Address by Bishop Séamus Hegarty at Conference to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas
9 November 2010
ICPO Conference – Celebrating the Silver Jubilee of its Foundation with the Theme
Bridging the Distance – Supporting Irish Prisoners Overseas and their families
Address by Bishop Séamus Hegarty, Bishop of Derry and Chair of the Council for Emigrants of the Irish Bishops’ Conference at Conference to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas
It is a great honour for me to open this conference marking the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO) twenty fifth year in operation and to welcome you all here today. The turn out is exceptional and clearly demonstrates the number of people affected by and involved in working with Irish prisoners overseas.
It gives me great pleasure to welcome:
- Families of prisoners overseas
- Board members and staff of the Council for Prisoners Overseas, the Bishops’ Council for Emigrants and the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain
- Representatives of voluntary and statutory bodies and Government Departments
- Pen-friends and volunteers
- My brother Bishops
- The Chair for today’s proceedings, Ms Dearbhail McDonald, Legal Affairs Editor at the Irish Independent
- The exceptional line up of speakers who will participate in today’s conference
- The work of ICPO
Everyone here today has some connection with the ICPO. However, many of you will only engage with it on a particular issue. Please permit me to briefly relate the work of the ICPO, which I hope will provide a context for the different speakers we have today.
It is estimated that at any one time, there are between 800 and 1,000 Irish people in prison overseas.
In 1985, the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO) was established by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, in response to serious concerns regarding the number of Irish men and women in UK prisons. These deeply held concerns related to their trials and subsequent imprisonments. The ICPO works for all Irish prisoners wherever they are: it makes no distinction in terms of religious faith, the nature of the prison conviction, or of a prisoner’s status.
ICPO provides information to prisoners on issues such as repatriation and deportation, and assists in making referrals to post-release support agencies for those returning to Ireland in need of such support. It lobbies prison authorities, State officials and others, on the needs of its clients whether they are of a legal, medical, educational or practical nature. A hardship fund allows ICPO to provide grants to prisoners where access to food, water and medical treatment are very real concerns. Loneliness and isolation is common amongst Irish people imprisoned overseas. The ICPO operates an extensive prison visiting programme in Britain and elsewhere and provides a newsletter twice yearly to its clients. ICPO provides a pen friend scheme, language books and dictionaries where needed and facilitates prisoners entering the Listowel Writers Festival each year.
In recognition of the hardship endured by prisoners’ families, ICPO offers assistance with prison visits, provides information about the different issues affecting their loved one in prison and holds a Family Information and Support Day each year.
The ICPO has contact with Irish people in prisons in more than twenty countries, the majority of whom are in the UK, followed by the US, Australia and a range of countries in Europe, South and Central America and the Far East.
The work of ICPO offers an important form of institutional witness to the gospel. Its vision is rooted in Biblical teaching ‘He has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free’ (Luke 4:18-19): and mindful of Christ’s words in the parable of the last Judgement: “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:35). It is an expression of the commitment of Catholic social teaching and action, to a special care for those who are vulnerable. ICPO, both by word and example, in practical and pastoral actions, and in co-operation with other religious and secular groups has, in the name of the Bishops of Ireland, responded to the special plea of the Holy Father when he visited Ireland and asked that “the care of prisoners be made a priority” (Drogheda, 1979).
I particularly welcome the many family members that are here today. ICPO staff and volunteers have a deep commitment to providing support to you. This is in recognition of the pain and suffering endured by families as a direct result of a relative’s imprisonment. Research has shown that problems faced by families with a relative imprisoned abroad, are exacerbated by the cost of foreign travel, language and communication difficulties and dealing with unfamiliar prison bureaucracies and legal systems. It can be a very frightening and traumatic experience having a loved one imprisoned in a foreign country. For the vast majority this is a whole new experience and I sincerely hope that you find today beneficial.
Statutory and Voluntary Bodies
I wish to acknowledge the attendance today of all those representing the public service, Government Departments and those of you from the voluntary sector. We are delighted that you are present and we hope that you will be enriched by what you hear today. On behalf of the ICPO, I want to say how grateful we are for the ongoing support and mutually beneficial working relationship which exists between all.
I also offer a word of welcome to some of the 80 ICPO pen-friend volunteers present here today. For some of those in prison, your letter is the only link they have with the outside world. Regular letters from the pen-friend volunteers to prisoners provides an important contact with home and the reassurance that someone takes an interest in their welfare. Never underestimate the value of what you do. I wish to remind you that you share in a noble tradition – some of St Paul’s greatest letters were written in a prison cell to communities he had visited on previous occasions.
