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€40m fiasco as super prison plan is shelved

THE Government was last night forced to shelve plans for a super prison amid accusations it had wasted more than €40m of taxpayers' money on another costly fiasco.

The controversial Thornton Hall project in north Dublin was dramatically stalled without a single block being laid -- but after €11m had been spent on consultancy fees.

The decision came hours after Taoiseach Brian Cowen accepted not all his decisions in the handling of the economy were right. But he still refused to apologise for any action he took over the past number of years. "In relation to my own position, of course I don't claim I got everything right in my political career. Only a fool would suggest that. But I do say I take full responsibility for them," he said.

Shortly after that, however, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, admitted the Government could not afford to go ahead with the plans for the massive prison complex. "What is now needed is a new project which reflects the current economic and fiscal realities and protects the taxpayers' interests," he said.

The Prison Service said the project "was simply unaffordable at the price being quoted".

The ditching of the existing Thornton Hall plans immediately drew comparisons with previous cases where money was squandered -- the e-voting machines and the failed PPARS computer project.

The site for Thornton Hall, a 150-acre greenfield plot at Kilsallaghan near Swords, was bought in controversial circumstances for €30m in 2005 to replace Mountjoy, which inspectors branded unacceptable and unfit for inmates.

The price per acre was far higher than any other land sales in the area at that time.

Almost €11m has already been spent on consultants' fees for the Thornton Hall scheme.

A row over the cost of the massive new jail complex led to the state body responsible for running the country's prisons breaking off talks with the project's preferred bidder.

And it is now expected that the original plan will be replaced by a far cheaper and scaled down version of the multi-jail campus.

The Department of Justice also confirmed that the project was unaffordable at the price quoted by preferred bidder Leargas and a more affordable solution was required.

Mr Ahern said the Government was still strongly committed to pressing ahead with a prison development at Thornton Hall and, in the meantime, the problem of increasing bed capacity in the nation's jails would be tackled by the provision of an extra 400 prison spaces this summer.

But the opposition parties dismissed Mr Ahern's claims and said the Thornton Hall project was PPARS and the e-voting machines all over again.

Incompetence

Fine Gael justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan said the announcement to abandon the plan was an indictment of the Government's incompetence.

Earlier yesterday, Mr Cowen claimed the worldwide economic downturn hit just when the Government was going to address the economy's over-reliance on construction.

Mr Cowen said the Government had recognised by 2007 the dangers posed by its heavy dependence on housing-related taxes and revenue.

He said it was about to plan for a soft landing -- but those intentions were immediately destroyed by an international monetary catastrophe.