Hopes and fear about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) evidence

F77FA8DF-58CD-4798-9F09-6E34492E5BA3.jpeg “Weary” – the wordlessness of trauma by Iona – used with kind permission

“People within marginalised groups deserve the same value, support, respect & opportunities as any other citizen. The fact they may have experienced multiple ACES tells us they require an increased level of support. I pray ACES awareness eradicates the level of stigma & attitudes.” Mark

On the 3rd of November, I tweeted the following call for contributions to people on Twitter:

Jane Mulcahy‏ @janehmul Folks interested in raising awareness of #ACEs and childhood trauma, what 3-5 questions should be discussed at the first cross sectoral public meeting on the subject in Dublin on November 28th? Even if you can’t make it along, you can have a voice by responding to this tweet!!! 5:52 AM – 3 Nov 2018

People from Ireland and further afield (e.g. Scotland, Wales, England, America, Belgium, Macedonia, etc) enthusiastically contributed questions and comments to help inform the discussion on November 28th. In fact, the flurry of Twitter responses proved very helpful to me in terms of deciding the composition of the expert panel.

Obviously, since the entire Towards an ACE-Aware, trauma-responsive Ireland discussion, including Q&A, will be less than two hours long, it is impossible to delve into any of these complex issues in the kind of depth they deserve. Every single topic that will be touched on at the meeting on the 28th merits days of animated discussion in its own right.

Indeed, there are subjects including the impact of cultural trauma and ethnic discrimination on the Travelling Community, and matters relating to ACEs, trauma and retraumatising experiences in the context of asylum-seekers, the Direct Provision system and racism as a source of profound “toxic stress” (see the trailer for James Redford’s acclaimed movie on ACEs, Resilience at https://vimeo.com/137282528) that will not be discussed by the panel, but absolutely deserve special focus, and will, hopefully, be raised by members of the audience. (Several unsuccessful attempts were, however, made to source panel contributors on these topics)

The goal of the discussion is to give the audience a sense of the interconnectedness of seemingly disconnected issues and whet their appetite for future discussions and cross sector engagement.

Contributors, including people who are trauma survivors, will give a brief overview of the importance of healthy parent/infant attachment, parenting with ACEs, addressing trauma in the classroom, ACEs and healthcare, addiction and homelessness, offending behaviour and imprisonment, the intergenerational impact of historical abuse, the challenges of implementing trauma-informed training in practice, the need for stabilization and safety in the therapy context and, crucially, the adverse experience of class.

As organiser of the discussion, my hope is to energize the gathering to be like the Brooklyn girls in Tom Waits’ classic song Downtown Train (https://youtu.be/rLtZKkCIVmI) who “try so hard to break out of their little worlds” – (the often lonely, defensive, professional silo?) – and take collective, collaborative, ACE-aware, trauma-responsive action for better individual and societal outcomes.

If we accept the interconnectedness of the various issues raised, then we must accept that we are stronger and more effective working together and learning from one another. If we want a heart-centred, kind, compassionate, non-judgmental, whole systems approach to preventing ACEs in the first instance and a trauma-responsive approach across public services to deal holistically with the needs of “unrecovered trauma survivors” (Whitfield, 1998), then we can make it happen.

If we become more self-aware, open and curious, alter our personal practice in small, subtle ways, interact differently in our day to day work to vulnerable clients, attuning with greater patience and kindness, watching our “mirror neurons”, engaging in warm, pro-social “serve and return” exchanges, and become more proactively political, we can work wonders.

We should not be afraid of, or embarrassed about being political. Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green gave an impassioned keynote address at the ACEs conference in Nottingham Trent as Visiting Professor for Child Advocacy Last Wednesday, where he said “sod calm – get angry”. I tweeted the following:

Jane Mulcahy @janehmul

“Prof Sir Al plugs his new book on betrayal of children in Britain. He’s one of the few people who “can tell it as it is”, he doesn’t need another pension, nor a “reference from Mrs May”. @teresamayMP & her colleagues have decimated childhood thru #austerity & #Brexit obsession”

In response to a comment from guru Suzanne Zeedyk, who observed that David Cameron’s political stance at the #ACEAwareNation conference in Glasgow was deemed to be inappropriate by some audience members, I tweeted back:

Jane Mulcahy @janehmul

Replying to @suzannezeedyk @realdcameron and 7 others

“It is impossible to be too #political about the impact of childhood #trauma & the intersection w poverty & social marginalization. We have unequal, inequitable conditions at birth. We can and shd do more to help all children #thrive. #ACEs are as political as it gets”

I really mean this. ACEs are as political as it gets. Complex trauma (diagnostically known as Complex PTSD since the publication of the WHO’s ICD-11 in June 2018 – see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5774423/) does not discriminate on the basis of colour, race, religion or educational attainment, in the sense that domestic violence, child sex abuse, physical and emotional abuse and emotional neglect happen in homes all across the world (see my article “Hurting Children” at p, 98 of Curing Violence – http://justiceinnovation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Curing-Violence-reduced-size.pdf). That being said, as trauma specialist Bessel Van der Kolk writes in his book “The Body Keeps the Score” exposure to trauma is stubbornly enmeshed with class and deprivation:

“I wish I could separate trauma from politics, but as long as we continue to live in denial and treat only trauma while ignoring its origins, we are bound to fail.  In today’s world your ZIP code, even more than your genetic code, determines whether you will lead a safe and healthy life.  People’s income, family structure, housing, employment, and educational opportunities affect not only their risk of developing traumatic stress but also their access to effective help to address it.  … Trauma breeds further trauma; hurt people hurt other people.” (p. 350)

I have argued elsewhere in relation to offending behaviour that criminality and the consequent loss of liberty may, for many prisoners, be a minor aspect of their personal adversity stories. Offenders tend to come from communities where ACEs are all around them; in their homes, on their streets, in their schools, doctor’s surgeries and emergency rooms.(https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324531733_Daring_to_Ask_What_Happened_to_You_-_Why_Correctional_Systems_Must_Become_Trauma-Responsive)

In “The Healing Well”, Dr Nadine Burke Harris states that while toxic stress is about basic human biology, in communities that are extremely deprived, where there are low levels of resources at the individual and collective level, trauma is “endemic”, meaning that “it isn’t just handed down from parent to child and encoded in the epigenome; it is passed from person to person, becoming embedded in the DNA of society” (pp. 132-3).

There is strength in numbers. If we harness the personal narratives of survival, the emphasis on relational health and wealth which build resilience (see https://youtu.be/16alOVWWo1s and https://weneedtotalkaboutchildrensmentalhealth.wordpress.com/2018/01/14/have-you-ever-seen-inside-a-golf-ball-and-what-makes-it-so-resilient/) and the diverse knowledge and skill sets of professionals from attachment specialists, Early Years practitioners, primary school teachers, social workers, GPs, addiction counselors, homeless service personnel, lawyers, prison officers, and beyond, we can make immense positive differences in the lives of others.

Ideally, we should make individual and joint submissions to politicians and policy-makers calling for massive, sustained investment in supports fostering healthy attachment and high quality Early Years services, especially expansion of ABC-type programmes in deprived communities, coupled with huge State-funded investment in training in trauma-informed practice at all levels of core services. We should not be so preoccupied with our own small, though crucial part of the puzzle, that we lose sight of the big picture and remain disconnected from natural allies. Nor should be so obsessed with acquiring and maintaining scare funding that the people whom that funding is meant to assist are not our dominant focus. We need to resist the urge to change what we say we do on paper, just to fit the new funding criteria, as well as to over-promise and under-deliver. As my Twitter pal Sally Croachy from the Highlands in Scotland says we need to continuously ask “whose needs are being met and why?”

Trauma-informed does not mean learning about trauma and then continuing to do the same old, same old pointless, damaging, disrespectful thing as before. People like systems are slow to change. However, since trauma is essentially rupture at a relational level, it is at the relational level that healing has to occur. Each of us, regardless of what we might do for a living, has a role to play. We can choose to be kinder, more nurturing and patient. We can take it upon ourselves to care more about what happens to other people’s children.

Below are a selection of the questions and comments submitted to my Tweet. Thanks to everyone who took the time to engage with the conversation that, frankly, to a greater or lesser degree relevant to us all.

In no particular order thanks to Cissy, Iona, James, Thomas, Shane, Angela, Benjamin, Cliona, Jane, Margaret, Fierce Social Worker, Katherine, Kathryn, Marie, Martin, Mark, Jonathan, Warren, Linda, Alison, Robin, Sue, Dave, Sarah, Nicola, Aidan, Jean, Sally, Steve, Nigel, Rhiannon, Rebecca, ACEs Connection, ACE Aware Nation, Iain (Smithy), Suzanne, Shelagh, Pam, Alan, East Ayrshire Psychology Service, Be Well Do Well, Gary and Sue.

Early Years Strategy (#First 5) & other policy initiatives

“How will the soon to be published Early Years Strategy inform this debate?” (See First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families 2019-2028, launched on the eve of World Children’s Day, available at https://www.dcya.gov.ie/documents/earlyyears/19112018_4966_DCYA_EarlyYears_Booklet_A4_v22_WEB.pdf – see also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKKvkAikvOs)

“Are CYPSCs or PPFS a possible vehicle for developing a movement / disseminating info / securing investment / rolling out ACE Aware & Trauma informed training / influencing policy?”

(*CYPSCs are Children and Young People’s Services Committees: see https://www.cypsc.ie  PPFS is Tusla’s Prevention Partnership and Family Support approach: see https://www.tusla.ie/services/family-community-support/prevention-partnership-and-family-support-programme/)

Voices of Children

 @MargaretTuite1 Nov 3 “Trauma almost invariably involves not being seen, not being mirrored and not being taken into account. Treatment needs to reactivate the capacity…” (The body keeps the score). Q on how to ensure that children’s participation rights are part of all discussion/action on ACEs”

What is evidence-based best practice in addressing ACEs?

Katherine Harford‏ @katherine_JaneH Nov 4

“How can the #aces movement ensure its support of actions/responses are those that are based in best practice /solid evidence?”

Prevention through attention to social structures:

“Can #ACEs movement better contextulise the lived experience within wider stuctural environments so not add stigma or shame parents/practitioners/communities? Can awareness be harnessed to shift policy, training/education and institutional practices?#reflectivepractice #PEI #imh

There is a link between Trauma and Austerity. What is the role of Human Rights and supporting vulnerable families?

