be tightened up. We are setting about this in a two-phased operation. First, we are taking certain interim measures as a matter of urgency. The House will understand that I cannot make a public announcement about what these measures are but I shall keep the Leader of the Opposition in touch with developments. Secondly, I am [1115] setting up an inquiry, about which I shall make a further statement in due course, into the security system. It will not be a public inquiry. The judge appointed to conduct the inquiry will have the responsibility of reporting to me within a specified time and will be empowered to make recommendations regarding any changes he considers necessary in the security system. In this matter also I shall keep in touch with the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. J. Lynch: If there is one area in which this Government have shown competence it is in the manner in which they can project their image to the best possible advantage and the image of each individual member of that Government. To use the Taoiseach's oft repeated phrase, now they have their hands on the loot and they are now using the resources of the State in order to project that image, using the resources of the Government Information Service to put a gloss on anything they feel or think they have done well and, to use a phrase of the moment, to cover up anything that they know they have not done well and to cover up their defects.

It will need all the resources of the Government Information Service to explain away their neglect and their incompetence in this particular instance and to explain away the neglect and incompetence of the Ministers immediately involved. I will come to that in a minute or two.

It is poetic justice that a helicopter is now at the heart of the Government's embarrassment and in the centre of their dilemma. Indeed, it was hard to blame the prison officer who observed that he thought it was the Minister for Defence paying an informal visit to Mountjoy Prison yesterday because, of course, we all know the Minister for Defence is wont to use helicopters, as somebody observed already, as other Ministers are wont to use State cars.

Having mentioned prison officers I should like to say at this stage from the knowledge I have of the incident [1116] they can be in no way to blame. First of all, they were unarmed and they were faced with men who brandished guns, or a man who brandished a gun —I do not know which—at them and I am sure that in the course of their duty they did take whatever steps they could to prevent this escape taking place.

Neither is it proper to blame the guards in any way because the guards were not there and it is on that score that I should like to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of this Government and I will come to that later also.

To repeat what I said, that the helicopter is at the centre of this dilemma, I am reminded of only last week when the Minister for Foreign Affairs deliberately misled this House as to the use of a helicopter last January when he linked the permission given for a helicopter to cross into our national territory with two other occasions when permission was given to British helicopters for purely military purposes. The purpose of the incident last January, as the Minister knew then, was purely a mercy mission, as has been pointed out, for the purposes of bringing a young student who was seriously injured in a road accident from the town of Monaghan to a hospital in the North where he would get appropriate attention.

It is poetic justice also that this incident has followed so closely on the incident of Mr. Daithí O'Connell attending and leaving the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis some weeks ago. I remember only too well how vehemently and how relentlessly the Opposition then were in their criticism of a similar incident—a number of incidents but one in particular—when the same gentleman left a meeting that he attended in a hall in Parnell Square.

I know well the difficulty that the Garda have on occasions like that when hundreds of people pour out from an assembly hall in order deliberately either to divert them or to confront them so as to facilitate the escape of a person wanted by the Garda, but we did not make any point [1117] about the difficulty that we knew the gardaí faced when Mr. O'Connell left the Mansion House where he attended the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis but it is well to recall to the members of the Government now in office and to those who sit behind them that their unjustified criticism was indeed as unscrupulous as it was unjustified.

Coming to the suggestion of incompetence and neglect, the first question one asks is: where was the Minister for Justice when this incident took place; where is the Minister for Justice now? We are told he is in Turkey celebrating, if you please, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the modern Turkish State and laying a wreath on the tomb of Kemel Ataturk. This may be all well and good for international relations but if it was necessary to send a Minister to such a function—and I question that and I will give the reasons why I question it—why not send one of the less ubiquitous and less busy Ministers to such a function, or even a Parliamentary Secretary many of whom I feel have little else to do anyway? I question the need for the Minister for Justice to represent us at this 50th anniversary celebration in Turkey. There were two similar type celebrations in this country in the recent past: in 1966, when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising: in 1968, when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the First Dáil. There was no Minister representing the Turkish Government at either of these celebrations. What obligation, then, did the Government feel there was on them to send an important Minister to Turkey on such a mission?

