State’s €50m prison site lies idle 15 years on from collapse of plan

Land bought for Thornton Hall super-prison offered to Land Development Agency instead

The entrance to the Thornton Hall site. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The entrance to the Thornton Hall site. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Almost a decade and a half after the State bought the vast Thornton Hall site in north Co Dublin, it lies idle.

But with the housing and homelessness crises showing little sign of abating, there are now moves to have the 165-acre serviced site developed.

Some €31 million was paid for the site for the new prison that never was. And roughly another €20 million has been spent on the site since then.

However, while the total spend is now just over €50 million, in 2015 the value of the land had dropped to €2.4 million, according to the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG).

When the main portion of the site was purchased about 15 years ago, Irish prisons were severely overcrowded. Violence in the jails was soaring and the chances of rehabilitating prisoners in such conditions appeared to get bleaker every year.

Yet the economy was booming, and An Garda Síochána was arranging an accelerated recruitment programme to bring numbers in the force to their highest-ever level.

With all the money around during the Celtic Tiger, the gangs who ran the drugs trade were cashing in. An exponentially expanding “gangland” resulted in a spike in drug and gun crime, including fatal shootings.

Gangs in Dublin and Limerick had taken up weapons – sometimes even rocket launchers – against their rivals, and the bloodletting continued for more than a decade.

Super prison

Under then minister for justice Michael McDowell, it was decided a new super prison was needed.

The site at Thornton Hall was selected for the new jail, which would replace Mountjoy Prison. The State paid €200,000 per acre.

With Mountjoy seen as beyond rescue, Thornton Hall would be the answer to everything. It would future-proof the prison service for decades and have plenty of room for the extra prisoners the record number of gardaí were going to lock up.

There would be 1,200 single-cell occupancy spaces, which could almost double by placing two prisoners in a cell if required.

The new Central Mental Hospital would also be located on the same campus. A new jail on the same campus was also mooted for young offenders, and another for women.

But then it all fell apart. Firstly, the costs of the project had been underestimated. In reality it was going to come in at €525 million, three times the initial estimate.

Although a construction consortium was selected to build the facility, that arrangement collapsed after two years of talks. And by the time the collapse was confirmed, in 2009, the Irish economy was on its knees. The super prison project was put on hold as public spending was curtailed and taxes increased.

The drug trade was hit hard because its main customer base – recreational drug users – no longer had vast disposable incomes. The market for illicit drugs reduced, and with it the gangland violence meted out by drug gangs.

Crime rates decreased across the board, and the pressure on the prison service reduced accordingly, with the number of inmates locked up in the Irish prison system falling to more manageable levels as a result.

Mountjoy transformed

At the same time, new management at the Irish Prison Service succeeded in transforming Mountjoy Prison. They modernised and renewed the supposedly unfixable prison for a fraction of the price that had been assumed 15 years ago when Thornton Hall was being bought.

The C&AG three years ago said not only had the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat government, which devised the Thornton Hall plan, underestimated the cost of constructing the new prison in north Co Dublin, it had also overestimated the cost of refurbishing Mountjoy and eradicating slopping out.

For years after 2009, when the consortium that was to build Thornton Hall prison collapsed, work continued at the site. Access roads and other measures were put in place to ensure the vast site would one day be fit for development of some kind.

But for the past two years the only expenditure on Thornton Hall has been for security contractors carrying out patrols.

All has been quiet on the near €51 million, 165-acre, State-owned field of dreams during the biggest housing and homeless crisis Ireland has ever seen, though it has now been offered to the Land Development Agency.