“Children & families are being traumatized by inadequate healthcare, housing & welfare protections which contribute to high ACEs. Focus needs to be on prevention by improving living conditions & social supports”

“Please ask them not to restrict their focus to the aces list. Poverty matters. Community violence. Race hate. Etc. Adversity isn’t constrained to families.”

(See the whole thread in response to this tweet from the Nottingtham Trent conference on ACEs

It’s not abt a “right to ask”. It’s abt a “right to be asked”. We leave kids to suffer in silence the world over & the result is destructive , addiction, mental health problems, self-harming, offending behaviour. Ask any unrecovered trauma survivor in prison # ACEs

For example:

… I don’t think ACEs is a ‘grand theory’, universally relevant to all ppl regardless of context. This is one of the things I find troubling about ACEs claims. It’s not a magical silver bullet, and people who ask questions about it are not denying the impact of abuse or neglect


Sue White‏ @ProfSueWhite17h17 hours ago

Yes I understand that but it can’t be treated as predictive or used as a screening tool. It is absolutely necessary that people who have had awful ecperiences have this recognised but also that they are not biologically broken


Breaking through personal and societal denial

James Docherty‏ @Prev_Justice Nov 3

“1. Understanding denial and its purpose? 2. Why is denial a fantastic coping mechanism? 3.The role of “toxic shame” in personal and interpersonal relationships? 4. What is the dynamic of cognitive dissonance in understanding and addressing ACEs?”

Elizabeth Gregory‏ @DizzyDoodler Nov 3

“Why there has been so much resistance to accepting that what happens in our childhoods impacts both our physical and mental health into adulthood?”

“What systems, structures and models maintain the status quo?”

“What changes can be made by thinking big AND starting small?”

Dr Warren Larkin‏ @warren_larkin Nov 4 “What are the main barriers that prevent professionals asking help seeking clients about their adverse life experiences? What key actions would enable system change here? Which leaders do we need on board and in what order to enable the above? Great initiative Jane!”

“How do we build a shared + common understanding + sense of purpose re what next? #KeepItSimple #IntentionalRelationships

Historical trauma

“How do we meaningfully explore, address or attempt to heal our national history of trauma and ACES (think Tuam babies, Magdalenes)?”

Maternity, attachment & parental supports

“From my clinic, I see pregnancy + parenthood as significant triggers in ACE adults and adult children of ACE parents. Query specific interventions/ supports to obviate PND in either mother/father?”

“How do we support expectant parents to be mindful of infant mental health? How can this be woven into prenatal care? How can we support perinatal mental health, how can we build an emotional literacy around attachment in early years education?”

“Do parents have easy access to relationship based services to help them, especially if they are troubled by aftermath of own childhood trauma, protect their children from chronic stress?”


Trauma and health outcomes:

“One of the most important hypotheses prompted by the ACE research is that the prevention of childhood adversities may have substantial population level health benefits.”

“Sadly drug related deaths are increasing, along with alcohol deaths & suicide numbers make tragic reading; people with ACES are likely being of high prevalence through multiple factors. These can be prevented through a compassionate approach where everyone is valued & needs met”.

“How does knowledge/understanding of childhood trauma change practice? How could this change access to CAMHS? How does this impact on concepts of mental illness and the diagnosis of behaviour disorders in childhood?”

“If mental health services actually focused on mental health rather than mental illness would they have a wider impact? (A bit tongue in cheek). Consultation can be better and more preventive than therapy”.

“Why are MH services still treating only the symptoms of adult survivors with unresolved ACEs? Why don’t they look at the cause & treat the trauma? When will they catch up?”

Nigel Humphrey‏ @nigelontwit Nov 3

“What percentage of clients accessing mental health services are due to organic mental health issues as opposed to the sequelea of adversity?”

@ClionaNi: “If you look at people who are homeless or other marginalised groups, the amount of trauma they have suffered in their lives is huge. A lot of them, probably up to 3/4, have had severe sexual or physical abuse in childhood and in a way, more damaging is the neglect.

They haven’t had a parental figure to help them feel safe and loved and regulate their emotions. I would see that that is the route of all the behaviours and difficulties in addiction, difficulties interacting w other people & difficulties in interacting w health services”. #ACEs

 The “primal human need is to feel loved and accepted and until you have that you are not going to be able to address taking your hepatitis C treatment or whatever it is. So we really try to provide a service that within professional boundaries, provides that personal warmth.”

“Stop treating illness and start teaching health.”

 #hellomynameis JT‏ @mellojonny Nov 4

Salutogenesis is another way of thinking about resilience to trauma. If we have enough we can survive a lot more traumatic experiences than if we are deprived of it’s core components, especially social security” (see my interview on trauma-informed medicine with J Tomlinson https://soundcloud.com/jane-mulcahy/dr-jonathan-tomlinson-law-and-justice-interview …)

See this clip of Ironweed, adapted from the Pulitzer prize winning book by William Kennedy with Tom Waits as Rudy telling Jack Nicholson about his cancer diagnosis – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_9eCULwZ3o


Supporting and valuing Early Years services

“Our early childhood carers are underpaid and often undervalued…how do we support this already over burdened and undervalued sector to have a role in buffering and building resilience?”

Trauma in the classroom

 “School is massive”

“Do teacher training colleges educate future teachers about ACEs and the impact on children’s ability to regulate and learn?”

“Do your schools have professional development opportunities in place, allowing staff to recognise the impact ACE’s have on the young people whom they support? Training of this nature should be a fundamental aspect of the recruitment/induction process.”

“I would be interested in how services can support the network around the child, in addition to the child, to ensure the best possible long-term outcomes.”

“I think the work of nurture groups now being introduced to some schools should be mentioned as an intervention @nurtureireland #nurturegroups

“How can we plug the significant gap in robust research into what works to support attainment, wellbeing and other educational outcomes for young people with ACEs?”


Concerns about the ACE Score & wider evidence

“Are ACEs the new moralizing standards in Child Protection – retraumatising mothers and children?”

How do we counter concerns about how checklist is put together?

What does the ACE Score actually mean?

What are the assumptions implicit in what items were included in the original ACEs study?

What assumptions might effect how the scores are interpreted?

“There is a temptation to pursue this hypothesis with more studies about which items best predict health problems. But the most useful confirmation of this hypothesis is not through the refinement of better ACE screening tools: Rather it is through the development and evaluation of programs that prevent the occurrence of childhood adversities in the first place and then the experimental demonstration of the population health effects from their dissemination.”

“One thing I’d caution is in leaping to absolute conclusions based on the ever-growing evidence. The relationship between genes, experiences and behaviours is not yet fully understood and seems to be amazingly complex and lifelong. But we work with the indications.

Children in the Care system

 “How do we translate the knowledge of developmental trauma into tangible improvements for children in care?”

“How (knowing the traumatic pathways into state care) how & why we don’t proactively strive to improve the mental wellbeing of young people in care, as apposed to a reactive response when it’s often too little too late & exploiting their resilience too!!”

From child victim to adult victim (and all too-often perpetrator)

What do we do about children growing up in homes with parental alcohol misuse, who are not on any social care radar, and who are not visible to any healthcare professional as the parent causing the trauma for the child is not in treatment?

“One point: we can get fixated about ACEs because the evidence is so strong. But ACE’s is neuroplasticity of children; and Adverse ADULT Experiences (AAEs) must be included in your deliberations as the two interact.”

“Is it possible that ‘some’ of the adverse adult experience could be a result of the adult growing up as a child with ACES? Just asking as this is my experience. The child with high ACE is perhaps less equipped. 100% agree that children AND adults need support.”

“Trauma and Gender – pathologising victims of abuse in mental health services?”

“95% addiction involves ACES 4 or more #nadineburke #gabormate. Addiction aside, children with high ACES grow into adults with reduced problem solving skills & lower self esteem which can therefore keep them stuck in patterns they might otherwise have escaped.”

 James Docherty‏ @Prev_Justice Nov 4 “I was told by a children and family’s social worker that not all addictions are caused by ACEs, that some addicts are just selfish pricks and addiction is an exaggeration!! I just replied all drug addicts present as selfish as that’s how it expresses itself to the untrained eye!”

Healing from ACEs

Christine (Cissy) White‏ @healWRITEnow Nov 4 “What helps most after ACEs in children and adults, short term and long term and in real life at various ages and stages across lifespan?”

“I would be interested in how services can support the network around the child, in addition to the child, to ensure the best possible long-term outcomes.”

“What strategies are appropriate and effective for interacting with unrecovered trauma survivors?”

steve flatt‏ @steveflatt Nov 3 “What would you notice about yourself if you were getting on with your life and you were no longer being negatively affected by past trauma?”


#TraumaEmpowered – “Nothing about me without me!” 

Jane Mulcahy‏ @janehmul Nov 25 #TraumaEmpowered = The people most impacted by any given social problem are the Experts!” says @drjimwalters. Who agrees with him? I do, Academics? Psychiatrists? Psychologists? Human rights advocates? Addiction counselors? Social Workers? Homeless services staff? Do you agree?

“I do. “Those closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

 “Love this. However, it takes practitioners to see past the current crisis that brought these experts through the door and see what is underneath waiting to be unlocked through love and support. We must set the table properly for people to become their best selves!”

“And show up as guests in the heart not with disciplinary or instructional mindsets and say what can we learn together and from one another? That shift @SporLin speaks so brilliantly about.”

“How are we (meeting) going to respect + value + use to best effect the range of professional + personal experience + expertise in the room?”


Desirability of a more nurturing approach

“Wherever I look I see signs of the commandments to honour ones Parents and nowhere of a commandment that calls for the respect of a child” Alice Miller

“Shaming and humiliating children causes self loathing they feel unloved and unworthy we must nurture and love all of our children first and foremost

James Docherty‏ @Prev_Justice Nov 3 “Absolutely, but it’s just not just the children carrying that stuff around inside them. I think that’s why ACEs kicks up many misunderstandings and disturbance as it’s pushes peoples emotional hotspots. So the key for me is to try and love and nurture everybody.”

