Address by President Michael D. Higgins to the ICPO 30th anniversary conference in Dublin Castle

02 Dec 2015


Bishop John Kirby Bishop of Clonfert and chair of the Bishops Council for Emigrants presenting President Michael D. Higgins with a hand-made caravan made out of matchsticks by an Irish prisoner in the UK.

The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas marked their 30th anniversary with a conference in Dublin Castle on Tuesday 1 December. Please see below the text of the address by President Michael D. Higgins:

I was delighted to receive the invitation from the Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants to deliver today’s opening address at the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas Conference.

I am especially delighted that you invited me to this, the 30th anniversary conference of the Council, which is a great milestone and a wonderful occasion which celebrates the remarkable achievements of ICPO over the past three decades.

I have had a strong interest in prison matters and in the position of the Irish Prisoners Overseas throughout my career in public life and I have closely followed your work over that time. Indeed, it is great to see so many good friends here today – both those who have worked with ICPO and those who have supported their work over the years and made such an enormous contribution to the lives of Irish people who find themselves in prison overseas: Bobby Gilmore and PJ Byrne who were involved in the early days of establishing the Commission on Prisoners Overseas as it then was; Nuala Kelly, its first coordinator, who you will be hearing from later this morning; Gerry McFlynn who has been such a central part of the history of ICPO over many years and continues to lead its London office today; Brian Hanley the current coordinator and the staff and former staff of the Maynooth and London Offices; and the many volunteers who have worked with ICPO in Dublin and London over three decades.

It was here in Dublin Castle that I made my inaugural speech as President of Ireland just over four years ago.  In that speech I said how privileged I am as President to see the colossal work, undertaken by the individuals, organisations and partnerships, that support and sustain our nation’s sense of community.  I noted that community does not simply happen into existence.  We make it happen ourselves – it is people who make community, by unselfishly committing our talents, our money and that precious commodity, time, to the service of each other.  I also declared that it would be my mission to nurture and celebrate commitment to community and to responsible citizenship and to encourage transformation and self-belief among the most marginalised.

The work that you have done since you were founded by the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference in 1985 is so very important and gets to the heart of what I believe when I talk about encouraging community, especially amongst and with the most marginalised.  The attention you bring to the serious issues facing Irish citizens in prisons both in the UK and in countries around the world is vital work that is appreciated by the Irish men and women themselves who are prisoners, by their families left behind and by all of us here in Ireland who value the good and important work you are doing.

I was particularly struck by the reference made to you in the Flood Report of 2007 on Irish prisoners abroad.  Its author, Chris Flood, explained that, in his view, while the State has primary responsibility for looking after the welfare of our citizens imprisoned abroad, this should be carried out in partnership with NGOs, especially the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas. In fact, your work has been an essential part of how Ireland has supported our citizens abroad.  Today is an opportunity for me to thank you on behalf of the Irish people for what ICPO has done on all of our behalf to show solidarity to our citizens in greatest need, and to help build a real republic where every citizen is valued and treated with dignity.

While Irish emigration has often resulted in very fortunate outcomes,  not everyone has a similar story to tell and the Irish men and women who are imprisoned abroad must not be forgotten.  These people are some of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups of Irish emigrants.  The funding provided to support more vulnerable members of our global Irish community through the Emigrant Support Programme, including funding to support ICPO is vital to assist our fellow citizens who find themselves in need of help.

Imprisonment is a painful and harmful experience for all those who are affected by it.  When we are confronted by imprisonment, we are challenged to respond in a different way.  It is probably fair to say that many in society choose not to engage in the welfare of those who are imprisoned.

An exception for many are those cases of persons we believe are wrongfully imprisoned – and ICPO has had a strong history in advocating on their behalf. For those whose interest in the position of prisoners is more general, the hardships presented by the reality of imprisonment may elicit a sense of injustice and may prompt a drive towards improving the system for prisoners and for society in general – again ICPO has done much to raise awareness and advocate for penal reform.

But for those who are in prison and for their families, abstract questions of policy are just that.  The great challenge is to cope and survive what can be a devastating experience which sunders family bonds and deprives the individual of so much.  What ICPO has done over the years is to respond to imprisonment in a practical way, to approach the experience of the prisoner and his or her family at a human level.

