By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
Coiste na nlarchimi is a national organisation dedicated to upholding the rights of former political prisoners and ensuring that society’s institutions do not discriminate formally or informally against ex-political prisoners.
It also provides a range of support services such as welfare advice, training and counselling to ex-political prisoners and their families.
Its particular interest is protecting the rights of those from a republican background but it works closely with loyalist organisations that are providing the same service to ex-political prisoners from its community. New research carried out by Queens’s University Belfast academics Ruth Jameson and Pete Shirlow shows that as many as 40,000 people may have passed through the prisons. Until now it was believed that 25,000 people had been imprisoned. This new figure shows the scale of the political conflict in the north and the impact it had and still has especially on northern society from the late sixties until the release of prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement.
Until the agreement and for most of the last 40 years of the conflict, former political prisoners from a nationalist and unionist background faced discrimination on many fronts, especially in the field of employment. Following the agreement and its non-discriminatory clause regarding political prisoners and the work of Coiste the situation today is much better but there are main some important areas of life where former political prisoners are discriminated against.
It is hard to believe that pockets of discrimination continue to exist given that some ministers in the executive - including Martin McGuinness and in my view Peter Robinson - are former political prisoners as are several MLAs, advisers to ministers and MLAs and councillors at local government level.
(Indeed, even former British secretary of state Peter Hain is an ex-political prisoner, framed by apartheid South Africa’s intelligence agencies for a bank robbery he was later acquitted of.)
Former political prisoners are making a valuable contribution to Irish society in many ways.
You will find them as members of the north’s policing board and its district partnerships.
They are teachers, journalists, parents end grandparents, community workers, trades people, carers, counsellors, business people, writers and artists.
They also play an active role in supporting the peace process end are regularly to be found keeping the peace at flashpoints across the north.
Gone are the days when the only welcome employment available to ex-prisoners was driving taxis end providing door security to bars and clubs.
A group set up by the OFMDFM secured agreement with the Confederation of British Industry and trade unions advising all employers not to discriminate against people with conflict-related convictions.
A range of organisations such as the Security Industry Authority, health trusts, town and city councils recognise the difference between politically and criminally motivated ex-prisoners.
The Independent Safeguarding Authority - which vets people working with vulnerable adults and children - is considering its attitude to former political prisoners seeking work.
Against this positive background it is very worrying for Coiste to discover - as it did recently - that many insurance companies refuse to pay out compensation to former prisoners when their house is damaged by accident or wilfully even though the former prisoner was paying into a compensation scheme.
In some cases the insurance company has returned a portion of the money paid into the policy but Coiste’s main concern is to have this policy outlawed immediately.
In discussion with a number of insurance companies Coiste has secured agreement from them that they will provide insurance cover for ex-political prisoners. Coiste has also met representatives of the Association of British Insurers, the trade body that represents most insurance companies that operate in the north, to urge them to reform their policy. Coiste is advising all ex-political prisoners to ensure the insurance company they are with knows their background and that they are provided with a written guarantee from the company that it will honour its compensation policy.
If the company is not prepared to comply with such a request then seek out one that does. Although Coiste keeps a weather eye on issues affecting former political prisoners its primary objective is to see all records expunged thereby normalising the relationship between the former prisoner and society - an outcome that needs immediate resolution.