“[A]bsolutely right, empathy not sympathy, with lots of love and nurturing is what’s need alongside timely therapeutic support.”

Need for comprehensive trauma training and a more collaborative, relationships-based, joined-up approach

How can all social and public services need to become trauma-informed as a matter of urgency?

“How do we shift thinking and practice in services designed to respond to presenting need to one that responds to root cause?”

“How does knowledge/understanding childhood trauma change practice? How would this reduce school exclusions? How does this change residential child care, foster care and post adoption support? How should this change maternity services?”

“How can CAMHS, education, social services and 3rd sector agencies work together to foster resilience-building relationships with traumatised youth?”

“It’s a ‘heart thing’ – difficult to express. RE-sensitize. Inform. Then educate and support. It also depends on the level of brainwashing-Ireland is at the most intense. We are past shaming, judging or lambasting. And too much ‘craic’ and false creativity to distract us from reality.”

East Ayrshire Psychological Services‏ @eac_psychology Nov 3 How do we meet the scale of emotional containment that’s required across all services to ensure all practitioners are able to be regulated, kind, non-triggering & their best selves? We need this as well as increase knowledge & skill to make a big difference to people.



My #uncat61 wish-list for the Irish State

Voluntary Commitments for the State party, Ireland in respect of its second periodic review under the UN Convention against Torture in Geneva, 27th and 28th July 2017


The Government

The Irish Government will ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT) immediately and hold consultations between all relevant Government Departments and stakeholders in the early Autumn on how best to proceed with the development of a National Prevention Mechanism (NPM), fully considering the implications for existing inspection bodies or those with a complaints mandate, such as the Ombudsman, in line with the recommendations of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) submission to UNCAT 2017 (p.6). The NPM must also have a remit to inspect places where elderly people are de facto detained, including nursing homes.

The Irish Government will ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) immediately.

Recognising that any person’s individual rights exist in a hierarchy and need to be balanced with the rights of others when they come into conflict, a man’s right to property “as a rational being”[1] is always of lesser importance to a woman’s right to life, safety and bodily integrity in her home. The Irish Government will, therefore, immediately ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, the Istanbul Convention, to ensure that it enters into force by the end of 2017 at the latest.

The Irish Government fully acknowledges that access to abortion on request is a woman’s health issue and a fundamental human right. The Government will put a referendum to the people of Ireland in the spring of 2018 on Repeal of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution along with legislation that accords with best international practice and the recommendations made by the Citizens’ Assembly, namely that abortion should be free, safe and legal up to twelve weeks gestation, and that an exceptions based model should apply for terminations at later stages of pregnancy, for example in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities. Abortion will be decriminalised.

The Government will commission an Irish Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study in Ireland to determine the long-term ill-effects caused by prolonged exposure to toxic stress which damages a child’s brain development, and leads to a wide range of negative outcomes in adulthood relating to health, educational attainment, employment, ability to sustain positive relationships, and offending behaviour.

In response to the global migration crisis, the Irish Government will commit to offering a greater number of refugees a safe place to live in this country.

In addition to making financial reparations to survivors of institutional abuse, including those who spent time in Industrial Schools, Madgalene Laundries and women who were forced to undergo symphysiotomy, the Irish Government will establish person-centred truth and justice commissions adopting a therapeutic justice approach, with a view to listening to the lived experience of survivors, acknowledging the harms caused and attempting to generate some healing.


Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan TD

The newly appointed Minister for Justice and Equality, Mr Charlie Flanagan TD, shares the aspiration of his predecessor and the Director General of the Irish Prison Service (IPS) for the IPS to be a “world class prison service”.[2] Accordingly, to ensure that IPS can reasonably be expected to deliver on its self-declared rehabilitative ethos, the Minister for Justice and Equality commits to liaise with the Minister for Finance & Public Expenditure and Reform to negotiate additional resources for the IPS in Budget 2018 so as to recruit and train sufficient new staff to improve access to meaningful out-of-cell activities and resettlement supports.

The Minister for Justice and Equality commits to enshrine in legislation the general principle that imprisonment should be a last resort, which was recently declared by his predecessor to be “a core principle of penal reform”.[3] The Minister will also require judges to record all imprisonment decisions in writing, clearly and concisely noting why the deprivation of liberty was necessary, proportionate and just in the circumstances of the case.

The Minister for Justice and Equality accepts that making complaints within the prison context is particularly fraught with difficulties, due to the unique power dynamics at play and undue delays within the system. The Minister will introduce legislation to either provide for a Prisoner Ombudsman role to investigate all prisoner complaints, or alternatively grant jurisdiction to the Office of the Ombudsman to investigate the most serious complaints originating in prison (Category A complaints), for example, relating to allegations of violence or racial abuse, without the complainant first having to exhaust the internal complaints process.

The Minister for Justice and Equality will require the Irish Prison Service, An Garda Siochana and the Courts Service to work together to generate more comprehensive statistics in relation to people refused bail and detained on remand, in relation to station bail, District Court bail, High Court bail, breach of bail conditions, the time spent on remand, whether people refused bail ultimately were convicted of the offence(s) and, if so, whether they received a sentence of imprisonment and for how long.

The Minister for Justice and Equality will amend the bail legislation to provide for a maximum period of pre-trial detention and a right to compensation for people who are detained for prolonged periods and then ultimately acquitted.

The Minister for Justice and Equality will appoint a new Inspector of Prisons within the next three months and increase the resources of the Office to ensure that periodic inspection reports of all prisons in Ireland can be conducted and published, in conjunction with special thematic reports and investigations into deaths in custody. The Minister will also empower the Inspector to publish all reports directly.

The Minister for Justice and Equality commits to reform of the parole process and to introduce legislation to place the Board on a statutory footing by the summer of 2018.

The Minister for Justice and Equality will commission research on sexual violence and gender based violence in Ireland with a view to publishing the research containing comprehensive and disaggregated data by the end of 2018.

The Minister for Justice and Equality will ensure that the Domestic Violence Bill proceeds through the Houses of the Oireachtas in a timely manner and that a clear definition of gender-based violence will be contained in the legislation, along with definition of coercive control.

The Minister for Justice and Equality fully accepts that deportees and people refused leave to land under Irish immigration law should not be detained in prisons since they have not been charged with or convicted of any criminal offence. The Minister will progress plans to develop a purpose-built facility that is not unnecessarily bleak or institutional and respects the dignity of people detained on immigration grounds.

The Minister for Justice and Equality will also commission an investigation into immigration practices at Dublin airport to ensure that staff are adhering to their human rights obligations, in particular the prohibition against refoulement. The Minister will also issue fresh instructions to passport control staff that all those refused leave to land must be furnished with access to an interpreter in their mother tongue and legal services as a matter of course. To enhance transparency and accountability in this crucial area a register of detainees at Dublin airport, the reasons for their refusal of leave to land and the name of the refusing Officer will be compiled commencing on the 1st of September 2017.

The Minister for Justice and Equality will put Direct Provision on a statutory footing. If, after 6-9 months, an applicant for asylum has not received a first instance decision, he or she should be able to exit Direct Provision, live an independent life and be entitled to apply for legitimate employment and relevant social welfare payments.

The Minister for Justice and Equality will extend the powers of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission to investigate the Garda Commissioner. The Minister will also adequately resource the Policing Authority and enhance its governance powers, displacing the Minister and the Government.

The Minister for Justice and Equality will appoint an independent national body to conduct unannounced inspections of Garda stations.

The Minister for Justice and Equality will bring forward legislation expressly conferring a right of access to a solicitor during police questioning.


The Irish Prison Service (IPS)

The IPS will endeavour to remove a further 1,000 people from the prison system over the course of the current Strategic Plan, starting with those whose offending behaviour is linked primarily to unmet mental health needs. The IPS will liaise with the Department of Health and the judiciary to discuss community-based options for the treatment of people whose offences are linked to the underlying mental illness or psychosocial disorder.

Regarding the use of solitary confinement, the IPS undertakes to incorporate fully The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (2015) – the Mandela Rules – and to only put a person in solitary confinement as an exceptional measure of last resort, and for the shortest possible time period.

The IPS will conduct an analysis and publish a breakdown of all violent incidences in prison including sexual violence, detailing whether the alleged perpetrator was another prisoner or a staff member, and the outcome of investigations including prosecutions.

The IPS will conduct an audit of healthcare in prison by the end of 2017 and work with the Health Service Executive (HSE) to transfer control of prison healthcare from the IPS to the HSE so as to ensure that people in prison have a right to the same quality healthcare as those with Medical Cards in the community and that their health needs during the reentry process are prioritised and fully met.

The IPS recognises the prevalence of same sex activity in prisons. Being responsible for the safety and wellbeing of those in its care, as well as owing a duty of care to the communities to which prisoners return, the IPS will adopt a harm reduction approach to consensual same sex behaviour by making condoms freely available, without individuals having to request them.

The IPS will update its policy and practice in dealing with immigration detainees and oblige prison Governors to inform people of their rights to legal advice, interpretation services and access to Consular Assistance immediately upon committal. A list of solicitors working in the immigration field should be furnished to all detainees, whether they request this or not. The Governors should notify the Irish Refugee Council, Immigrant Council of Ireland and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission of all committals to prisons as a matter of course and the reasons for refusal of leave to land or deportation.

The IPS will provide immersive human rights and equality training, with a particular focus on the prohibition against torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, to all new trainee Prison Officers.

The IPS will explore the feasibility of developing a purpose-built pre-release centre, similar to the Belgian De Huizen proposal[4], for male and female prisoners in an urban Dublin area by the end of 2017. As an interim measure to enhance the progression and reintegration of long sentence prisoners, the IPS will also explore the possibility of whether Mountjoy West could operate as an open or semi-open prison to replace the Training Unit, whereby any necessary reengineering and internal reconfiguration would be undertaken so that cells are replaced with rooms and communal dining and family visits are facilitated to enhance normalisation and progression.

The IPS will appoint an Assistant Governor for rehabilitation in each prison who will be responsible for line-managing ISM Officers and administering Community Return, the Community Support Scheme, all therapeutic interventions, multi-disciplinary meetings and pre-release planning, ensuring that a person-centred, strengths-based focus underpins the work of all prison-based staff, regardless of what organisation pays their wages.

