Belfast Telegraph

Ombudsman and prison problems on Ford's mind

With the Executive due back next week, Alan Murray examines what's waiting in the Justice Minister's in-tray

David Ford's lot is a far from happy one, with dissident republicans on his heels both inside and outside prison and an Ombudsman's office engulfed in almost weekly crisis.

Still, the Justice Minister can derive comfort from the collapse of the lawyers revolt over the imposition of economic reality to their costly court practices.

With a whimper, solicitors who had pledged unflinching opposition to reductions in bloated legal aid fees are trudging back to court to savour the cut and thrust of our judicial system at reduced prices.

Ford will enjoy enormous public support for his unflinching stance in the face of a rapacious legal clique trying to hang on to the good old days when the Northern Ireland Office effectively said 'charge what you want, we don't want any trouble'.

What Ford needs to tackle now is another of the exorbitantly costly legal Spanish practices, which insists that the taxpayer pays for a junior counsel every time a QC gets to his hind legs in court for a beefy fee.

But that battle he will delay for another year as he grapples with more pressing problems - not least the turmoil inside our main prison at Maghaberry. Staff morale plummeting and prisoners on the rampage is a recipe for more than chaos inside the powderkeg jail.

The director general of the Prison Service, Colin McConnell, wants a root-and-branch shake-up and many of the seasoned staff to pack their bags and go.

If you ask those staff, they claim that Mr McConnell and the Justice Minister envisage a prison system based more on the care home image than a correctional centre.

Drug abuse inside the jail is allegedly rampant - even in special units where association is greatly restricted.

Officers tell of a colleague who was recently summoned to a prisoner held in the special segregation unit - virtually solitary confinement - who deliberately cut himself in order to demand a supply of pain-killing tablets while already high on other pills.

When offered a bandage and attention, but no tablets, the already doped-up prisoner bawled abuse and threats at the officers in the cell.

Informed the next day that the doped-up prisoner had made a complaint against him, one officer was aghast at the suggestion that he must respond to the frivolous missive. He is now on sick leave because of the questioning of his professional integrity, colleagues say.

How, in an isolation unit inside a Category A prison, can an inmate become heavily drug-induced? The drug-abuse and drug-smuggling issue in our prisons is something David Ford will have to tackle vigorously.

With the Police Ombudsman's office, Ford's problems are twofold: there is the issue of collapsing morale following the resignation of its chief executive, Sam Pollock, in April and the criticism heaped upon it by groups demanding more demonstrative findings and actions, as in previous Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan's era.

Dame Nuala's successor, Al Hutchinson, doesn't do dramatics and confrontations, but whether his office is sufficiently rigorous in its investigations of current police practices and competences is more to the point.

To whom the Police Ombudsman answers, and what can be done if his office fouls up, or is judged by dissatisfied complainants to have not been dutiful or sufficiently rigorous, is a fundamental issue that both OFMDFM and the Justice Ministry need to address.

Republican dissidents - though relatively few in number - still pose a security threat, however divided and internally fractious each group appears.

As with the lawyers, David Ford may enjoy some small comfort as there appears to be a major information gush from within their ranks which has led both to significant arrests in recent months and the consequent uncertainty those arrests cause.

The Justice Ministry - like all the other Stormont departments - needs to reduce its costs, its bureaucracy and its ineffectiveness and deliver for the taxpayer.

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