Prison told 'get cells ready' for more dissidents
PRISON spaces have been set aside for more than a trebling of the population of dissident terrorists behind bars.
This revelation came as Justice Minister Dermot Ahern warned renegade republicans of a "relentless" garda crackdown on their activities this side of the Border.
There are now 56 dissident prisoners locked up in the E1 wing of the maximum-security Portlaoise jail, which has traditionally housed terrorists.
These comprise 16 members from the two factions of the Real IRA, five from the Continuity IRA, 15 INLA prisoners, three from Oglaigh na hEireann, and 17 listed as non-aligned.
Senior prison officials said last night that cell space was available to accommodate a huge increase in the number of dissident inmates, despite the overall pressure on cell numbers in the jails generally.
They explained that prison policy ensured that a shortage of capacity elsewhere for prisoners did not impinge on the space available for dissident republicans and a reorganisation of cell allocations in Portlaoise in the wake of the peace process meant that the wing could hold up to 152 prisoners, if required.
Work on a new accommodation block in the Portlaoise-Midlands complex will begin this year and it will provide 300 prison spaces.
In the past year, extra spaces have been provided in Castlerea and Portlaoise and new cells in Wheatfield.
A refurbished separation unit in Mountjoy, Dublin, is also due to open shortly.
Mr Ahern reaffirmed the Government's commitment to the development of the Thornton Hall project in north Co Dublin and he confirmed that work on an outer perimeter wall and an access road was under way.
Since 1997, he pointed out, in excess of 1,670 prison spaces had come on stream, including new jails in Castlerea, the Midlands, Cloverhill and the women's Dochas Centre in the Mountjoy campus.
Mr Ahern told the Irish Independent that the Government was seriously concerned about the threat posed by dissident groups and particularly the evidence available from the Newry bomb blast, which indicated that they had improved their capacity to detonate major explosive devices.
He said that 13 serious incidents since September last year underlined the extent of the threat and the determination of the dissidents to step up their campaign of violence.