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June 07 2012
Proposals to close Magilligan prison and build a new facility near Maghaberry jail form part of a fresh blueprint for managing offenders in Northern Ireland.
Justice Minister David Ford unveiled plans for a shake-up of the prison service estate which include the development of a secure college for young offenders, plus better facilities for women.
The minister is carrying out root-and-branch reform of the prison system and launched a consultation on his plans for the future shape of the network of jails.
The strategy proposes the development of a new prison in a central location and the decommissioning of Magilligan prison in Londonderry from 2018 onwards.
The minister said: “Much of the debate on the Prison Estate Strategy has centred on the proposal to decommission Magilligan prison and build a new prison on land adjacent to Maghaberry. While I understand the initial response, it is important that the strategy is considered in its entirety and not viewed as a single issue.”
Mr Ford said substantial investment was needed to develop a modern and fit-for-purpose prison estate which supports the rehabilitation of offenders.
The prison system currently consists of three jails at Maghaberry, Magilligan in Antrim and Hydebank Wood outside Belfast, which have a combined capacity of 1,765 places.
The new strategy seeks to identify the needs of the four main prisoner population groups: juvenile offenders, young male offenders, female offenders and adult male offenders.
The plans for young offenders include improvements at Hydebank Wood, with a collaboration with the Department of Employment and Learning to create a “secure college”.
The consultation on the proposed reforms will run until September 28.
By Liam Clarke
16 May 2012
Community Relations Week has kicked off with a bitter political row over plans to end the divisions in our society.
David Ford, the Alliance leader, on Monday lashed out at Martin McGuinness for comments he made in the Belfast Telegraph that criticised his party for holding up efforts to produce a long-awaited Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy.
In an interview to mark a year of the latest power-sharing Assembly, the Deputy First Minister accused Alliance of not pulling its weight on the issue of a shared future.
He said its poor attendance at a Stormont committee on the issue “left a lot to be desired, though they are the ones who have been pushing this publicly”.
Mr Ford hit back, accusing Mr McGuinness of breaching confidentiality and of making unsubstantiated claims about Alliance’s attendance record.
“It was with disappointment that I heard at the weekend of the Deputy First Minister’s remarks about the process.
“Bad enough that he chose to breach the confidentiality that he demanded and that we had respected, but much worse to claim that Alliance attendance at the meetings ‘leaves a lot to be desired’,” Mr Ford said.
He was delivering the keynote address at a Community Relations Council (CRC) conference in Belfast. He said: “The fact is that Chris Lyttle, the MLA who I asked to lead on this, has attended all but one of the meetings that have been held, and at that meeting my special adviser attended in his place.”
He added: “I can understand why Alliance’s participation in the process may have caused some frustration within the DUP and Sinn Fein — because Chris has been persistently, doggedly, insisting that any strategy that is produced has to reflect the criticisms that poured down on the First Minister and Deputy First Minister’s previous attempt.”
Setting out Alliance’s bottom line, Mr Ford said the CSI strategy must include:
• Public spending tests to promote sharing on every public investment.
• Legal acknowledgement that all space is shared space with no compromise on territorialisation, including a strong protocol on flags.
• A comprehensive interface strategy which promotes openness and tolerance.
• A landmark review of equality and sharing in public housing.
• Serious investment in integration in teaching, including shared education and teacher training.
• A comprehensive youth strategy to combat sectarianism.
• An independent delivery system for community relations which has enough clout to challenge Government.
Mr Ford claimed that any document published by OFMDFM without all-party support would be “a watered down strategy that would only have the lowest common denominator between these two parties, and so would not achieve a shared future”.
But Peter Robinson hit out at the Alliance leader and said that his party should play a more productive role in the CSI talks.
“(Perhaps) the Alliance Party should try and focus itself more on trying to get an agreed result instead of going out and trying to indicate that somehow they are leading the way, when in fact they are dragging their feet,” the DUP leader said during ministerial questions at Stormont.
“So perhaps they can get their head out of the sand and start attending more meetings, stop trying to delay meetings from taking place, and make more of a contribution,”he added.
He said that compromise was inevitable given that talks on the new strategy involve all five parties that sit in the Stormont Executive.
Story so far
In June 2007, shortly after devolution, all parties promised to bring forward a strategy to combat sectarian division.
In July 2010 a document for consultation did not prove acceptable and a Stormont all-party committee has been working on the issue since then. Last week Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson expressed frustration with the lack of progress and said that if agreement couldn’t be reached soon they would publish a joint Sinn Fein/DUP document before the House rises on July 7.
The Alliance Party leader has called on the North’s electorate who want a real shared future to start backing change.
David Ford said voters who want to transform society and build a united community should move on from their political allegiance and play a role in making it happen.
Addressing delegates at his party’s conference in Belfast, he said the party had ambitious targets for the coming years to have more councillors and Assembly members who will deliver change.
“So today I appeal to people who vote for, who are members of and even those who are elected as representatives of these other parties: do you want to go on forever, locked into the same old politics?” Mr Ford said.
