State’s ¤50m folly still lies idle 15 years later

Thorn­ton Hall ‘su­per prison’ was planned at height of Celtic Tiger drugs prob­lem

The Irish Times - - Home News - Conor Lally

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.

Cost of project

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.

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.

‘‘ The costs of the project had been un­der­es­ti­mated. In re­al­ity it was go­ing to come in at ¤525 mil­lion, three times the ini­tial es­ti­mate

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.