Keynote address by Secretary General Oonagh McPhillips at the launch of "Progress in the Penal System 2020"


Thanks Fíona – for the invitation to be here, and for your kind introduction.


Good afternoon to everyone.

I am delighted to be here with you at the launch of the report on "Progress in the Penal System 2020".

As others have observed, this past year hasn’t been normal in any sense of the word.

I would much rather be meeting you all in person, with an opportunity to chat over a cuppa afterwards, but even virtually it is great to see the diverse group of people tuning in today.

This event always gives an opportunity for an audience drawn from across the health, education and justice sectors to come together.

And while this year we miss out on the tea and opportunities to chat less formally, we do benefit from increased participation from international experts, so technology has some advantages.


Before I begin, I want to take this opportunity to publicly acknowledge the dedication shown by so many since the outbreak of the pandemic in March last year.

Many people, but particularly our front-line colleagues, have gone above and beyond the call of duty, at considerable risk to themselves and their families, to keep people safe and ensure the continued effective functioning of our criminal justice system.  

When faced with this unprecedented challenge, people in the public service - and in civil society too - stepped up and took huge pride in their contribution at a time of huge national difficulty. On behalf of the Minister and the Department of Justice, I want to thank you for your drive and commitment to serving the Irish public.

None more so, perhaps, than the staff in IPS under DG Caron McCaffrey’s leadership.

Caron will be speaking a bit later about the work over the last year.

So I’ll leave that to her except to note that – to my mind - the strength of it has been based on a partnership and understanding between staff and prisoners which has been really encouraging to see demonstrated.

To my mind, this is welcome evidence of an ongoing evolution in our prison culture from the traditional approach of custody - to one of seeing them in our care.


The other thing I would note is that these pressures and restrictions have been sustained over a long period now.

This has been – and still is - very difficult for all of us – the public, our own colleagues across the public service and, most of all, those who are vulnerable. That includes prisoners and their families.

We all have to work really hard and redouble our efforts to keep people safe, given the prevalence of the disease at present. But we also have to plan for the future and how we will deal with the aftermath of all this in due course.


The public focus on our work over the last 10 months or so has rightly been on many of our frontline, operational services.

But I’m glad to say that, parallel to this, the important work in developing penal policy has also continued behind the scenes.

So I’m glad to have this opportunity today – as a new Secretary General - to let you know about some of the priority projects that the Department is currently working on under the political leadership of Minister Helen McEntee.

Our Department, and our agencies, don’t operate as islands in this landscape. Our work is better when it involves meaningful and trusting interactions with organisations and partners across the sector.

The Department, and the Irish Prison Service in particular, has a long and - in my view - productive relationship with the IPRT.

I know the Minister had a good meeting recently with Fíona and her colleagues, to discuss a broad range of issues. She shares my own personal commitment to ongoing and authentic engagement and sees it as vital to our important programme of work.

The publication of this 2020 PIPS report provides an essential ‘Annual Health Check’ of progress within the penal system.

With its publication, and with all of your interactions with the Department, organisations like the IPRT make a lasting impact on our policy development process, not only in assisting us in our work and helping us gain insight through your research, but also in always challenging us to think differently.  Through your own public engagement you have really improved and built public understanding and acceptance of the policy direction. 

Along with other civic society organisations, you educate and inform us, you challenge and cajole us. And our work is made all the richer and more insightful by that engagement.

Like so many others around the world last week, I was blown away by the remarkable young poet Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration.

She laid down a gauntlet: to ‘merge mercy with might, and might with right’.

That struck me as a challenge particularly fitting for our sector.


Penal Policy Reform Programme

As most of you will be aware, the Department works across a broad range of areas including to:

Contributing to our vision of achieving a safe, fair and inclusive Ireland.

To quote another poet and IPRT’s patron, President Michael D. Higgins:

An inclusive Republic is the only meaningful Republic – one which all citizens are treated with dignity and respect

Treating people with dignity and respect is an important value that is intrinsic to the work that we do as a Department.

For example, building safer communities through excellence, built on respect for human dignity goes to the heart of the work of the Irish Prison Service. One of the core values of the Probation Service is that each person has innate value, dignity and capacity for positive change; and will be treated fairly, openly and with respect. 

These values are challenging to live every day but they are vitally important to a healthy functioning criminal justice system.

The purpose of our penal system and of the criminal sanctions within it is to make Ireland safer by reducing crime and the harm it causes. While punishment for those who commit crime is a central element of our justice system, the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders has to be at its core. To drive this work, we engage intensively with and through our key agencies including the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service, An Garda Síochána and the Courts Service.

Today’s is the fourth annual edition of the PIPS project and while we clearly have have a long way to go, we have made substantial progress since the first edition in 2016.