“Or do you want to see a step change, a radical shift in the politics of this place?
“To those in the UUP and SDLP: are these parties really going to recover? Are they really going to deliver the kind of future that our community needs? If you think they are, carry on. But if your ambition is change, if you want to see a genuinely shared future, will you ever be able to achieve it in those parties?
“Do you want your politics to be defined by a never-ending battle for unionist votes or nationalist votes? Or do you want your politics to be defined by the kind of society that we need to build?”
Mr Ford claimed the UUP and SDLP were mirror images of each other, casting about for relevance as their support drains away, no longer able to convey a sense of purpose to the electorate because they can’t agree on what that purpose is.
“But if the SDLP and UUP are to be pitied, the DUP and Sinn Féin are to be feared,” said Mr Ford.
“There is plenty of fine rhetoric but behind the rhetoric they have settled into a cosy carve-up. Look at their record.”
Mr Ford said that while political leaders talk of a shared future, they must practice what they preach.
“When he’s not threatening to collapse the power-sharing objective over the badge on a cap that some prison officers wear, Peter Robinson is talking about a shared future,” said Mr Ford.
“When they’re not insisting that the sectarian designations of the Good Friday Agreement must be preserved for ever and a day, the SDLP are talking about a shared future.
“When he’s not wrapping himself in the Union Flag at the UUP AGM, Mike Nesbitt is talking about a shared future.
“And when they’re not cutting all the funding of the Department of Education’s cross-community youth programmes, Sinn Fein are talking about a shared future.
“But talk is cheap, just like a ticket for the odd sports event being played by the other side.
“Genuine leaders would turn up at Windsor Park before and not after God Save The Queen, or arrive in Armagh in time for Amhran na bhFiann before the Dr McKenna Cup match.
“Gestures may be a good start but gestures are empty if they don’t lead to actions with more substance.”
The Alliance Party was celebrating its success in last year’s elections, with a 50% increase in its number of councillors and seven MLAs elected.
But the leader criticised DUP and Sinn Fein proposals to remove the Department of Employment and Learning – a ministerial post held by Alliance member Stephen Farry.
“There are two possible explanations,” continued Mr Ford.
“Is it vandalism against an important economic Department at a time of economic difficulty, rather than the properly thought-out restructuring of departments that we need?
“Or is it malice against Alliance because the growing strength of our party is a threat to the big two, especially in East Belfast?
“Ministers lose their posts. That’s politics. But it looks to me as if Stephen is going to establish a record: the first minister anywhere in these islands who is threatened with the sack because both he and his party are successful.”
22 Feb 2012
The justice minister has said he is actively pursuing other alternatives to full body searching in Northern Ireland prisons.
David Ford said his department was “actively following up on what the alternatives are”.
He again defended his decision not to publish the findings of a Prison Service study into other options to strip-searching at Maghaberry Prison.
He said the report contained sensitive material relating to security issues.
“If we were to publish it, it would have to be so heavily redacted that it really would be absolutely meaningless,” he added.
Mr Ford’s decision has been criticised by Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney and the SDLP’s John Dallat.
Mr McCartney has urged the justice minister to find alternatives to the “humiliating and degrading” searches.
Mr Ford admitted the process was “not particularly pleasant for either the officers carrying it out or for the prisoners”.
But he said the searches were necessary until a suitable alternative was found.
Mr Ford said the use of an x-ray system was one of the options being considered.
Prison reform campaigners have argued that full body searches are fuelling support for dissident republicans.
Last year, a group calling itself “the family and friends support group for republican prisoners Maghaberry” protested about strip-searching at the jail.
The minister denied claims by those protesting against the searches that the external arrangements had been relaxed.
“An agreement was made and it related to the issues of searching within the prison,” he said.
“It did not cover the issue, which applies to every prison in the UK, that there must be full body searching on entry to and exit from prison.”
21 Feb 2012
Justice Minister David Ford has refused to publish the findings of a Prison Service study into alternatives to body searches at Maghaberry.
He said the report contained sensitive security and commercial information.
But this has been dismissed as a feeble excuse by the SDLP’s John Dallat.
“As an ordinary backbencher who asked the question on behalf of a constituent, I feel I have not been given the service I’m in entitled to,” he said.
However, the minister has insisted it would be irresponsible to compromise prison security.
February 01 2012
Stormont’s Justice Minister is to visit Portlaoise Prison in the Republic as efforts continue to defuse a long-running jail dispute in Northern Ireland.
Around 30 dissident republican prisoners in Maghaberry jail in Co Antrim are involved in a so-called no wash or dirty protest against the jail’s regime.
Objections to full body searches when leaving or entering the prison have sparked calls for the use of a special hi-tech chair, similar to that used in Portlaoise, to help prison staff to check for contraband without physically searching inmates.
David Ford said, however, that prison staff had adhered to agreements at Maghaberry and he doubted if the technology existed to entirely replace searches.
After a meeting of justice ministers from Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and Scotland at Stormont, Mr Ford revealed he will visit Portlaoise within weeks to examine how it handles top security prisoners.