The role of the ISM Officer will be fully ring-fenced by the end of 2017, which means that the Detail Office will be prohibited from redeploying them to attend to security duties.

The IPS will develop a specific policy on the treatment of remand detainees and uphold its duty not to house remand and convicted prisoners together. In particular, no remand prisoner will be required to share a cell with a sentenced prisoner.

The IPS will publish its general pre-release policy and the policy it has recently devised for lifers. The evaluations of the J-ARC projects will also be made public.

The IPS will undertake an independent review of Incentivised Regimes by the end of 2017, as well as conduct reviews of the Community Return scheme and the Community Support Scheme.


 A whole-of-government approach

The Departments of Health, Housing, Education, Enterprise and Employment and Social Protection will work together to develop a holistic, person-centred health approach to deal with people whose offending behaviour is linked to their mental illness or psychosocial disorder, rather than persisting with a punitive, ultimately pointless and self-perpetuating criminal justice response.

In terms of State responsibility for preventing inhuman and degrading treatment, all prisoners have a right to a safe transition. A whole of government, whole of society response is crucial to securing individual safety and communities with less crime. In this regard, the Department of Health is responsible for ensuring the through-care of the patient from prison to the community. The Department of Social Protection is responsible for ensuring Social Welfare payments are arranged in advance of release.  The Department of Housing is responsible for providing the returning prisoner with somewhere safe, stable and appropriate to live on release.

All children deserve a good, safe, strong start in life. Those who are exposed to multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in their early years, experience poor health outcomes in adulthood including greater likelihood of developing an addiction or mental illness and increase a person’s risk of being imprisoned for offending behaviour over their life-course. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) recognises that a long-term approach to early intervention and prevention is necessary and fiscally and morally appropriate. It will, therefore, ensure that existing Area Based Childhood (ABC) programmes are funded into the future. DCYA will work with the Departments of Health, Education, Public Expenditure and Justice which will all make a contribution in Budget 2018 so that €100 million is ring-fenced to finance new and existing ABC programmes, to be spent over 20 years.



All judges dealing with criminal matters will receive comprehensive training relating to human rights, including specific training relating to torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as training on addiction, mental illness/psychosocial disorders and risk assessment. They will also periodically visit prisons and places of detention to gain an insight into the penal environment and the consequences of their sentencing decisions.

Accused persons enjoy a presumption of innocence and particularly where people stand accused of minor criminal matters, courts will apply the presumption of bail so that the harm of imprisonment and subsequent unplanned release is avoided.


[1] Article 43.1.1 of the Irish Constitution provides: “The State acknowledges that man, in virtue of his rational being, has the natural right, antecedent to positive law, to the private ownership of external goods.”

[2] See “Statement by the Tánaiste on the Re-appointment of the Director General of the Irish Prison Service”, 13 January 2017, available at http://justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/Re-Appointment-of-IPS-Director-General See also http://www.irishprisons.ie/wp-content/uploads/documents_pdf/12631-IPS-annualreport-2016_Web.pdf p. 6.

[3] See “Tánaiste welcomes publication of the Probation Service and Irish Prison Service 2016 Annual Reports”, 15 May 2017, available at http://justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/PR17000156. Then Minister for Justice also said:We must continue to ensure that violent offenders and other serious offenders serve appropriate prison sentences while at the same time switching away from prison sentences and towards less costly non-custodial options for non-violent and less serious offenders.”  

[4] See http://www.dehuizen.be/presse.htm

What is the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, and why should Ireland ratify it?

The Irish State is scheduled for its second periodic review before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva on the 27th and 28th of July this year.  The State Delegation is likely to be pressed, once again, to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention without further unwarranted delay.

During Ireland’s second review before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on the 11th of May 2016, several countries called on Ireland to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture.

While it sounds like a rather off-putting and technical phenomenon, it is, in fact, a vital mechanism for protecting people who are in some form of detention, who are not “free to go”.

This, of course, includes prisoners who have lost their liberty following a criminal conviction. It also includes people who are mentally ill and confined to mental institutions for treatment. It includes young people in child-detention schools, at a distance from their families and communities.

It could, also, arguably include very infirm elders suffering from dementia who are not free to leave nursing homes and are, therefore, dependent on others for their constant care and to ensure that their basic human rights and dignity are maintained.

Where individuals – our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, friends – lose their liberty, for whatever reason, when the doors are closed and the public are effectively shut out, there is a very real and potentially dangerous power dynamic at play.

Clearly, most people responsible for the care and custody of people in detention are above reproach and would not dream of deliberately subjecting those “not free to go”* to inhuman or degrading treatment or torture. But some will inevitably abuse their power and cause untold harm.

A national preventative mechanism is essential to ensure that the litany of “sins of our fathers” as perpetrated in industrial schools, the Magdalene laundries and recently in nursing homes are not repeated continually into the future. It is about setting up safeguards and structures and shining a light where light desperately needs to be shone. For all our benefit.

That is why our politicians, both those in Government and those on the Opposition benches, must work together to ensure the prompt ratification of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture.

There is no reason why it cannot be ratified within six months, along with the disability convention. We need to get cracking urgently on establishing a National Preventative Mechanism. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Authority might be a suitable body, if the necessary resources are made available to carry out an expanded mandate.

The only obstacle to addressing the protocol issue is, and has been, the absence of political will. There also would appear to be an absence of will to ensure timely implementation of recommendations of international human rights bodies on the part of senior policymakers in the Department of Justice.

In its Rights Now document, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties called for a Dáil committee to be established to enforce, or at least carefully consider the implications of UN recommendations.

The UK recommended that Ireland should “consider overarching committee on human rights and equality”, to which the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald responded that the question of an Oireachtas committee on human rights was “an issue to be considered by the Oireachtas itself now that a new Government is in place”. Regrettably, over a year later no such committee has been established.

The Oireachtas should move swiftly in this regard. Surely establishing a committee to oversee Ireland’s compliance with human rights obligations cannot be a divisive issue. Who, after all, would want to be seen to be against the promotion and vindication of human rights of the people on this island? Surely not a single TD.


The original version of this piece appeared as a Letter to the Editor in the Irish Times on 23 May 2016, available at http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/un-convention-against-torture-1.2656615

Safeguarding Area-Based Childhood Programmes for better, brighter futures

Crime is a complex social phenomenon that generally occurs against a backdrop of poverty and social exclusion. David Farrington, a famous criminologist has stated that offending behaviour is an element of “a larger syndrome of antisocial behaviour” starting in childhood and continuing throughout the person’s adult life. Those who get embroiled in offending behaviour have, more likely than not, been born into circumstances which offer them limited chances for flourishing in mainstream society.

People who grow up to be chronic offenders, defined by Zara and Farrington as those with over 10 criminal convictions, experience a myriad of other arguably more devastating personal difficulties in adulthood than the volume of their amassed convictions including emotional instability, issues surrounding mental illness and addiction, poor physical health, unemployment, hostility, pathological aggressiveness and anti-establishment attitudes, distorted thinking, family conflict, domestic violence and broken homes.

In an article contained in the 2016 edition of the Irish Probation Journal, Zara and Farrington present two case studies from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development of chronic offenders who worsened over time and eventually died of addiction-related issues at the age of 53. Their lives were characterised by a range of failures including their inability to relate and connect well with others, to build a stable, satisfying family life, to nurture and educate children and to discharge social and professional obligations. The men’s chronic involvement in criminality was only one “minor” aspect of a bigger picture characterised by “family disruption, parental negligence, abuse and neglect, emotional solitude, social deprivation, and psychological desperation”.

The recently published Welsh Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, in which 2,028 Welsh adults were questioned about their current health behaviours and exposure to ACEs has added to the growing evidence base that a wide range of long-term harms result from chronic stress experienced during childhood.  This toxic stress – which literally attacks the structures of a child’s developing brain – may arise through child abuse and neglect, or from growing up in an environment where there is exposure to domestic violence or to people with addiction problems. The study found that that 47% of respondents reported having experienced at least one ACE and 14% experiencing four or more ACEs. Compared with interviewees with no experience of ACEs, those who experienced four+ ACEs were:

  • 14 times more likely to have been a victim of violence over the last 12 months,
  • 15 times more likely to have committed violence against another person in the last 12 months,
  • 16 times more likely to have used crack cocaine or heroin, and
  • 20 more likely to have been incarcerated at any point in their lifetime.

If an ACE study were to be conducted in contemporary Ireland we would, no doubt, find that in addition to the aforementioned exposure to neglect, abuse, violence and addiction, prolonged periods “living” in a hotel room or B&B due to familial homelessness, or in similar cramped conditions without access to cooking facilities in the Direct Provision system cause toxic stress that undermines brain development and leads to negative repercussions down the road.

The longitudinal High/Scope Perry Preschool Study from the USA estimated that for every $1 spent on high quality, holistic preschool education per child, there would be a $12.90 economic return by the time the beneficiary reached the age of 40. According to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy investing $600 in early childhood education to the most disadvantaged children saves society on average $15,000 per child in lower future crime rates. Early intervention and prevention is not just a moral issue, it makes economic sense.

Area Based Childhood (ABC) programmes such as Young Knocknaheeny (YK) provide a range of services to children and families in areas that have traditionally experienced social exclusion and poverty and a myriad of associated ills such as early school-leaving, intergenerational unemployment, addiction, mental health problems and criminality. YK is “an interdisciplinary whole community approach”. Its partners include an Infant Mental Health specialist, speech therapists, the Incredible Years parenting programme and Barnardos Brighter Futures, a state of the art High/Scope crèche.

All of our educators, from pre-school to second level should be educated in the phenomenon of ACEs and acquire strategies to better deal with their manifestation in the classroom or schoolyard. To adopt the words uttered by David Cashman, Principal of Sundays Well Boys National School at the YK conference held at the Millenium Hall in November 2016, teachers must endeavour to be more “kind and loving” to their pupils, especially when they present with challenging behaviours. Sometimes, for some children, it is a major achievement just turning up to school.

ACEs have not only an immense personal cost, but they have an economic cost for society. If ABC initiatives like YK can help prevent the prevalence of ACEs in local children, or mitigate the damage through holistic, wrap-around supports, we as tax-payers should be more than happy to fund them into the future.

