Ex-prisoners should enjoy same rights as others

By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Martina Anderson, Gerry Kelly, Conor Murphy, Martin Ferris (TD) and Arthur Morgan (TD) are all former political prisoners. Martin McGuinness is deputy first minister, Conor Murphy is a minister and Gerry Kelly is a junior minister.

Of Sinn Féin’s 27 MLAs more than half are political ex-prisoners.

Conor Murphy may well have difficulty legally getting a job in his own office, like the others from the north, because he was convicted of a scheduled offence.

To state, private or public bodies north and south a conviction and prison sentence can block a person being employed.

Ex-political prisoners, republican and loyalist, who were convicted during the conflict are in a legal limbo.

Coiste na n-Iarchimi, (Coiste), represents the interests of republican ex-prisoners. It estimates that the armed conflict produced 18,000 republican ex-prisoners across Ireland, England, Europe and the US; 5,000 of them live in west Belfast; and that there are some 12,000 loyalist ex-prisoners.

Coiste is an umbrella organisation for 11 independent offices across Ireland which provides political ex-prisoners with a wide range of services and advice on a daily basis.

One of its immediate and pressing objectives is to end the legal limbo political ex-prisoners are in. It is demanding that the Irish and British governments introduce legislation in their respective parliaments to expunge from a political ex-prisoners’ personal history the conviction which led to his or her imprisonment.

Progress to this end is being slowly made. The Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, with the agreement of the Irish Congress of Trades Union, the Confederation of British Industry and the civil service, issued guidelines last May for employers with respect to employing political ex-prisoners. Although the guidelines have no legal force they strongly advise employers not to discriminate against ex-political prisoners. However, in many cases the guidelines are ignored.

Coiste and Sinn Féin recently convinced a majority of the members preparing the north’s bill of rights to back a proposal barring public bodies from discriminating against political ex-prisoners with “conflict-related convictions”.

Predictable opposition to this inclusion came from the unionist and Alliance parties but, to the disappointment of many, particularly republicans, the Catholic Church representative also opposed this protective clause for political ex-prisoners.

It is in the area of employment rights where political ex-prisoners are most vulnerable.

In a court case, referred to as ‘McConkey/Marks’, taken last year by the Equality Commission, supported by Coiste, against the Simon Community for sacking these two political ex-prisoners an appeal court ruled that they were rightly sacked because of their background.

Although this judgment is now being challenged it highlights the difficulties ex-prisoners face in securing employment in the public and private sector.

A political ex-prisoner’s status will bar them from travelling to the US, Australia and Canada; some insurance companies and mortgage companies do not offer the full range of services to political ex-prisoners; adopting children can prove problematic and delays are experienced when applying for a driving licence for certain types of work.

It is these problems and many others which Tar Anall, on Belfast’s Falls Road, one of the 11 offices, has been dealing with since they were opened 13 years ago.

The centre has an ‘open door’ policy and provides support for political ex-prisoners, their families, children and grandchildren. Families displaced by the conflict and living in exile in the south are helped by a group closer to them.

Tar Anall provides skills-based training for work in the construction and security industry, in management and academic courses and computer skills.

It offers professional counselling for those with mental-health problems and has a busy clinic dealing with stress and general health matters.

The centre is a refuge, a place to relax and meet like-minded people with a common and difficult experience arising out of prison and the conflict.

Republicans, whether as political prisoners, ex-prisoners or neither, served and continue to serve this country and its people with distinction.

Many of them brought us peace and the new society we enjoy today.

It is time they took their place in that society with the same rights and entitlements as everyone else and all politically motivated sanctions removed from them.

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© 2008 Irish Republican News