“As far as I am concerned the prison service is adhering to the agreement that was made with the separated prisoners in August of 2010,” said Mr Ford.
“But there are clear issues around controlled movement which remain to be resolved which cannot be resolved while the difficulties are happening. There are also issues about technology to avoid full body searching. That is an issue that I am concerned we will make progress on for the whole of the Northern Ireland prison service estate.
“And if there are opportunities which develop, that maintain dignity for prisoners and prison staff, and also security for prison and prison staff, then we are willing to implement them.”
Mr Ford said he would explore the possibility of employing new technologies. But the minister added: “At the moment I have no evidence that there is any technology as yet licensed for use within Northern Ireland that would meet all our needs.”
The Republic’s justice minister Alan Shatter said he had full confidence that Mr Ford was dealing with the prison protest appropriately.
18 Jan 2012
David Ford was appointed justice minister following the 2010 deal
Alliance Party leader David Ford has welcomed a commitment from the NI first and deputy first ministers to make the position of justice minister as secure as the other Executive posts.
At present, the minister can be removed by cross community vote.
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have said they now intend going to the assembly soon to extend the present justice arrangements beyond May.
Mr Ford was appointed justice minister after a deal in 2010.
Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness will also write to the secretary of state for Northern Ireland asking him to introduce legislation at Westminster to ensure the tenure of the justice minister is consistent with other ministers.
In the meantime, they will publish a letter to the speaker indicating they will commit the DUP and Sinn Fein to ongoing support for the justice minister being appointed by cross community vote for the entire period of this assembly term.
The two ministers are also asking officials to make arrangements to prepare the necessary legislation to abolish the Department for Employment and Learning and transfer its functions.
It is understood this could happen as early as June.
In response Mr Ford, said he was encouraged that Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness had addressed a number of concerns raised in his party’s response to the proposals.
He said a final decision on whether Alliance will continue in the justice ministry beyond May would be taken by the party council “in its own time and in light of the content and timing of the Westminster legislation that is being sought by the first minister and the deputy first ministers”.
Mr Ford’s appointment as justice minister was a compromise to ensure justice powers could be transferred to Stormont from Westminster in April 2010.
As a result, the SDLP lost out on a second ministry, while the Alliance was able to gain one.
By Liam Clarke
Thursday, 12 January 2012
David Ford is considering resigning as Justice Minister in response to Sinn Fein and DUP plans to scrap the Department of Education and Learning (DEL).
The Alliance leader has said he will ask Alliance’s ruling party council for guidance on the issue before making a decision.
“That is clearly a key issue that is there to be discussed. We have to consider everything,” he said.
Parties have been given until Monday at 5pm to respond to the OFMDFM proposal, but Mr Ford says his party will not meet this deadline. Instead, he will take at least a fortnight to respond so that he can seek the views of his party council, whose next scheduled meeting is in March.
“They (Sinn Fein and the DUP) are asking for responses by Monday but if we need a special meeting of party council that will take about a fortnight,” Mr Ford said, adding: “There is no need for the suggestion that this needs to be wrapped up in three or four days. That is playing silly games.
“What you have now is a political carve-up to deprive us of our entitlement.”
The proposals appear to specify that Mr Ford should hold the justice ministry till the end of the Assembly term.
By Liam Clarke
11 January 2012
Justice Minister David Ford is expected to remain in his post for at least another three years after agreement was reached during all-party talks at Stormont last night.
The three largest parties have agreed that the Alliance leader should retain the ministry until the next election in 2015 or 2016, but this should be balanced by the abolition of Alliance’s other ministry, the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL).
This position was spelled out in a statement by the First and Deputy First Minister late last night and welcomed by the Ulster Unionists.
The three parties want DEL’s functions split between the Department of Trade and Industry, held by the DUP, and the Department of Education which is in Sinn Fein hands.
That would reduce the present 11 ministries to 10 and end the anomaly whereby Alliance, with just eight MLAs, holds two ministries — as many as the combined total of the UUP and SDLP, who have 30 assembly members between them.
When justice was devolved in 2010, Alliance was the only party trusted by both the DUP and Sinn Fein to hold such the brief, which covers policing, courts and prisons.
Mr Ford’s appointment originally contained a sunset clause of May 1 this year, by which time a decision must be made on how to proceed.
By Liam Clarke
10 January 2012
A closed door meeting due to be held in Stormont today is likely to abolish the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) and leave the Justice Department in the hands of David Ford for the foreseeable future.
This is the main proposal being considered at a meeting of party delegations in Stormont Castle.
There are other possibilities, but axing DEL is known to be favoured by the DUP, Sinn Fein and the UUP. If passed, Alliance’s executive representation would be reduced from two seats to one.
DEL’s remit includes further and higher education, skills and training, employment rights and responsibilities, skills training and employment rights.
If abolished its functions could be divided between the Education Department held by Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd, and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment held by the DUP’s Arlene Foster.
Last night Mr Ford hit out. He said: “A complete restructuring is necessary in the medium-term, but taking out the department alone at this challenging economic time would look like spite.”