We are in this together. The wellbeing and flourishing of children is all our business. The core object of YK and other ABCs such as Young Ballymun (Dublin), Vision Beyond Poverty (Grangegorman), the Genesis Programme (Louth) and ABC Start Right (Limerick) is to help give little children in their catchment area the best possible start in life, so that they can ultimately become happier, healthier, financially independent, socially engaged adults.

In a world that appears to be growing more and more divided by the day, we must – as a nation – commit to affording children experiencing multiple disadvantage the leg up they need so that they stand a chance of reaching their potential. If we do, there will be substantial knock-on benefits down the road in terms of improved life chances and emotional and physical well-being in adulthood and a better, more equal society.

There are rumours circulating that officials within the Department of Children are keen to scrap ABCs once the funding from Atlantic Philanthropies runs out. Politicians of all stripes and none on this island should support the current Minister for Children and her successors to ensure sustained resourcing of these evidence-based projects into the future. They are vital to improving outcomes for children and the deprived communities in which they are embedded.

What we really need now is cross party agreement and commitment to a long-term approach to early intervention and prevention and accordingly set aside a sum of money in Budget 2018 – for example €200 million to be spent over 20 years – so that the existing ABCs are able to continue their work and other deprived communities can get similar programmes up and running.  Committed staff cannot be expected to deal with piece-meal provision from year to year. There is no stability for them or their tiny clients if they cannot be sure how long they will survive as crucial service-providers. Investment of €200 million is a drop in the ocean, especially when we think about the debt to which we were individually and collectively required to submit when bailed out the banks and their bond-holders.

The Irish State has a shameful record in terms of protecting the most vulnerable children of our nation. It’s time that we put these children first for a change. Children who are born into circumstances where they are exposed to multiple ACEs need top-class early years services to off-set their disadvantage and brighten their futures. Such services require sustained investment over time. Surely, no politicians or indeed civic-minded voters could possibly object?

Reducing childhood adversity means less dysfunctional adults down the road and safer, more cohesive communities. It is in all our interests to eradicate childhood poverty and inequality.

*A shorter version of this piece was first published in the March edition of Leftfield, the e-bulletin of the Labour Party

Further reading:

Zara & D. Farrington, “Chronic Offenders and the Syndrome of Antisociality: Offending is a Minor Feature!” Irish Probation Journal (2016) 13, pp.40-64.

  1. Bellis , K. Ashton, K. Hughes, K. Ford, J. Bishop & S. Paranjothy, Adverse Childhood Experiences and their impact on health-harming behaviours in the Welsh adult population, Public Health Wales NHS Trust (2015) available at http://www.cph.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/ACE-Report-FINAL-E.pdf

Elizabeth K. Drake, Steve Aos, and Marna G. Miller, Evidence-Based Public Policy Options to Reduce Crime and Criminal Justice Costs: Implications in Washington State, April 2009

Schweinhart, L.J., Montie, J., Xiang, Z., Barnett, W.S., Belfield, C.R. & Nores, M. (2005) Lifetime Effects: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40 (Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press).

Irish Penal Reform Trust, Barnardos, Irish Association of Young People in Care, Shifting Focus: From Criminal Justice to Social Justice Building Better and Safer Communities, (2010), available at http://www.iprt.ie/files/IPRT_Barnardos_IAYPIC_Shifting_Focus_Position_Paper_EMBARGOED_TO_23_SEPT_2010.pdf




Sinead Ni Mhaolcatha is anam dom. The last time I introduced myself As Gaeilge was for my Oral Irish exam in the Leaving Cert, way back in 1997. I am usually just plain Jane – Jane Mulcahy. But today, on this historic Repeal the 8th Walking Tour on Sunday the 28th May 2017, I think it’s fitting to use my Irish name as I pay tribute to an absolute, one of a kind original in show-business, but also in activism – a rebel with just cause.

In 1997 Sinead O’ Connor was resplendent as the Blessed Virgin in Neil Jordan’s “The Butcher Boy” – a divine iconoclast clad as a religious Icon. She looked the picture of purity and serenity in her veil. Her notorious face was, for me, perfection as Holy Mary.

Sinead has two of the most beautiful, intense eyes ever ensconced in a human head – deep, dark pools of blue – wild Atlantic oceans of pain and suffering – Adverse Childhood Experiences floating around, weightless in the inky black holes of her pupils.

Sinead O’Connor is, and always has been, raw. Like a vulnerable onion doing a strip-tease, her antics have been titillating upon occasion, they’ve grabbed us by the short and curly lashes – but more frequently have caused the gelatinous matter in our sockets to smart and sting and turn away in discomfort.

As a singer, her voice is beyond compare. She blends crisp, clean, unadulterated gentleness with belting anger. Her soft tones can be so loving, so tender, so fragile like in the song “The Butcher Boy”. She is haunting like no-one else. Only Sinead could possibly give voice through melody to a Tuam Baby at the bottom of a mound of bodies in a septic tank, calling out, pleading for recognition of her humanity, her worth, for the warm arms of her poor, unmarried mother who might well have kept and loved her if given half a chance.

When she hits the high notes, in “Nothing compares to U”, for example, she opens her mouth wide to reveal perfect pearly white teeth. She sometimes almost snarls. Her jerky head movements while lost in song are spectacular. To me, she resembles a starving Velociraptor looking for a plump paedophile priest to peck the flesh off.

Whatever else you are in your private life and public persona, Sinead, and you are, and have been, many things – daughter, sister, victim, singer, lover, mom, wife, survivor, rasta-loving priest, livid Tweeter, chaotic woman, granny – you are an Irish legend, like Queen Medb, or Grainne Mhaol.

In October 1992 you took to the stage of Saturday Night Live to sing an acapella version of Bob Marley’s War. As a young woman – about 15 years younger than I am now – you stood up there alone under the glaring lights in your white lace dress – like a ravishing bald bride waiting for her bethrothed, a suitably feral chieftain – and with the cameras rolling you declared war, in no uncertain terms, on those who harboured child molesters – the Pope, his cardinals and parish pawns in cities, towns and villages across the globe.

You changed a few key words, chanting “child abuse”. In doing so, you proved yourself to be a defiant popstar Prophet. You used your platform, your fame, to vent your outrage and transmit a painful message to the rest of us. A few weeks later you were booed and hissed off the stage at the Bob Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden and fell onto Kris Kristofferson spiritually shriveled, deflated like a nine-month-old helium balloon. You discovered that the world – not just devout, repressed little Catholic Ireland – but the world was not ready for you and the truth you were speaking.

Now, I have a confession to make. Like Sinead O’Connor, I was a pious child. I enjoyed prayer, Jesus, Mary, Holy God, the Saints – especially Saint Anthony – and midnight mass at Christmas, the Easter rituals – the Trocaire box, the smudge of Ash, the washing of the feet, the Stations, waving sprigs of palm, the Latin hymns. To this day Panis Angelicus still gives me chills. The pungent smell of incense lingering heavily in the air is the heavenly aftershave of Jesus. I can smell it even now, here today on the streets of Templebar, as though a special, chosen Altar Boy wafted it towards me.

The reason I am sharing my warm childhood feelings towards the Church and Catholicism is because like most people at the time, I too, responded badly when Sinead O’Connor destroyed the picture of Pope John Paul the 2nd. He had been to Ireland in the year of my birth and spawned a generation of Irish JPs. I did not applaud her. I was a pious thirteen year old and I didn’t get her or her feelings for the Pope. It was too much for me to process. Her feelings seemed venomous to me.

I actually never saw the film footage of her ripping the picture to shreds until this month, but I do recall her image plastered across the front pages of the newspapers we sold in our shop. I dismissed her as a demented attention-seeker, you know – mad or bad, or a toxic, theatrical mix of the two. I didn’t understand that underneath it all was her own enduring hurt and sadness.

To be fair, I was only thirteen. I didn’t understand much at that point about clerical child sex abuse and all the young lives that were tarnished, or about the cover-ups which made everything so much more grotesque and unforgivable. I do, however, have a very vivid memory of when the story about Father Brendan Smyth broke. And as we all know, it has been scandal after sordid, depressing scandal ever since.

I am no expert on Sinead O’Connor, nor am I an expert in clerical child abuse. What I am an expert in, however, is being me, or rather trying to become the “best version” of myself, to quote our President, Michael D. I know how growing up in Ireland and being subject to twisted Catholic sexual morality has harmed me, and harmed many of my friends – male and female – people I love and want to see live happy, fulfilling lives.

The Church has zero moral authority any more regarding our enjoyment of our bodies. It has lost the standing to tell any of us how to love, or who to love, or when to exit a destructive or stultifying relationship bond . The Church must be forced to relinquish coercive control over women and our decision-making power, our choices in relation to things as monumental and life-changing as pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood.

I am a mother of two children – two wanted, dearly loved and cherished children – a girl of 5 and a boy of almost 4. I do not want them to grow up in a country that has enshrined in our most basic law that my right to life is equal to the right to life of the unborn. The 8th Amendment is an abomination.

My life is equal to no-ones. It has intrinsic value in and of itself. Every woman’s life has value in and of itself. Our rights to bodily integrity, privacy, to life and health trump any so-called right of the unborn.

When my children were foetuses growing in my belly, the fruit of my womb – Jesus, they had value, no doubt – but their rights “to life” were never equal to mine. If complications arose, my life – mine – should have taken precedence.

Savita Halapanavaar’s life should have taken precedence over the contents of her womb. But it didn’t. It didn’t. The 8th Amendment got her. Her dying foetus’ equal right to life had to be protected, vindicated by the midwives and doctors in Galway. Presumably, this could have happened in any Irish hospital in 2011, and that is utterly terrifying.

Make no mistake. (holding up the Constitution) This Constitution killed Savita Hallapenavaar.

To those of you holding a copy of Bunreacht na hEireann in your hands – maybe for the first time – it looks just like an innocuous book. But even the photocopies of page 154 containing Article 40.3.3 are, in fact, lethal weapons, instruments of female degradation.

The 8th Amendment killed Savita, and every day since the 1983 referendum, 10 women and girls are forced to make their way to England to terminate crisis pregnancies.

Bunreacht na hEireann is a steeped in Catholic dogma. It’s a creature of a different time and ethics. In my view, is no longer fit for purpose. I would repeal and replace the whole damn thing and start anew. This document does not reflect modern Ireland, or the values most people prize.