Of course, I do not wonder that no resentment might be felt by them that nobody represented Turkey or some other countries at the 1966 celebrations, because one member of this Government, the Minister for Posts and Telegraph, regards 1916 as futile and unnecessary and contributing nothing to our political development. I would not make any comment on the fact that they were not represented at the 1968 celebrations, but the fact is that I question this unnecessary gadding about by many [1118] of our Ministers. I know some of them have to go to Europe, some of them have to go to the United Nations, to Japan on industrial promotions. But we have witnessed recently two Ministers, members of the same party, being in Canada within days of each other. Surely one could have done the job of the other. We witness them travelling abroad—at this very moment the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Welfare is in Abjidan or somewhere in Africa, two weeks already, I believe.

I want to submit to the House that the continuous attendance of the Minister for Justice at his job is necessary and more particularly in present circumstances. At the time of this incident he was half way across the world. The possibility of his getting back in a day or two were very remote. His predecessor, Deputy O'Malley, with the exception of a visit to the United States which was directly concerned with the problems in Northern Ireland at the present time, was never more than three hours distance from his desk.

(Interruptions.)

Mr. J. Lynch: I said when he was Minister for Justice. The Taoiseach has promised us an inquiry. I want to ask the Taoiseach if this inquiry will embrace all the circumstances of the escape. Will it embrace an inquiry into the defects and incompetence of the Government and the Ministers responsible in this particular instance? I want to put a couple of points to the Taoiseach in this respect. First of all, as I understand it, in the case of every aircraft flying in or over our territory and certainly in the case of every aircraft starting its flight within our territory, there is a flight plan. Somebody in authority must have had knowledge of what the flight plan of this helicopter was. If there was no flight plan, somebody should have been alerted. Surely there are enough instruments, enough modern techniques available to us, to know whether a helicopter is flying in and around the vicinity of Dublin. If there was a flight plan, which apparently would have indicted the destination [1119] of the helicopter as Stradbally, why then was its sudden appearance over the heart of Dublin, landing in the heart of Mountjoy Jail, not reported to some responsible quarter?

The other aspect of this is the extent to which adequate surveillance was being made available in the vicinity of Mountjoy. I have said no blame could be put on the Garda because they were not there, but they should have been there. They were there for many months in strength during the period of the regime of the last Government. There were several Special Branch detectives on a round-the-clock surveillance of the precincts of Mountjoy Jail. They were reduced in time but there was still round-the-clock surveillance by armed gardaí right up to last July when they were withdrawn.

I suspect that this was done at the instance of the Minister for Finance in order to reduce costs of government. It seems to be the only area in which any effort is being made by this Government to reduce the cost of their administration. Not only is that true, but I believe gardaí are being withdrawn from the ground, being withdrawn from their beats, in order to save overtime. The number of uniformed gardaí on duty in and around Mountjoy has been considerably reduced by this Government.

These are matters that I hope the Taoiseach will have investigated in the inquiry he is about to set up. These are matters that I believe, if properly investigated, will establish themselves and, therefore, as I said at the outset, the incompetence and neglect of this Government. I am not suggesting that this Government are any less concerned than we are and were about the maintenance of security and the maintainance of law and order, but whether it is incompetence, neglect or complacency, I want to assure this Government that the public will not stand for it.

An Ceann Comhairle: I must advise Members that there is no motion before the House on this matter. It has been the practice and tradition of the House, where a statement is [1120] made by the Taoiseach, it is replied to by the Leader of the Opposition and no other Member may intervene. That is the end of the matter.

Mr. Blaney: May I ask——

An Ceann Comhairle: I have advised the Deputy of the position. He may not intervene.

Mr. Blaney: Could I just ask you, a Cheann Comhairle,——

An Ceann Comhairle: I am afraid——

Mr. Blaney: I am not disputing anything. I am merely asking for information.

An Ceann Comhairle: On a point of order then, I take it.

Mr. Blaney: Yes, on a point of order. While there may be a convention—and I think it is no more than a convention—that the Leader of the Opposition in such circumstances as this afternoon, is afforded, as I think he should be, the opportunity to have a say to some degree on this matter, how could such a convention preclude from speaking one or other—one in this case—of those who are not in any way spoken for by the Leader of the Opposition who has now been heard? I am a Member of this House. I have my rights as a Member, and I am merely asking the Chair for the protection of those rights.

An Ceann Comhairle: What the Deputy says may be so, but I cannot, in these circumstances, afford him any special privilege. The Deputy must accept my ruling. He may disagree with it.

Mr. Blaney: May I ask the Taoiseach——

An Ceann Comhairle: My ruling is final in this matter.