Today provides an opportunity to publicly thank those who fund the work of the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas – the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Society of St Vincent de Paul. Not only is their funding essential in providing the ICPO service, it is an important recognition of the needs of vulnerable emigrants and a positive endorsement of our work.
Today’s event also gives me the opportunity to pay particular tribute to the founding members of the Council. These include President Mary McAleese, Frs Bobby Gilmore, Paddy Smith, PJ Byrne and Pat Hannon, Ms Breda Slattery, Ms Anastasia Crickley, Ms Nuala Kelly, Mr Brian Judge, Mr Donal Spring and the late Mr John O’Connell and Fr Breifne Walker.
The ICPO founding members raised awareness of the great needs of our fellow Irish men and women abroad, especially in Britain. You testified to the grave injustices being inflicted on others. Aware of the great burden that was placed on the family members of prisoners, you felt that they had to be supported and represented.
I wish to single out, for particular mention, Ms Nuala Kelly, for her commitment to Irish prisoners overseas. Nuala inspired all who worked with her and the good work which she and others began continues today. Indeed, we have been blessed by the calibre of people who have worked with ICPO over the last quarter of a century.
ICPO Staff and Volunteers
I would like to publicly thank the present staff and volunteers of the ICPO Maynooth and London offices. I commend the work of Brian Hanley, Sr Anne Sheehy, Catherine Jackson, Joan O’Cleirigh, Eileen Boyle, Sr. Agnes Hunt, Bernie Martin and the newest member of the team, Sr Mary Whyte. I also commend those working in the ICPO office based at the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain, Liz Power, Joe Boyce, Sean Flynn, Declan Ganley, Sr Maureen McNally, Sr Cecelia Snape and Fr Stephen McKenna and of course the Chaplaincy Director, Ms Philomena Cullen. Your work demonstrates your compassionate and caring values and the importance of recognising the integrity that we all share as human beings.
Supporting Irish Emigrants
The hospitality of the gospel is directed at those who are vulnerable and are in need. This is the tradition that we at the Irish Council for Emigrants and the Irish Council for Prisoners inherit and aspire to. We are asked to bring this rich and inspiring tradition to bear on the challenges we face today.
This era we live in sees people migrating more than ever before. Nearly 200 million people, or, one out of every thirty five, are living away from their homeland.
For many hundreds of years, Irish people have migrated to seek new opportunities. Some have been motivated by what are termed ‘pull factors’. The attraction of opportunities in new lands draws people from their homeland to further shores. Others have been motivated by ‘push factors’. Famine, fear of destitution, and lack of meaningful work are among the realities that have pushed people away from the bosom of their families, communities and parishes as they seek hope and fresh opportunities abroad. The majority of migrants are fortunate enough to find profitable work and supportive social structures that provide assistance on their path towards integration and contentment. In our changing world it is becoming increasingly more difficult for people to find the same foothold, as noted in the document Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi. The document states that globalisation has ‘flung markets wide open but not frontiers, has demolished boundaries for the free circulation of information and capital, but not to the same extent for the free circulation of people’ (para 9).
I am very aware of the great work undertaken by Irish emigrant chaplains through the decades, inspired by the teaching of the Church and the gospel, who offered tireless support to many Irish people as they tried to establish a foothold in a new society. I was recently reminded of this great legacy while watching the visit of the Holy Father to Birmingham. I couldn’t help thinking of Fr Joe Taffe OMI who gave of himself tirelessly to the Irish community in the same city for many years. Fr Joe, in my mind, is an inspiring representation of the tremendous commitment and outreach provided by a wide range of Missionary Priests, Religious Sisters, Diocesan clergy and lay people.
One inspiring trait of the emigrant chaplaincy was the ability to relate with and support those that couldn’t find a foothold in their new society. For a myriad of reasons people fell on hard times. This is why the emigrant chaplaincy today supports categories of people that are deserving of specialised care. I think today of our chaplaincies in America as they care for our Irish people that are undocumented and are stuck in limbo, like many other undocumented people throughout the world. I think of the ministry to members of the Travelling Community in Britain who are often greatly misunderstood. They are in need of trustworthy mediators who offer assistance as they engage with the local Church and local authorities. I think of the initiatives taken to minister to those who have reached an age where they may experience frailty and increasing isolation. I think of the ministry to those that sit in prisons abroad and I think of the care extended to their families who live with insurmountable difficulties. This is the ministry we focus on today. As we mark this 25th anniversary of ICPO, we think of all migrants who seek new hope and new opportunity. We commit to removing barriers that impede the progress of the human person who has right to share the goods of this world. There is a growing amount of literature which reveals that for many migrants, the Church is the centre of their lives outside of their jobs. These findings highlight that the tradition of migrant care is not just a feature of bygone days, it is a living tradition that we are privileged to participate in. Let us truly honour this privilege by taking time today to discern how we can better serve Irish prisoners abroad and their families.