But the 8th Amendment is why we are gathered here today. The 8th Amendment was enacted to ensure the reproductive enslavement of women. It has got to end. It will end. And soon! The 8th Amendment will be repealed.

And now, I will summon my inner bald-headed warrior and sing Bob Marley’s War, as Sinead O’Connor did almost 25 years ago. I will change a few key words, as she did. And at the end I will rip something some people consider sacred. I invite you all to follow my lead.

(Singing “War” by Bob Marley, following the 1992 Sinead O’Connor version)

Until the philosophy which hold one race superior
And another
Is finally
And permanently
And abandoned
Everywhere is war.

Until there’s no longer
First class or second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man’s skin
Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes –
I gotta say war.

That until the basic human rights
Are equally guaranteed to all,
Without regard to race –
I say war.

Until that day
The dream of lasting peace,
World citizenship
And the rule of international morality
Will remain just a fleeting illusion to be pursued,
But never attained –
And everywhere is war.

Until the ignoble and unhappy regime
holding girls and women down,
Through the 8th Amendment, yeah
The 8th Amendment, yeah
Sub-human bondage
Has been toppled,
Utterly destroyed –
Everywhere is war –

War in the east,
War in the west,
War up north,
War down south –
There’s war –
Rumours of war.
And until that day,
This tiny Emerald Isle
Will know no peace.

Women, women will fight!

We find it necessary –
And we know we will win
We have confidence
In the victory
To make abortion Free, Safe and Legal.

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Fight patriarchy and all forms of violence against women! (ripping out p. 154 of the Constitution, containing the 8th Amendment)

The Plan – a short monologue (for a female performer or series of female performers) about the Syrian refugee crisis – September 2015

I can’t remember when I last felt safe. Or when my heartbeat was regular and barely perceptible. Really. Normal has gone out the window. Everything is … I have no words to describe this. And it is not just because I am tired, more tired than I’ve ever been before, more tired than I was when I had three babies under three. That was no joke, but it was normal. This is a horror show.

There was a time, actually most of my life, when safety was something I took completely for granted. I didn’t need or get much sleep since having my children, but I was a good sleeper when I got around to it. My head would touch the pillow and seconds later I would be snoring. Not literally, but I would be off, gone, in dreamland without any need for sheep counting.

I would sleep sound and wake in the morning, generally, most days, with a lightness in my being. As I stood there at the stove making breakfast, it wasn’t as if I was in some out-of-body state hovering above myself, observing this mostly positive early morning energy of mine – even when the boys were naughty and arguing and pinching each other – but I know it was there. I know, because now it is gone.

All the positive thinking has been blown out of me. The rebels and al-Assad, between them, have filled me, and my once largely content mind with one grenade of fear after the other so that I can barely recall how I used to be and think and feel. I miss the happy me who didn’t pause to realize how happy, how free I really was.

It’s as though that good life, that life of innocence and peace and lazy birdsong was not real, but a nice dream, a little tiny respite from the chaos into which all Syria has descended.  Ask anyone back home. They will know what I’m talking about.  They too are changed forever.  There is no un-remembering these last few crazy years.

Once you’ve suffered like we’ve suffered, it’s hard to find comfort in preparing lentil pilaf. Bathing the children, even, becomes a source of torment as you imagine their little limbs being ripped off them in some terrible explosion in the marketplace, or the schoolyard or the Mosque. Or maybe even in their beds.

I am no catastrophist, but back home potential catastrophes lurked around every corner. Every time anyone one of us left the house to go anywhere, I became convinced it would be the last time. That’s no way for a wife and mother to think. But it happened to enough people. Too many stepped outside to buy figs or the newspaper and never returned. That’s the reality. That’s what our streets became. A warzone.

Sometimes, of course, the daily domestic grind of attending to my husband and the children, running around after them all constantly, washing the never-ending heap of dirty clothes and cooking and cleaning, sometimes it caused me to question was this all there really was to life, was this what I’d be born to spend my days doing. It seemed a small, petty kind of existence on these rare, ungrateful occasions when I would crave excitement of some kind. I wanted more. What I wouldn’t give now for those humdrum days.

Nothing would give me greater pleasure right this instant than to be at home in the kitchen, scrubbing the stains from the knees of my sons’ school trousers, or stirring chopped cilantro into a huge pot of Yakanit Batata.

On Mondays, I used to make this for my husband. It was his all-time favourite dish. On Tuesdays I’d often make stuffed eggplants for the twins, my boys. On Wednesdays I’d bake flatbread with my daughter to go with the oven roasted chicken and potatoes.

I can smell these dishes now and it breaks my heart all over.  I particularly miss the smell of bread filling our noses and the whole house with happiness and harmony. Food preparation was such a core part of my jobs, our family routine. I appreciate now more completely that it wasn’t just about sustenance; it was about togetherness and home.

Home. I wonder is the building even still standing, or has it been reduced to rubble. Like the Temple of Bel. What those savages did in Palmyra is senseless. They have no respect for human life, clearly, no respect for culture, history, ancient Syrian greatness. What kind of parents could have bred such monsters?

I hope our home is not rubble. Maybe one day another family will live there and make happy memories like we did, laughing and cooking and squabbling and singing together. I had wanted to make some changes to the décor. The kitchen and bathroom were beginning to get on my nerves. We hadn’t done any home improvements in a while and they were overdue.

I tried to console myself that in time someone else, the new woman of that house, our home, might have some fun selecting new tiles and soft furnishings. But I quickly became furious at this prospect, because the chances are it would be a Sunni woman, with her Sunni family putting down their roots in our house, our home, hanging their family photos from the nails from which our own once hung.

We are Shia. Out town is, or was, mainly Shia. There was talk before we left of this changing. A population swap was threatened. Had we not fled, who knows where they might have sent us, whose beds we might have ended up being forced to sleep in.

On second thoughts, I would much rather our home be reduced to smoke and ashes than be occupied in this manner by imposters, enthusiastic or unwilling as the case may be.

We, our family, were never hungry back then. Our clothes were always clean, our wiry bodies and black hair was scrubbed and spotless. We smelled fresh. I ensured the children were always immaculate for school. They loved school. They miss school, their teachers … their little noisy classmates.

I am lucky that my three embraced learning and particularly adored bedtime stories, especially when their papa had time to read to them.  That wasn’t all that often, but it was sacred time.

Now he reads the one book each child brought every night, religiously. Really, he reads it like a prayer. But that’s what those three books from home are, prayers, prayers to Allah – and whoever else might be listening, even if they are other people’s Gods – that we will make it, that the five of us will make it past all the borders.

We have never known crippling exhaustion, or dirt like this. My children stink. Their little bodies have never reeked before. It’s not right. But regular washing, personal hygiene is a luxury we don’t have.  More often than not they go to bed with rumbling tummies, so do my husband and I, but I don’t worry about us so much. Our job is to feed and protect our children and we can’t do either right now, not properly.

We are relying on aid, on the generosity of others. It makes me so sad, so uncomfortable. This was never part of the plan.

We are unused to blisters on our feet and raw, chafed thighs from all the walking. The walking. People are not built for this kind of incessant walking.

Prior to fleeing Syria, we never spent a night in a tent, let alone huddled together like frightened kittens on the side of a road. We fled with two small bags between the five of us. The two boys brought their favourite soft toys, Nemo and Winne the Pooh. My daughter wouldn’t leave home without her crown, a dreadful blue plastic thing with a bow sent by my sister-in-law from Orange County, California.

She wanted to look like Queen Elsa for her journey. Of course the crown was an impractical, silly object to bring and was likely to get broken before the end of our first day as refugees, but how could I say “no” to her? We were turning her world on its head.

What has been nice is that every adult who has seen her along the way and actually exchanged some words with her, including the odd jovial border guard, has called her “princess”. She loves that. And so do I, because it has been a strange bit of normality amid all the turmoil.

We make up stories all the time about the princess in the blue crown being on a journey, a long difficult quest, with her two handsome older brothers and her weary mummy and daddy. Some days the mission of the royal family is to escape from a pack of princess-eating Trolls, while other days our young heroine and heroes must weather perilous storms at sea as they hunt for cures for mysterious illnesses that are buried deep in the ground in far-flung hostile shores. Like pirate treasure.

The children are always fearless in our tales, but the parents are reluctant adventurers. There is some truth in this. Our children have held up remarkably well, under the circumstances. Thank goodness for their reslience, their ability to adapt. It is not easy for them, but yet they manage to find fun in ordinary things like flowers and butterflies and even things not so ordinary, like having to be utterly silent in the back of pitch-black truck, packed liked sardines with countless other people as desperate, and hopeful, as ourselves.

My husband and I had discussed leaving a few times before we finally made our move. It was a decision that no sane person would take lightly. And perhaps we weren’t sane any more, maybe the conditions had unhinged us, had unhinged the nation. But it was all too much. There was no way to stay. Can you imagine being a mother and finding yourself wishing your children had never been born because that way you would be spared the agony, the desolation if anything happened to them?

These last few days have been some of the worst. We were on the brink of Western Europe, so close to safety – to Germany – and yet so far, cooped in like chickens.  The camps in Turkey had been an ordeal. But this is worse because we can tune into the world news on our phones and see that Frau Merkel and the ordinary German citizens were happy to receive people like us. Syrians. 800,000 people just like us. That has amazed and heartened us. We just have to get there. That’s all.

It was so difficult to keep on hoping behind that fence. Some of the border guards were brutes. They hurled food packets and water bottles at us. Yes, sure, there were lots of us and many of the men were angry and frustrated, but this distribution of supplies need not have been so shambolic and demeaning.  We are not beasts. If they required us to form an orderly queue, we would have complied.

They did not need to fling the parcels and bottles at us like missiles. We were at their border, arriving in our droves, because of real, life-threatening missiles and here they were throwing plastic projectiles of Hungarian spring water and bad sandwiches into our midst like armaments.

Around us people were begging and screaming and cursing with hunger, people who had been cast so low in recent times that they forgot that they were, at heart, in their souls, respectable and deserving of better. It was not so much a case of suddenly finding oneself uncomfortably reliant on the kindness of strangers, but entirely at the mercy of tyrants in uniforms.

