Prisoners in the Peace… Brian Rowan reports on life after jail

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I remember many of those long reporting days in the prison car park at the Maze; days after the Good Friday Agreement when the ‘H’ Blocks began to empty.

The releases, here and elsewhere, spanned a number of organisations, the IRA, INLA, UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando, and covered some hundreds of prisoners – men and women.

It was big news, their freedom a visible confirmation of the developing peace, but early releases that also confirmed the political nature of their convictions.

The emptying of the jails of designated prisoner groups was part of the negotiations into a new place and a new peace.

There is however unfinished business, and a big demand that relates to the prison records of conflict.

Michael Culbert, a former life sentence prisoner, is director of the project Coiste na nlarchimi, which represents thousands of former IRA prisoners.

In recent days he has raised an issue relating to insurance complications and developed another argument for conflict-related convictions to be expunged.

He knows, of course, that this is a raw and deeply divisive issue, but it is also part of the unfinished business of peace processing.

On the specifics of the insurance issue, he told me: “Our problem is that anybody with an unspent conviction – prison sentence – will not be insured by some insurance companies.

“Some insurance companies state now that the policy holder must pro-actively advise them if they have any ‘unspent’ conviction.

“This relates to anyone who was sentenced to over two and a half years,” he continued.

“Up to very recently this issue has applied only to home insurance – and it is only in recent months that this has popped its head up to do with car insurance,” he said.

The Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan is a former IRA prisoner who was part of the 1981 republican hunger strike.

On the back of Culbert’s comments, he issued a statement emphasising the need for former prisoners to check their documents and accompanying information.

“There is obviously a loop-hole in some policies where if you have been sentenced to more than two and a half years and don’t pro-actively contact your insurance company to let them know of this fact, then you actually may not be insured.

“Coiste na nIarchimí said that this refers to just some insurance companies and I want to reiterate the call for former prisoners to contact their insurance company to get confirmation that they are still insured regardless of their prison sentence,” Sheehan said.

The problems for those who were the prisoners of our ‘wars’ don’t stop with insurance but extend in to travel and jobs.

“The republican movement has made it very clear that the armed struggle is over,” Culbert said, but he added:

“We who were imprisoned due to the armed conflict are carrying the residue from that, and little did we know that it would move into issues such as home or car insurance.”

This he said opened up other questions.

“It could be argued that this is yet another barrier to our inclusion in our society,” he told eamonnmallie.com

“Of course from my perspective, being a political ex-prisoner, the answer to this is expunging prison records,” he continued.

“The British Government haven’t got to the stage where that is doable, but we’re constantly lobbying for that to take place,” he said.

In the meantime, and on the insurance issue, he said:

“There is no need to panic.

“Coiste has made arrangements with several major companies to insure political former prisoners as long as those companies are made aware of the imprisonment.”

The republican ex-prisoner community alone extends across an estimated 25,000 people, with a further ten to fifteen thousand in the loyalist community.

William ‘Plum’ Smith a former Red Hand prisoner who chaired the 1994 loyalist ceasefire news conference and was part of the negotiations leading to the 1998 political agreement, sees many of the same problems in places such as the Shankill Road.

“The barriers have never gone away,” he said.

“Indeed, if anything, they have got worse.

“They were meant to have been addressed by the two governments as part of the reintegration of prisoners back into the community after the Good Friday Agreement.

“If I go for a job as a door supervisor, I’m barred, or for any security related post,” he said.

He is not asking for records to be expunged, but suggesting a compromise, that they are “parked” or put into “cold storage”.

“That means if someone goes for a job they don’t have to declare it so long as the conviction was conflict-related,” Smith said.

“This parks the conviction allowing people to get on with their lives,” he continued.

“If they re-offend, the record can be brought back into play,” he said.

But, we know, that none of this is likely to be addressed in isolation.

There is other unfinished business relating to the past, including the search for truth or information.

These are not loose ends, but rather huge issues; jigsaw pieces in a complicated picture as we move from the past into the present.

There are other views and opinions to be taken into consideration, but there should not be a veto given to anyone.

If the wars are really over, then the prisoners should be unlocked from that conflict.

(A news report on this issue was published by Belfast Telegraph August 29th 2012)

 


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at www.merrionpress.ie

12 Comments

  1. I would’ve presumed getting out of jail early was the big plus for the ex-prisoners, especially when some, or maybe most, where facing another twenty years in jail; that freedom alone would’ve been a godsend. They could hardly expect everything else to fall in line. I know this opinion of mine might be unpopular but … what about the lifetime of misery left for their victims? We cannot forget the heinous crimes that were committed. I believe it doesn’t matter how passionate your political feelings are and what wrong-doings you might have experienced, to kill someone or plant bombs with the intention to impose optimum carnage goes beyond the basic principles of the ordinary man. For the rest of us who lived and also experienced the troubles,It was a bitter pill to swallow agreeing their release, aka.GFA. But for the sake of peace it was worth the gamble. However, the ex-prisoners complaining about ‘Insurance’ etc. takes the biscuit.

