New laws needed to allow Irish prisoners abroad return home

Most of the 29 prisoners awaiting transfer are in the UK

New legislation will be required to overcome a legal issue which is preventing nearly 30 Irish people in prison abroad from serving their sentences here.

Under a set of laws and agreements with other countries, Ireland allows citizens imprisoned in other countries to apply to serve their sentences here while also allowing foreign nationals imprisoned in Irish jails to apply for transfer to their home countries.

Since 1997, 154 Irish nationals have been transferred home.

However, all transfers to Ireland have been on hold since 2016 following judgments in the High Court and Supreme Court relating to three dissident republicans who were transferred to an Irish prison but had to be released due to flaws in the process.


There are 29 Irish prisoners abroad who are waiting to have their applications processed.

The Department of Justice said it and the Attorney General were examining the issue but gave no time scale for when the review would finish.

A department spokesman said it had received legal advice that new legislation would be required to amend the previous acts dealing with the transfer of prisoners.

“Work is under way on drafting that amendment, and the Minister will bring a proposal to Government as soon as possible. The department is advised by the Irish Prison Service that all the applicants and officials in the appropriate sentencing states have been informed of the situation.”

The legal impasse relates to the cases of Fintan O’Farrell, Declan Rafferty and Michael McDonald who were convicted in the UK in 2002. The three Co Louth men were jailed for 28 years each for trying to buy explosives and ammunition from the Iraqi government on behalf of the Real IRA.

They applied and received transfer to the Midlands Prison in Ireland in 2006. In 2014, the High Court ruled their continued detention was unlawful because of the differences between the sentencing regimes in the UK and Ireland.

The UK regime provides for release of a prisoner on licence after they have served two-thirds of their sentences. The Irish system does not allow for release on licence but provides for 25 per cent remission.

The State appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, which found against it in a 4/3 majority in 2016 and ordered the men’s release.

Some 21 of those awaiting a transfer are in prisons in the UK, including Northern Ireland. The remainder are in France, Australia and Spain.

Prisoners’ families

Brian Hanley of the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas, a support group for inmates and their families, said it was receiving calls every week from families looking for updates.

“We’re working with people who have applied five, six or seven years ago. It’s a particular hardship to those families. Some of them might be getting on or with the distance and cost of travel it’s very hard for them to maintain the relationships with their loved ones.”

Mr Hanley welcomed the proposed amendment but said there was no reason the applications of prisoners serving time in countries other than the UK, who were not affected by the legal issue, could not be progressed immediately.

“This isn’t about anyone getting out or getting off. It’s just about affording people the opportunity to serve their sentences in their home country, close to their family. This in turn means they would be released with adequate supervision and support when their term ends,” Mr Hanley said.

There are currently about 1,100 Irish nationals imprisoned abroad, most of them in the UK. Mr Hanley said many do not apply for transfer home because their sentences are too short to qualify or because they no longer have roots in Ireland.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times