Our children were hungry. I was gasping. At first the boys had fun jumping as high as they could, trying to grab a food packet or a some water, but the novelty soon wore off when they were pushed and elbowed by grown men who should have known better. But hunger does strange things to people.

And then a bottle hurtled towards my daughter and knocked the blue plastic crown from her head. She had been holding my hand, asking me when we would see teta and jidu, my parents, again.

I never got to answer her, because the bottle knocked her crown off her head onto the ground and we had to look for it. Of course, it got trampled under foot. Such a flimsy piece of plastic could not survive the rowdy jostling of famished men and boys.

She retrieved just one piece of the crown, a shard with the bow hanging off a big blob of mucky glue. I thought she would be heartbroken by the loss of her precious Elsa crown, but she just shrugged and said she would save this one piece, and like a fabled princess from once upon a time in a land far, far away she would put it in her new music box when we settled in our charming little flat in Meklenburg Vorpommern and occasionally take it out and look at it, remembering her trials and tribulations and the tragic demise of her crown. I paraphrase slightly, but she was incredibly matter-of-fact.

This was the first I had heard of either a music box, or Mecklenburg Vorpommern, and the city of Greifswald for that matter. She had her heart set on us finding a nice apartment in Greifswald for some reason, although anywhere in Mecklenburg Vorpommern would do, apparently.

I asked her why, what she knew about this place, this region. Why did it appeal to her so? While she had no concrete evidence of its superiority, she told me she had heard another family say they were hoping to join relatives there and since they were lovely people who gave her a segment of orange, it seemed welcoming. Also, Mecklenburg Vorpommern sounded like it could be the name of a mischievous witch from a Harry Potter movie, so it had to be wonderful.  Didn’t it?

And that’s where we’re going. We are slowly but surely getting closer to Germany. If we make it by train to Munich, we will do our utmost to settle in Greifswald, Mecklenburg Vorpommern. Our princess with the broken crown is owed a happy ending. As are her fearless brothers. As, frankly, are we. So that’s the new plan. For my part, I am crossing my fingers that we may eventually return home to find our house still standing, unoccupied, waiting for us exactly as we left it.

The End


(This piece was written over a weekend in September 2015 in response to a Facebook call for short plays about the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. I hoped to have it staged as part of the NO BORDERS theatre event at Camden Palace Hotel, Cork on the 4th of December. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the final cut due to timing and casting challenges. I really enjoyed writing it though.) 




Politicians should strive to secure equality, not greater incarceration

When it comes to crime, punishment and the use of prison to control problematic human behavior, the public is deluded about what level of security the State can afford them via the criminal justice system and the penal law.

Much criminal justice policy and legislation enacted over the last few decades has been designed to respond to the public’s fear of crime, rather than to actually reduce crime. It has been primarily about being seen to do something, to attempt to reassure the voting public, rather than about affecting any demonstrable change for the better.

In the run up to elections, it is not uncommon for our politicians, especially those in office, to wax punitively lyrical about how they are determined to “get tough” or “crack down” on X, Y, or Z type of criminal conduct. In an effort to assuage public fears, often inflamed by irresponsible media commentary, they tend to adopt strong “law and order” language. (See my contribution to the contribution to Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality General Scheme of Bail Bill 2015: Discussion, available at https://www.kildarestreet.com/committees/?id=2015-11-04a.348)

Such language is often heavily symbolic and calculated to give voice to public outrage, whether real or imagined. (See “An Taoiseach and Minister Fitzgerald announce new Bail Bill”, July 23, 2015, available at http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/PR15000430) Some readers may remember the rhetoric employed in advance of the referendum on bail in the mid 1990s. (See comments during Private Members’ Business. – Criminal Law (Bail) Bill, 1995: Second Stage, 3 May 1995, available at http://debates.oireachtas.ie/dail/1995/05/03/00021.asp#N19)

The right of the accused person to bail was whittled away in section 2 of the Bail Act 1997 following the referendum the previous year. Section 2 was introduced to suspend the presumption of innocence so that bail could be refused if it is likely that an accused will commit further offences. Preventive detention in the pre-trial context was enshrined in law and changed the penal landscape ever since.

Cloverhill prison was built especially to accommodate expected increases in the remand prison population. Remand prisoners were to be accommodated two or three to a cell, despite the fact that single cell occupancy is international best practice. Cloverhill has been operating at, or above capacity, ever since.

In Ireland bail appears to be a perpetually emotive subject. Many ordinary citizens get exercised about the idea of offenders committing crimes while they are on bail. It offends and upsets them a great deal more than the idea of punishing people before they are, in fact, found guilty. Worryingly, the same can be said about some of our elected representatives.

Incapacitation is a costly exercise, both in financial and human terms. Let’s be clear. Prison is for punishment. Imprisonment should be used as sparingly as possible following conviction, with community sanctions being the punishments of first resort.

In the pre-trial context, it is crucial that people should not be detained wantonly since they have been neither tried nor convicted and enjoy the presumption of innocence in respect of the charge(s) against them.

According to the European Court of Human Rights, judges should only refuse bail where they have first considered granting it with conditions, but determined that no conditions were capable of mitigating the identified risk or risks, based on the available evidence. (See Ambruszkiewicz v Poland, (App 38797/03) May 4 2006, at para. 32.)

These are important principles. We must do more than pay lip service to due process rights. If someone spends a month, 3 months, or half a year in pre-trial custody, that is time they cannot get back in the event that that they are not ultimately prosecuted for their alleged wrongdoing, or where they are eventually acquitted.

They may lose their homes, their jobs, or their children into care as an unintended consequence of pre-trial confinement, and they are legally guilty of nothing at this stage in the proceedings.

Even where the accused is eventually convicted, backdating of sentences is merely a judicial convention. There is no legal obligation on judges to backdate sentences and the proposed Bill fails to put this practice on a statutory footing. This is a glaring omission in the General Scheme of the Bail Bill, 2015 and should be rectified.

In July this year the Minister for Justice and the Taoiseach unveiled proposals to revamp the bail system, promising a “robust” approach to prolific burglars of domestic dwellings, i.e. those with one previous conviction and two pending charges, while offering guidance to judges in how they might “better protect the public”.

By “better protect the public” in the bail context, the Minister and Taoiseach are basically telling prospective voters that they are displeased with the status quo and they want judges to refuse bail more often.

As if our prisons are not already under enormous pressure as it is, without deliberately enacting a new law to increase the remand population. Today 6 of our prisons were operating above the safe bed capacity set by the Inspector of Prisons (See http://www.irishprisons.ie/images/dailynumbers/03_december_2015.pdf) This is not an uncommon occurrence.

Owing to the separation of powers, politicians cannot entirely fetter the decision-making powers of judges, hence the Bill affords “guidance” to the judiciary in relation to the factors they can and should take into account in a bail application. Much as they might like to, our elected representatives are precluded from directly ordering judges to universally refuse bail in certain circumstances. While clearly attempting to tie judicial hands, the proposed Bill leaves the necessary wiggle room in order to avoid a constitutional crisis. Just.

There is little doubt that extension of the legal grounds for refusing bail to include circumstances where judges might previously have granted it, will mean that more people will be held in pre-trial detention.

Is this what the public really needs or wants? Will increased numbers of remands in custody mean that we can sleep safer in our beds? Unfortunately, it is doubtful whether the proposed bail changes will yield the positive benefits the Minister seems to believe will follow.

Firstly, in terms of preventing violent behavior and homicides by people while they are on bail, the law can only go so far. Under the current bail scheme, when fully informed of a person’s offending history, including their prior convictions, pending charges, history of bench warrants for failing to appear etc., judges should be well-placed to make a fair and sensible decision as to whether bail can and should be granted (usually with a string of conditions).

Where the Gardai give evidence that a person has a clear history of violence and the judge in question is highly likely to either refuse bail, or impose strict conditions, such as requiring an independent surety, a stay away order, residence condition, curfew, etc.

In circumstances where there is no history of violence, and no evidence to suggest that the accused has intimidated witnesses, or is likely to do so if released on bail, conditional bail may well be granted even if the person stands accused of murder. This is because the presumption of innocence applies, irrespective of the seriousness of the underlying charge, and refusals of bail must be both grounded in law and substantiated by the evidence.

An increase in refusals of bail for certain categories of accused persons, such as those with a pattern of committing domestic burglaries or people who are addicted to alcohol, or those charged with a serious offence attracting a penalty of more than 10 years, will increase prison numbers. It is a simple matter of cause and effect. Simple mathematics.

This may lead to convicted prisoners (some of whom may be under sentence for serious offences, including burglary) being released on emergency Temporary Release (TR) in order to free up beds for remand prisoners.

Due to a lack of principled penal policy during the boom years, there was an unprecedented rise in the use of imprisonment and the expansion of our prison estate, with no corresponding positive impact in terms of creating a safer society. The former Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter TD, freely acknowledged this fact during the Annual Lecture he gave to the Irish Penal Reform Trust in 2012. (See Department of Justice and Equality, Irish Penal Reform Trust Annual Lecture, Squaring the Circle: Penal policy, Sentencing offenders, and Protecting the Community, 16 September 2011, available at http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/SP11000177)

Chronic overcrowding meant that early release on TR was used as a safety valve, rather than as a carefully regulated mechanism as part of Integrated Sentence Management. ISM, in turn, was largely a paper exercise devoid of real meaning or rehabilitative capability due to the strains on capacity, long lock-down periods and closure or greatly reduced opening hours of workshops, libraries and other educational facilities.

In 2014 the Strategic Review on Penal Policy Report (SRPPR) stated in its Final Report that “policymakers cannot plan adequately for the future, or understand the consequences of changes in policy” without proper, methodical systems for collecting and analysing data. (p. 109, available at http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Strategic%20Review%20of%20Penal%20Policy.pdf/Files/Strategic%20Review%20of%20Penal%20Policy.pdf) The SRPPR recommended that “all new criminal offences and sanctions should be properly assessed in terms of their effectiveness as a deterrent to criminal behaviour and the impact on the criminal justice and penal systems.”