Go raibh maith agaibh.
+ Séamus Hegarty
 Prisoners Abroad (1999) Holding the Fort: Experiences of Families of Britons held in Prisons Abroad, Prisoners Abroad, UK
Notes for Editors
The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO), a pastoral outreach established by the Catholic Bishops of Ireland in 1985, is hosting a conference today, Tuesday 9 November 2010, celebrating its 25th anniversary. The conference is entitled “Bridging the Distance – Supporting Irish Prisoners Overseas and their Families”. President Mary McAleese, Uachtarán na hÉireann and founding member of the ICPO, will address the conference, which takes place in the Aisling Hotel, Parkgate St, Dublin.
Bishop Séamus Hegarty, Bishop of Derry and chair of the Bishops’ Council of Emigrants, opened the conference which is chaired by Ms Dearbhail McDonald, Legal Affairs editor of the Irish Independent. The aim of the conference is to explore and raise awareness about the practical, policy and pastoral issues which apply to this uniquely vulnerable category of Irish emigrant. See full programme below.
A special feature on the ICPO 25th anniversary conference is now available on www.catholicbishops.ie The feature includes an interview with Mr Brian Hanley, Co-ordinator of the ICPO, background information, details of the conference programme including biographical information on the speakers and information on the services provided by the ICPO. Texts and presentations from the conference will be added as they become available.
(ii) Photographers are asked not to attend this ICPO conference due to the participation, and attendance as guests, of former prisoners and their families. ICPO asks photographers to respect this request as it represents the wishes of prisoners and their families. For publication purposes, conference photographer John McElroy will circulate still photographs taken during the proceedings to all media outlets today, 9 November 2010. In advance, the ICPO wishes to thank the media for its cooperation concerning these sensitive matters.
It is estimated that, at any one time, there are up to 800 Irish people in prison overseas. The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas works for Irish prisoners overseas wherever they are: we make no distinction in terms of religious faith; the nature of a prison conviction or of a prisoner’s status. ICPO has contact with Irish people in prison in more than 20 countries around the world.
- The ICPO offers a comprehensive service to prisoners and to prisoners’ families which includes: provision of information on repatriation and deportation, assists in making referrals to post release support agencies for those returning to Ireland, a hardship fund for prisoners where access to food, water and medical treatment are very real concerns.
- Loneliness and isolation is common amongst Irish people imprisoned overseas. The ICPO operates an extensive prison visiting programme in Britain and elsewhere and provides a newsletter twice yearly to its clients. ICPO provides a pen friend scheme, language books and dictionaries where needed.
- In recognition of the hardship endured by prisoner’s families, ICPO offers assistance with prison visits, information about the different issues affecting their loved one in prison and holds a Family Day each year.
- Programme for the ICPO 25th Anniversary Conference, ‘Bridging the Distance – Supporting Irish Prisoners Overseas and their Families’, on 9 November 2010 in the Aisling Hotel, Parkgate St, Dublin:
Chair: Ms Dearbhail McDonald, Legal Affairs Editor, Irish Independent
10:00 Registration, Tea/Coffee
10:45 Bishop Séamus Hegarty, Bishop of Derry, Chair, Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants
11:00 Bishop Christopher Jones, Bishop of Elphin, Chairman of the Episcopal Commission for Pastoral Care and President of ACCORD
The pastoral care of prisoners overseas and their families
11:30 President Mary McAleese, Uachtarán na hÉireann
12:15 Mr Jago Russell, CEO, Fair Trials International
Securing a fair trial overseas
12:45 Questions and Answers session
14:15 Ms Marie Cross, Assistant Secretary, Passport and Consular Division, Department of Foreign Affairs
The challenges involved in the provision of consular services to Irish prisoners overseas
14:30 Ms Lisa Cuthbert, Director, PACE. PACE is a community based voluntary agency that works with people of an offending background who have experienced periods of imprisonment.
The importance of post-release support for Irish citizens returning from prison overseas
14:45 Ms Philomena Cullen, Director, Irish Chaplaincy in Britain (ICB) and Mr Conn MacGabhann, Project Researcher, ICB
Irish Travellers in Prison – Research Project
15:00 A former ICPO client, under the condition of anonymity, has agreed to speak about his experiences in an overseas prison
15:15 Questions and Answers session
15:45 Closing Remarks
Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer 087 310 4444