Once an Irish man or woman finds themselves on the wrong side of the law in a foreign land there will often be a flurry of interest and feverish activity.  Frantic phone calls must be made between alien legal systems, lawyers hired and defences written, transfers within a byzantine and sometimes purposely unhelpful prison system, court hearings attended and bail applications made.  Quite often our own media will dive into the fray, seeking out a story of a curious crime in an exotic location.

In such circumstances of distress, your practical and compassionate pastoral care to these people in overseas prisons cannot be overestimated.  They are often in isolated and difficult conditions and the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas can provide a lifeline through visits, letter-writing, your newsletter and through supporting family visits.

There are a number of particular areas of your work that I wish to make special reference to. In the first instance, I believe that it is appropriate today to acknowledge the work of ICPO in the campaigns to support Irish political prisoners and those who were wrongfully imprisoned in Britain during the 1980s.  From this remove, or for those too young to remember those times, it might be hard to imagine how difficult that work was at times; but motivated by a passionate commitment to justice and human rights, ICPO emerged from the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain and ICPO would go on to make a crucial contribution to the campaigns to secure the ultimate release of those wrongfully imprisoned and – perhaps more importantly – to support them and their families at every stage in the process.

In the present time, I also want to salute the very important work you do on repatriation which helps not just the Irish prisoners to return to serve their sentences in their home country but also helps their families in a very practical way.  ICPO has been at the forefront of promoting the cause of repatriation since the late 1980s and deserves great credit for many successful cases secured and supported over that time.

The access between prisoner and family that repatriation can facilitate is very important in maintaining family relationships and also helps improve the welfare and the well-being of both the prisoners and their families.

At a practical level, I know that you work to provide support on a wide range of legal and other issues such as repatriation, deportation, health matters, discrimination, ill-treatment and access to post release support.  And all this work is taking place against the background where you are providing support in such diverse locations as the US, Australia, various European countries and also in South and Central America, Africa and Asia.  This means you often have to deal with prisoners facing extraordinary hardship, including those who are unable to access basic necessities, such as food, water, clothing and medical treatment.

It is remarkable that such a small organisation manages to extend such a wonderful service to reach over 1,000 Irish people in prison in more than 20 countries around the world – and this is a great achievement for the highly skilled and experienced staff and volunteers who have made the organisation what it is over so many years.  I was particularly impressed to see that so many of your key people have been involved with your work for long periods of time – quite clearly this work of ICPO has been your vocation in the very best sense of that word, and I pay tribute to you for that.

As President, and indeed over my public and academic life before that, I have visited many Irish prisons and many prisons in other countries, including in Turkey and in different parts of South and Central America.  I have personally witnessed the efforts of prisoners to transform themselves and I have felt the great sadness and pain of isolation that prisoners suffer.  How much more difficult it must be for those prisoners who are held in unfamiliar situations, perhaps not knowing the language and with no family nearby to visit them.

But of course, the experience of imprisonment affects not only the person in jail.  The work you do with the families of the prisoners left behind in Ireland also strikes me as highly important.  For families too, in addition to the greater sense of separation from a loved one detained overseas, they may also have to deal with unfamiliar legal systems, or in environments where English is not the common tongue and where they are unsure of lines of communication.  In such cases, your helpful and non-judgmental guidance is invaluable.

I was interested to read some of the comments on your website from family members who attend your Family Information Days.  Their heartfelt responses demonstrate how the compassionate outreach you undertake results in genuine lifting of burdens from people placed in very difficult circumstances.

What, then, is next for your organisation?  Migration is and will remain an essential part of Irish society and it is inevitable that some of our citizens who travel abroad will experience imprisonment, just as we are seeing a more diverse prison population in our own country. The work of ICPO, then, will continue to be needed and I am glad to see the continuing support of the Government for your work, as evidenced by the presence of Minister Flanagan here later today.

From humble beginnings the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas has flourished into a critical and unique element of our country’s outreach to the most marginalised sector of our diaspora.  In so many ways, you represent the very best spirit of solidarity in our community and I wish you well for your continuing vital work on all of our behalf.


1 December 2015