Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Prison reform should be free of partisan political control and Robinson threats

The First Minister Peter Robinson seems to think that throwing his toys out of the pram is the way to go to enable an inclusive prison service in  Northern Ireland. The issue arose in the debate on the Prison Review: Final Report at Stormont yesterday. The thing that seems to concern him most is the issue of the emblems used by the Northern Ireland Prison Service and most noticeably on the sign for the prisons themselves.

The Justice Minister, David Ford made remarks in his summation particularly in response to Jim Allister of Traditional Unionist Voice who had earlier said:

We also know that the reform of policing involved a name change. Are we going to have a name change of the prisons? Are they no longer going to be Her Majesty’s prisons? Perhaps the Minister, in replying, will confirm to us most robustly that that will not happen. I will listen with interest to see whether he does. Like the reform of policing, is the badge of the Prison Service to be changed? Is the crown to go? Let us hear from the Minister a robust denial that that will be any part of the agenda. When we read that the reform of the Prison Service must be like the reform of policing, alarm bells ring very loudly indeed. We wait with interest to see whether that is part of the machinations that are afoot.

The Minister's response to that particular issue and the interruption is recorded in Hansard as follows:

Mr Ford: Jim Allister referred to some extent to symbols and titles as they apply to the Prison Service. Those are operational issues for the Prison Service, but I believe that if NIPS is serious about fundamental and end-to-end structural and cultural reform, it cannot fail to consider the symbols and emblems that are visible signs of the organisation’s culture and focus. That is one of a range of operational issues that I will be expecting NIPS to consider as part of the change process over the coming months. NIPS has to deliver a transformation of its culture and it cannot move forward unless it addresses those sorts of issues along with others relating to staffing and estates, and so on.
Mr Allister: So that we are absolutely clear, is the Minister saying that he anticipates an end to our prisons being called “Her Majesty’s prisons” and that he anticipates an end to the crown being part of the symbol of the Prison Service? Will he be clear on that? If he is saying those things, I want to tell him that there are many in the unionist community who will be appalled at the direction in which he is taking us.
Mr Ford: I think that it is a pity that we are getting hung up on symbols. It is the only issue that anybody has wanted to intervene on during my speech this afternoon. I said that we are looking at a process of fundamental and end-to-end reform that will affect every part of the working of the Prison Service and its culture. In those circumstances, although these issues are operational matters for the Prison Service, it has to consider them as it looks for the appropriate way to run in the years ahead.

It was indeed rather telling that people who talk the talk of being inclusive (Mr Allister excepted) decided that symbols were so important, with the First Minister deciding today that he is even prepared to resign over the issue and force an election.

This ignores the fact that as can been seen at the top the Northern Ireland Prison Service already have adopted a post-devolution emblem that doesn't include the crown or the Queen's moniker. This isn't a new issue as the emblems have been moving forward anyway. Of course when the RUC (GC) was rebranded as the PSNI this all took place before policing and justice was devolved. But I turn once again to The Belfast Agreement which contains the following statement on policing and justice (emphasis mine):

The participants believe it essential that policing structures and arrangements are such that the police service is professional, effective and efficient, fair and impartial, free from partisan political control; accountable, both under the law for its actions and to the community it serves; representative of the society it polices, and operates within a coherent and co-operative criminal justice system, which conforms with human rights norms. The participants also believe that those structures and arrangements must be capable of maintaining law and order including responding effectively to crime and to any terrorist threat and to public order problems. A police service which cannot do so will fail to win public confidence and acceptance. They believe that any such structures and arrangements should be capable of delivering a policing service, in constructive and inclusive partnerships with the community at all levels, and with the maximum delegation of authority and responsibility, consistent with the foregoing principles. These arrangements should be based on principles of protection of human rights and professional integrity and should be unambiguously accepted and actively supported by the entire community.
We as a country need to acknowledge that some of the clinging to past emblems and structures is partisan politics, is not going to he acceptable to the entire community. It does not mean that we totally forget the past, but that we move on to a future that is truly shared.

Maybe it is time for Mr Robinson to get this into perspective and look at the main thrust of the final report and the crux of the issues that prison reforms need in Northern Ireland rather than focus on the cosmetics.

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