Tearing down the legal barriers facing prisoners
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
Following the Good Friday Agreement and the early release of prisoners last June, the growth of the Coiste na n-Iarchimí has enabled an extraordinary network of former republican prisoners' organisations to emerge. These groups are working to address the immense social and human cost of the war as it affects their areas. But their work is limited by the continuing discrimination against former prisoners, part and parcel of the legacy of the original `criminalisation' policy of the British.
This has left a legacy of criminalisation of combatants, which has caused widespread discrimination against former republican prisoners and the many thousands of people who have been displaced through the conflict.
New forms of struggle, which emerged after the hunger strike in the H-Blocks, have given ex-prisoners a key role in the developing peace process. Following the prisoner releases, they have gained skills enabling them to play a major part in the long haul to redress the social cost to communities. But there remain many important legal restrictions that constrain the political ex-prisoners in their work.
Effects of criminalisation
With the aid of the Diplock Courts, the British ``secured'' criminal convictions against many combatants. The Dublin government similarly used the Offences Against the State Act, which has left a legacy of legal powers of state that remain unaddressed and which stand in stark conflict with the development across Ireland to build a new dispensation of justice and equality.
In Belfast and Dublin, respectively, the Diplock Courts and the Special `Criminal' Court were used to obtain `criminal' convictions.
The Second Protocol of the Geneva Conventions states clearly the need for the release of imprisoned combatants following the cessation of military activities, a protocol ratified by the British government in 1995. However, the British have continued to maintain the position that the provisions of the Protocol do not apply to territories under their control.
Republican prisoner groups, under the broad network of Coiste na nIarchimí, have taken up the battle to win legal, administrative, as well as social and policy changes to ensure that these legal issues are addressed and that the barriers left by the legacy of criminalisation are brought down.
The British used the law to prosecute its military struggle in Ireland. They resorted to the rhetoric and legal practice of criminalisation, especially in the post internment phase. In consequence, the combatants who have been released as part of the Good Friday Agreement are left with a `criminal' conviction, and this is the basis for widespread discrimination against republican communities.
It is particularly ironic that former prisoners are not eligible for civil service jobs, yet Sinn Féin ministers are running departments of government in the Assembly executive. It highlights the contradictions between the declared aspirations of the GFA and the reality at present.
While `criminal' convictions remain unquashed, former prisoners are subject to discrimination in employment. Recruitment and selection procedures still allow a job applicant to be questioned concerning `criminal' convictions. Furthermore, `criminal' conviction has been used, as extant case law, to justify an exemption from fair employment legislation.
In some areas, such as Upper Springfield in West Belfast, over 11% of the adult population have experienced imprisonment. The failure to quash `criminal' convictions serves to exacerbate the extraordinarily high long-term unemployment levels that exist amongst former republican prisoners. In areas where this has been researched the levels are as high as 75% to 87%.
But the effects of these convictions are yet more widespread. Ex-prisoners have encountered difficulty, for example, in obtaining PSV licences, and have often had to pursue cases for their right to these licences to the High Court before the licence is granted.
A conviction in the Diplock courts debars people from criminal injuries compensation. This means that people with conflict-related convictions are ineligible for compensation when subsequently injured or victimised in a conflict-related incident.
Freedom of movement curtailed
Having a `criminal' conviction also causes great difficulty for ex-prisoners who wish to visit the USA. Many former republican prisoners have family members in the US, originally forced to emigrate due to the conflict itself or because of a lack of employment opportunities at home, and yet they cannot visit them.
`Criminal' conviction also represents a bar to the adoption or fostering of children. Often, this record makes access to finance hard. Insurance, mortgage companies, and other financial institutions ask questions about criminal records. It also restricts ex-prisoners in participation in community activity. Jury service is an example. People with `criminal' convictions are ineligible for jury service. Standing for election is prohibited for five years following release.
Absence of amnesty
The absence of an amnesty or of the quashing of these convictions, by whatever legal method this is achieved, is essential if discrimination against former prisoners is to be brought to an end. There is an urgent need to address these issues as a part of the process of moving on from the conflict situation.
The Good Friday Agreement negotiations and the Agreement itself recognised the reality of political conflict. The failure to quash conflict-related sentences in the courts, special or otherwise, is just one measure of the distance that parties to that conflict have yet to travel to resolve it and to allow their rhetoric to catch up with reality.