Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Manifesto Discussion GE11

Monday 28th February 2011

In the wake of the historic 2011 Irish Election, the Differential Association gathered to rake over the coals of empty/half full promises, attempting to get to grips with what a future Government would try to do regarding criminal justice policy. Crystal balls at the ready, as we gazed into a future dominated by Fine Gael in coalition with a Labour partner.

A number of us favoured the Green Party manifesto, they were saying all the right things… a fact which only made the decimation of the party all the more poignant, as we assembled we knew there was to be no Green Party presence in the next Dáil, with possibly huge ramifications for the party’s funding.

In terms of the Fine Gael manifesto pledges, there was plenty of the good, lots of the worrying, and a dash of the befuddling.

Considering the barely there nature of criminal justice during election debates and the absence of crime as a doorstep issue (except for anti-social behaviour concerns and white-collar crime), the authors here hypothesised that this could be the time to pass all those far-reaching and progressive reforms we so fervently believe to be necessary. Without the hysteria of 1997, politicians could be unshackled from public and media demands for stronger locks and harsher punishments; we could seize the opportunity to undergo root-and-branch reform doing it quietly, and effectively. Reckoning on the ability of Ireland to undergo and fixate on only one crisis at a time, we estimated we could rework and revolutionise the criminal justice system; emerging to a new dawn. This of course, may prove to be pie in the sky science-fiction.

So let’s put money on when and what the first criminal justice legislation will be, shall we? The odds on favourite emerged as the finalisation and implementation of the Fines Bill, a Fianna Fáil-originated idea that is waiting to take-off. Another possibility is the continuation of momentum behind the enhanced use of Community Service Orders in sentencing. Limping along behind the pack we spoke about the much needed spent convictions legislation and its unfortunate likelihood of remaining on the back-burner for the foreseeable future.

Let’s take a look at some of the policies…

The prospect of voluntary drug testing in schools slipped almost unnoticed into the Fine Gael manifesto… we had no idea this was such an endemic problem in Irish schools(!) This risks stigmatising children and we question the nature of ‘voluntary’ and the prejudicial effects refusing such a test could have. It is hoped this is something of a white elephant that will quietly disappear.

Fine Gael also proposed the introduction of Social Investment Bonds, similar in nature to the UK’s currently piloting Social Impact Bonds, attempting to engage private enterprise to provide services on a payment-by-results basis will certainly be something worth watching.

The prospect of an expanded needle exchange programme and drugs rehabilitation provision was considered a welcome surprise in the Fine Gael manifesto. However, some DA members were concerned about Fine Gael’s intentions for Thornton Hall. The authors of this blog had greeted Fianna Fáil’s original plans for this Taj Mahal prison sceptically due to its remote location and proposed 2200 capacity. However, it has been six years since the original proposal, and while it has cost the tax payer around €43 million the site where it was to be built remains no more than an overgrown field. All the while, there have been thousands of prisoners who have been detained in appalling Dickensian conditions in Mountjoy. As a result the we felt decisive action must be taken by the incoming government. Disappointingly, when it came to the issue of Thornton Hall, Fine Gael were a little lacklustre on the issue and pretty noncommittal in their manifesto. It seemed that promises to revisit the issue of Thornton Hall and consider alternatives certainly didn’t assure us that plans for this huge prison were off the table.

Initially the Labour Party had been more zealous and fervent when it came to prisons; in an earlier and refreshingly explicit document on penal reform, Labour asserted its stance against Thornton Hall and the expansion of the prison estate, and presented a list of feasible alternatives to custody. There was hope that if Labour were to be Fine Gael’s partner in Government they might be able to sway the hand, and perhaps guide the new government’s actions concerning penal reform. Perhaps we were being naively optimistic, as in their actual manifesto Labour didn’t mention Thornton Hall, and seemed to be diverging somewhat from their earlier policy statement on penal policy, likely to be an election-inspired restatement; it should be interesting to see how far their input is shown in future Government action.

Sinn Féin pledged to return monies confiscated under the Criminal Assets Bureau to those communities most blighted by crime; this general consideration of shoring up the defences of such communities figured significantly in the Sinn Féin manifesto and received approval from the authors. The prospect of judicial training and a review of sentencing also seemed like a positive step.

For Fianna Fáil the issue did not arise, it was a non-runner, a no-show. Possibly due to the fact that we have a fairly accurate handle on their view of the issue, and the future as viewed through the Fianna Fáil lens. However, there is also the chance that, aware of an impending election defeat, they felt it unwise to expend energy on something they didn’t consider a priority. Indeed with their intention no doubt being to spend some time in opposition, re-group, re-brand and re-evaluate policy stance, they may also have wanted to say as little as possible on a number of issues. This will give them plenty of room to disagree with whatever the government does.

What do we think parties should have promised? How about a comprehensive and up-to-date resource on statistics and information pertaining to the criminal justice system. The benefit that this would entail would be exponential, it would indeed be a legacy issue, a revolution in research and transparency.

So in this time of marked depoliticisation of crime, are we free to seize the opportunity? Should we, in fact, rejoice that the parties did not make issues of prison and crime levels?

This month’s blog was written by Lynsey Black, Louise Brangan and Martin Quigley.

The views expressed in this blog are the authors' alone.

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