Government has failed ex-prisoners
Government has failed ex-prisoners

By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)

So far this has proved barren ground but it's worth turning it over every few months because eventually it's going to bear fruit. It's one of the many aspects of the Good Friday Agreement which the two governments have not implemented. The difference with this one is that while Dublin and London either lie or puff out a smokescreen to cover their failures in, for example, equality and human rights here, on the issue of former prisoners they remain silent.

Just to remind you again, in the section `Prisoners', the agreement says that the governments recognise the importance of measures ``to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community by providing support both prior to and after release, including assistance directed towards availing of employment opportunities, retraining and/or reskilling, and further education''.

Apart from some window-dressing the British administration here has done absolutely nothing to ``facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community''. No measures at all have been put in place other than those available to any prisoner released from custody after completing a sentence. Instead, it's been left to umbrella groups organised by former prisoners to acquire EU money provided through the Peace I and II schemes for projects mainly run by former republican inmates.

The most successful of these groups is Coiste na nIarchimi which runs courses and seminars, publishes leaflets and booklets, coordinates other republican ex-prisoner groups and generally works as a support network. They do as much as their funding allows. Even acquiring that funding was difficult and uncertain. What will happen when Peace II money runs out? Besides, what money there is comes nowhere near meeting the requirements of the numbers of people affected.

There are reckoned to be about 15,000 former republican prisoners. There are said to be over 1,000 living in Dublin alone but naturally the largest concentrations are in north and west Belfast, Derry, Tyrone and Armagh. Many of them acquired academic and professional qualifications while in jail but they can't obtain the sort of jobs they are qualified for either because they are disbarred from professions because of their convictions or because they refuse to admit in a declaration that they have a criminal conviction. Never mind a profession though, they can't even get a PSV licence without subterfuge.

On the loyalist side the same considerations apply but the situation of ex-prisoners is much worse. Support groups are very badly organised. Some have disintegrated others have had funding withdrawn after the collapse of loyalist ceasefires during various feuds. Some after premises were found to be used to store weaponry.

All of which demonstrates the woeful failure of the British administration here to deal with the consequences of their policy failures over 35 years. There's no need to rehearse the arguments in detail. The prisoners were released as part of a political settlement. In effect they were recognised as political prisoners. Most are under 40. They'd been through special non-jury courts under special legislation, many disgracefully convicted on the basis of unsigned `confessions'. Most would never have seen the inside of a jail if it had not been for the communal strife here.

Now most can't get a decent job because, contrary to the thinking under which they were released, they are being treated as ordinary criminals. This discrimination affects not only them but their families who are entirely innocent. They are all being condemned to live in poverty stretching into the next generation. The ex-prisoners themselves are only eligible for the most basic state aid. They don't have National Insurance contributions. They won't get a pension and because of the current failure of the NIO to fulfil its obligations under the agreement the only people trying to deal with the problem are the very organisations who were engaged in the conflict which led to such a huge prison population.

There's a simple remedy which no one in the NIO has the guts to implement. It's this. Anyone who qualified for early release under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement should have all impediments to earning a decent living and other obstacles they face as a result of imprisonment removed. If they commit another offence then all bets are off.

It's dead simple. It will happen sooner or later. Otherwise, even if the two governments lived up to their obligations in the agreement and did introduce ``measures to facilitate the reintegrate prisoners into the community'' they would still be handicapped by the criminal conviction tag. Ah, say the objectors, they should be treated the same as any criminal. Now if they were the same as `ordinary decent criminals' why were they released as part of the Good Friday Agreement and on what basis were they selected for release?

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© 2004 Irish Republican News