Quite a lot of this has been built on the report of the Penal Policy Review Group which undertook a wide-ranging strategic review of penal policy from 2012 to 2014. I was privileged to be a member of that group and, along with the great colleagues I met, the group’s rigorous, evidence-based, collective approach to rehabilitation and reintegration had a formative influence on me.   The 2018 Oireachtas Justice Committee Report on Penal Policy also made very useful recommendations which are informing policy development.  And these combine with the Oversight Group monitoring implementation of the recommendations.


Programme for Government Commitments

Another key development I should mention was the major restructuring of the Department itself through our Transformation programme in 2019 which has been recognised as the largest ever restructuring of an Irish Government department. 

The new structure now focuses us on our core functions – policy, legislation, governance, operations. This is strengthening our capacity, particularly with regard to policy and research, with much of this focused in the area of penal policy and management of offenders. 

This will all give us the ability and the evidence-base, building on the work of the last few years, to implement the core commitments in the Programme for Government.

It’s essential that penal policy reflects the reality and values of Ireland’s diverse and dynamic society. We also recognise that, to be really effective, it requires a whole of Government approach to address the complex issues that contribute to offending behaviour. 

That collaborative approach to reducing offending is a priority both for Minister McEntee and the Department and it is good to see this commitment reflected in the new Programme for Government which is guiding the Department’s forthcoming Strategy for the next three years with a significant focus on the area of penal reform.

The next 12 – 24 months will involve intensive work to deliver the Strategy which will be set out in detailed annual work plans and twice yearly published reports. We will also have a number of complementary strategies driving specific aspects – the Criminal Justice Sectoral Strategy, Youth Justice Strategy - both due for publication early this year and in time - a wider whole of Government Community Safety Strategy. 

In the area of management of offenders, the Department is currently evaluating what must be strengthened to meet existing challenges and future demands.

This work is being driven by a small working group, comprising Ben Ryan, Head of Criminal Justice Policy, with Caron McCaffrey, Director-General of the Irish Prison Service and the new Director of the Probation Service, Mark Wilson. 

They have taken account of the PIPS reports of the last few years; the work of the groups I’ve mentioned as well as having the benefit of inter-agency work led by Dr. Ruth Barrington over the last few years which has driven greater cooperation in the management of offenders.   

The Minister’s plan is to publish an initial review of policy options as a priority and this will happen before the end of March.

A key aspect will be increasing the use of alternatives to imprisonment. We will shortly start on a review of the impact of the Community Service (Amendment) Act 2011 and the use of short custodial sentences, in particular the gender impacts, in 2020. I know IPRT is working with the Probation Service to develop a PIPS equivalent for community sanctions which will be very helpful. 

We intend to work with all the criminal justice agencies to develop an Action Plan to build capacity to deliver restorative justice safety and effectively.

A review of the policy on remission and the establishment of a Penal Policy Consultative Council are also planned.

The project to establish the new statutory Parole Board is also well underway.

Another important commitment is the review of the Spent Convictions legislation to broaden the range of eligible convictions.

Last, but most importantly, work is ongoing to establish the cross- departmental Task Force on Mental Health which is also a key priority for the Minister.

This taskforce will consider how best to provide for the mental health and addiction challenges of those imprisoned, and their primary care support on release. Once again, the CPT’s report last year reflected the need to make huge improvements in this area.  Nobody is clearer about this than the IPS – where staff are managing very difficult situations daily. 

Delivering on this requires cross-departmental will, planning and implementation of an appropriate model of care for this vulnerable group. This will be complex work but I am encouraged by the progress made in the detailed work on Health Needs Assessment which has been going well.  There are a number of key issues that can’t be addressed in isolation. This is recognised in the collaborative approach we’re taking with colleagues in the Department of Health on the development of Terms of Reference and the support structure for the Task force – this is at an advanced stage. We all recognise there is an urgent need to design and put in place proper systems to care for the most vulnerable people who come into contact with the criminal justice system. This is a priority and the objective is to move this matter forward in the first quarter of 2021.  

I will just briefly mention a number of other issues we intend to progress this year.

Strengthening effective oversight is vital and over the last two budgets the resourcing for the Inspector of Prisons has been considerably increased and that will continue. Connected to that, the Minister will bring proposals to Government in the coming weeks for the Inspection of Places of Detention Bill which will strengthen the current powers of the Inspector of Prisons and set out the path to facilitating Ireland’s ratification of OPCAT.

That really was a whistle stop tour of some of the important projects.

Over the coming weeks and months you’ll hear more from the Minister in this space. And colleagues across the Department will be talking to you as we develop this work and I look forward to returning in future to update on progress. 


For a little final inspiration, I’ll go back to Amanda Gorman and her final lines:

‘For there is always light,

If only we’re brave enough to see it,

If only we’re brave enough to be it.’

The important work that IPRT does helps to enlighten us all and be a little braver too. So thanks again to Fíona for the invite, and I look forward to the rest of the discussion.

Thank you.