Ford visits jail in bid to end row
Stormont's Justice Minister is to visit Portlaoise Prison in the Republic as efforts continue to defuse a long-running jail dispute in Northern Ireland.
Around 30 dissident republican prisoners in Maghaberry jail in Co Antrim are involved in a so-called no wash or dirty protest against the jail's regime.
Objections to full body searches when leaving or entering the prison have sparked calls for the use of a special hi-tech chair, similar to that used in Portlaoise, to help prison staff to check for contraband without physically searching inmates.
David Ford said, however, that prison staff had adhered to agreements at Maghaberry and he doubted if the technology existed to entirely replace searches.
After a meeting of justice ministers from Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and Scotland at Stormont, Mr Ford revealed he will visit Portlaoise within weeks to examine how it handles top security prisoners.
"As far as I am concerned the prison service is adhering to the agreement that was made with the separated prisoners in August of 2010," said Mr Ford.
"But there are clear issues around controlled movement which remain to be resolved which cannot be resolved while the difficulties are happening. There are also issues about technology to avoid full body searching. That is an issue that I am concerned we will make progress on for the whole of the Northern Ireland prison service estate.
"And if there are opportunities which develop, that maintain dignity for prisoners and prison staff, and also security for prison and prison staff, then we are willing to implement them."
Mr Ford said he would explore the possibility of employing new technologies. But the minister added: "At the moment I have no evidence that there is any technology as yet licensed for use within Northern Ireland that would meet all our needs."
The Republic's justice minister Alan Shatter said he had full confidence that Mr Ford was dealing with the prison protest appropriately.