Given the catalogue of bad luck which has followed the Minister for Just ice, Nora Owen, for two years, some might be tempted to categorise the peaceful resolution of the Mountjoy Prison siege as a success against the odds. Any such adjudication would be incorrect and unfair. The ending of the stand-off and the release of the prison officer hostages owed nothing to luck and a very great deal to the skill, patience and preparedness of the relevant official personnel. It was a classic case of training and foresight paying handsome dividends and, probably, saving lives.
The Irish prison system has been properly castigated over the decades for its many shortcomings. It is a system which most would recognise as wasteful, bureaucratic and lacking in long-term policy direction and development. But there should be no doubts as to the humanity and scrupulousness of those officials who have directed it over the years both from within the Department of Justice and among the management of the prisons and places of detention.
Would that their conscientiousness and high personal standards had been met in equal measure with political courage and vision. Had it been so, this State's prison system might well be a model for others to follow rather than the archetype of an organisation which invariably lags far behind the task with which it is entrusted.
The potential for a great leap forward in Irish penal policy now exists. A statutory board to run the prisons may create the scope for innovation and for long-term planning and development which has never been possible within the Department of Justice. New strength in the economy could allow the very large investment which is necessary to enable this to happen. And there is a growing consciousness of the need to develop long-term, sustainable policies and objectives in relation to criminal justice - as in every other aspect of public life.
It is a question of political - and public - willingness to commit resources and to oversee their effective and efficient application. That we need more prison places is probably an inescapable reality. But whatever about new prisons we certainly need better ones. We need prisons in which essential human dignities and rights can be maintained, in which the proper aims and objectives of modern penal policy can be discharged and in which instruction and rehabilitation are an attainable possibility rather than an empty ideal. Are we willing to pay?