The Irish Prison Service (IPS) deserves great credit under the current administration for making considerable inroads in reducing overcrowding, improving living conditions and taking steps to enhance the re-integration prospects of prisoners through promising initiatives such as the Community Return programme for people on longer sentences and the Community Support Scheme for those on sentences of under a year. Senior management now has the inclination and breathing space to develop policy in a strategic and principled manner and apply itself to its (albeit slow) implementation.

It would be in nobody’s interest to see a return to the unmanageable numbers on 2012, when the IPS was in constant crisis mode and had to release sentenced prisoners into the community with no warning or preparation. Some of these prisoners were homeless, with nowhere to go and no post-release supports lined up. They were “linked in” with nothing and no one. Some died due to drug overdoses shortly after release.

The return to the community is a difficult time for prisoners. If they are unprepared for it, it can be a disaster – for them, and the communities to which they return.

Legislative change leading to the resumption of unplanned emergency use of TR so as to free up bed space to accommodate untried and unconvicted people would be unconscionable. A more punitive approach to bail, designed primarily to incapacitate certain types of offenders, could easily and quickly contribute to such a reality.

But is there anything that can actually be done to enhance public safety? The answer is yes, but it is a long-term project and requires the widespread “buy in” of middle-class voters. President Michael D. Higgin’s vision for an Inclusive Republic is not something that can be achieved before the next election, sadly. (See for example Opening address of the Citywide 20th Anniversary Conference Croke Park Conference Centre, 12th November 2015, available at http://www.president.ie/en/media-library/speeches/opening-address-of-the-citywide-20th-anniversary-conference)

However, if we want a safer society, if we want to be more secure in our beds at night, we need to collectively commit to a different, more equal society, in which all of our citizens have a stake.

We need to invest in childhood, lay off the empty rhetoric, the guff about cherishing children equally and actually show that we cherish them – all of them – through concrete deeds and provision of universal and targeted services.

Investment in programmes such as Nurse-Family Partnership, an effective intervention for first-time, low income mothers in the United States (see http://www.nursefamilypartnership.org/proven-results), HighScope Perry pre-school education (see http://www.highscope.org/content.asp?contentid=219 ) and parenting courses should be a political priority. Because if we ensure that all children have a better, more secure, connected start in life, in their homes with a parent or parents capable of nurturing them, as a society we will have less problems down the road.

We need to empower communities. We need more access to timely drug treatment places and mental health interventions in the community. The resourcing of infant mental health, as well as child and adolescent mental health service provision is vital.

At a recent Hands Up for Children Prevention and Early Intervention event in Cork, hosted by Ag Eisteacht, Catherine Maguire from the HSE in Mallow spoke powerfully about the “ghosts in the nursery”, telling her captive audience that infant mental health – encompassing social, cognitive, behavioural, emotional development and wellbeing – is “all our business”. She is of course 100% right about this.

All politicians should commit to the 5 campaign Asks of Hands Up for Children: 1) universal access to family support programmes; 2) build on and develop prevention and early intervention practice; 3) increase the budget of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency by 10%, 4) bring investment in early years care and education services from 0.2% of GDP up to the OECD average of 0.8% and 5) support systems change and reorientation in the business of Government Departments towards Prevention and Early Intervention.

We need to work on our empathy as a nation. We must to demand the provision of safe, secure housing to people and families struggling to keep a roof over their heads. It’s not good enough for sections of society, self-professed concerned citizens to take to social media for a rant about homelessness, professing that we should “look after our own” in response to an emergency situation from the outside – the Syrian refugee crisis.

There is absolutely a moral imperative to welcome our share of Syrian refugees. However, in the context of crime, punishment and the proposed reform of the bail system, we do not currently take sufficient care of “our own”, as evidenced for example by our often callous attitudes to persistent low level offenders, who we would be quite happy to take out of circulation once and for all.

We cannot take all convicted offenders and accused persons out of circulation. Prison is the ultimate exclusion of people who are already the most excluded members of our communities.

We need to care more about Others, and not just those who are most similar to ourselves and share the same broad values.

Those of us who were Yes Voters in the Marriage Referendum were quick to congratulate ourselves in the wake of the jubilant result. We demonstrated empathy for people who we figured out were enough like us to deserve full equality under the law.

What we need to realize, if we are serious about reducing crime and other social problems such as addiction and mental ill health, is that under different circumstances, with a background of poverty, social exclusion, poor educational attainment, family dysfunction, etc., we too could have made one or several bad choices and wound up forever branded with the criminal label. There but for the grace of God, etc.

As a society we need to make some choices. Do we want to imprison an infinite number of people, including those legally innocent, to whom our State has failed to give a decent stake in society? Or do we want to right some of the wrongs that have lead to whole communities, generation after generation, having very limited opportunities for law-abiding advancement?

Crime is a product of society. A crime-free society is unattainable, and yet we should act as though it is within our powers to eliminate crime. Because it is within our powers to eliminate, or reduce some crime.

Prison cannot fix all our social problems. It cannot dissolve the fear of potential voters in rural Ireland, who firmly believe they are under siege from “highly mobile criminal gangs”. Politicians should be careful about giving people false hope, or unrealistic expectations in relation to bail reform.

We need to be clear about the purpose of prison. It is for punishment, and ideally only for those who commit serious offences, especially those who are violent and pose a continuing threat of physical harm to others.

Punishment should be meted out upon conviction, and be proportionate and tailored to the special circumstances of the offence and the offender. But bail is a constitutional right. The default position is, and should remain, that most accused people will be granted bail.

Where bail is refused, the State should be under a duty to ensure a speedy trial. There are currently long delays with court lists in the Circuit Court. In a recent article in the Independent, Remy Farrell BL, drew attention to the way in which many serious offences, including those of burglary are disposed of summarily rather than on indictment, as a cost saving measure. (See “Garda and DPP need proper resources to bring serious cases before Circuit Court”, The Independent, 10/11/2015 available at http://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/garda-and-dpp-need-proper-resources-to-bring-serious-cases-before-circuit-court-34185046.html)

Frankly, our politicians cannot have it both ways. They cannot on the one hand tell judges to refuse bail to accused domestic burglars due to the perceived seriousness of their offences, and then preside over an under-funded criminal justice system that in fact treats certain offences that merit trial on indictment (with the heavier penalties that would entail – 14 years in the case of burglary) as summary offences with a one year maximum penalty.

Or maybe they can. But it does not make sense. It makes a mockery of justice and does little to enhance the long-term security of the public.

Reliable statistics in Ireland about criminal offending are difficult to come by. The Minister has stated that 75% of all burglaries are committed by 25% of offenders. What we don’t know is what proportion of these are the gangs terrorizing rural Ireland and what proportion are drug addicts burgling homes to feed their habits. Peculiarly, the same exact percentage was trotted out in relation to property crime more generally, at the Joint Agency Response to Crime (J-ARC) launch. (See Address by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, TD at the launch of the Joint Agency Response to Crime Strategy (J-ARC), available at These statistics need a full explanation, including a detailed account of the analysis on which they are based. http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/SP15000618). These statistics, and the analysis underpinning them, should be available to politicians, and indeed the public.

On any given Monday a visit to the High Court bail list will reveal that many, if not most, burglaries are committed by people addicted to heroin. The same is true of a huge proportion of thefts.

While addiction to controlled substances and/or alcohol certainly is a major factor in the offending behaviour of many people who come before the criminal courts, permitting judges to remand people with addiction issues in custody to prevent further offending on bail does little to address the offenders’ complex underlying issues.  In this regard the Justice Committee’s recent consideration of Ireland’s failed war on drugs is timely. Important lessons can be learned from the recent successes of the Portugese decriminalisation strategy which has increased its focus on addiction as a public health issue, rather than a social ill to be addressed primarily by recourse to the criminal courts. (See Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality Report of the Committee on a Harm Reducing and Rehabilitative approach to possession of small amounts of illegal drugs November 2015, available at http://www.oireachtas.ie/parliament/media/committees/justice/Final-Report—For-Publication.pdf)

In the context of a revised bail scheme and any new approach to drugs policy, holistic supports should be funded, and not just on a pilot basis, including hostels supervised by the Probation Service facilitating access to mental health and addiction treatment and other necessary interventions so that people can address underlying problems intrinsic to both their offending and their difficulty complying with bail conditions. (See for example Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, National Evaluation of the Bail Supervision and Support Schemes Funded by the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales from April 1999 to March 2002 (2005))

There is ample evidence from the UK and further afield that bail supports are effective in enhancing compliance with bail conditions, and indeed in reducing crime.

If the Government is intent on further circumscribing the rights of accused persons who are legally innocent until proven guilty in an effort to be seen to respond to what the Report of the Thornton Hall Project Review Group term “ the more hard-line climate of opinion in society” (see p. 25), then a thorough impact assessment should be conducted before the Bill is enacted to determine (a) the actual necessity for such provisions, (b) the likely efficacy in reducing the precise risk, i.e. absconsion, interference with witnesses, or offending while on bail and (c) the probable impact on the prison system, including the use of TR as a “safety valve” and (d) the pressure that additional remands in custody will place on the investigating Gardai, as well as the DPP to get the case ready for trial, if many more people are to be denied bail, or have their bail revoked.

At all times, the three dominant considerations should be “will this measure actually make society safer?”, “do we really want to imprison more and more people?” and if the answer to the previous question two questions is yes, “given the lingering effects of austerity measures and the need for vital investment in education, health, housing and social services, how are we going to afford more costly imprisonment?”

The Minister for Justice recently made the following crucial statement recognising that prevention of crime, is better than cure:

“The integration of offenders is a matter for the whole community and not just the responsibility of the Justice Sector. Other services have their responsibilities to assist persons reintegrate and resettle and eventually desist from a life of crime. Beyond this, I would also like to see the integration of services develop with a whole of Government vision that prevents an offending lifestyle from developing. The better use, and earlier application of resources, resulting in better outcomes is real reform in public services and is something I intend to build on.” (See Address by Frances Fitzgerald TD Minister for Justice and Equality to the Public Protection Advisory Group Seminar “Working with and in Communities” Friday 21 November 2014, available at http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/SP14000331)

It is time for a public debate about the intersection between social justice and criminal justice. We need to talk about how we can better give the most disenfranchised members of our society a vested interest in shared values. Inequality breeds crime.

If we want to “get tough” on crime we need to “crack down” on inequality.