  2. Dr Francis Teeney on

    The issue of conflict prisoners is yet
    another piece of unfinished business that was not parked to be dealt with later
    but rather ignored in the hope that it might solve itself through time, ill
    health, old age and finally death. In the wake of any conflict compromise is
    required – no matter how distasteful some within our society find the phrase.

    There is a resistance among some
    aspects of our society to have certain people included in the categories that
    make up victimhood. And before anyone begins to blow steam on this most
    delicate of areas we do indeed operate a hierarchy of victims within Northern
    Ireland as can be evidenced in that lowest form of common dominator – money.

    I recently heard a heart rendering
    story from a very dear friend who lost both her legs in a bomb explosion. She
    received a paltry sum of money, had to fight to get DLA and when she complained
    she was given a washing machine, a Christmas card with £50 in it and told to
    have a happy New Year. She deserved to be treated much better. Other victims
    received a similar insult – and others did not. Why the difference and what is
    the criteria? Who decides who is a justifiable victim and deserving of more –
    and is there a dark side that whispers “he is one of them – not deserving
    – but look here is one of us; come let us solve our conscience and give
    generously to one of us”

    Very bravely two weeks ago Eamonn
    Mallie asked the question is there a bigot in all of us and equally today
    Barney Rowan confronts us with another post conflict problem – what to do with
    ex- prisoners. Already I can hear the us and them mutterings that it was their
    own fault and what about the sufferings they inflicted on the victims. I think
    my previous comments on victims demonstrate that my support lies with the victims
    – all victims. We do not solve a conflict by creating more victims which is
    what we are in danger of doing.

    We live in a legalistic society that
    demands full disclosure of personal information for the most mundane daily
    tasks. Insurance is a minefield compared to most and without it you become a
    nobody; unable to function in our modern society. Without insurance you cannot
    drive, go on holiday, cover you or your family against the unforeseen, get many
    types of employment, protect your home from thieves …. and the penny policy
    your mother took out on you with the Co-Op in case something happened is null
    and void if you do not make full disclosure or make them aware of a
    “change in your circumstances”. So you cannot even rely on being
    buried by cashing in the policy hidden away all those years in the bottom of
    the drawer.

    The issue of ex-prisoners being denied
    re-integration is no longer a moral question – it is a legal issue as morality
    left the stage with the introduction of the legalistic society. Those within
    our society who would suggest we just allow ex-prisoners to make up a sub group
    of living dead (for that is what they become in an increasingly bureaucratic
    world where we are all just numbers) might want to suggest how they would deal
    with a significant number of society unable to gain access to everyday
    insurance. Legally the State has to step in and provide by way of State
    benefits those shortcomings that ex-prisoners cannot access due to current
    legal arrangements. To put it bluntly the tax payer would pick up the bill; the
    very people who say let them rot would ironically end up paying for the
    services the ex-prisoners would like to pay for themselves but for legal
    reasons they cannot.

    Yes compromise after conflict like the
    devil comes in many guises – in this case the devil is in the detail. The
    detail highlighted by Barney Rowan is one that was too sensitive to address in
    the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement when morality was the driver.
    However the legal driver of society has taken over and everyone is a passenger
    were all must pay their fare and morality is no longer legal tender. The
    Government, our MLA’s, the victims and the ex-prisoners are subject to the
    exact same legal framework that regulates our everyday lives and sadly none can
    escape it. It may be difficult (and for some impossible) to contemplate
    allowing prisoners of our internal conflict to be given certain rights or
    having their records expunged. Compromise is a bitter pill indeed but I humbly
    and with deepest sincerity suggest that it is better to give your consent on
    this occasion rather than enduring a legal showdown were we will be mere
    spectators and the only winners will be the legal fraternity – for this problem
    is a legal one with only one outcome which cynically has already been decided
    by the insurance companies and they do not possess a moral compass. They will
    make us all pay up in the end – after they have taken their profits of course.
    Dr Francis Teeney

    • Francis – I will always remember something a former prisoner said to me in an interview as the peace process was developing and the issue of releases was being debated.
      He spoke to me about “sleeping with the victims”.
      In other words sleeping or, I suppose more accurately, not being able to sleep with his conscience.
      He later took his own life.
      In my thinking, he too is a victim of our conflict.
      I have argued several times on this website that it would be far too easy and convenient to blame just those who went to jail for our decades of war.
      What about those who didn’t go to jail?
      What about those who played in and played with this conflict – people who were not part of the loyalist or republican organisations and communities?
      However difficult, I agree with you that these issues have to be addressed as part of peace building, and also the demands for ‘truth’ or information.
      How is it eventually released to answer the many questions that people have?
      In this process there is much still to do.
      Thanks for joining in the discussion here.

    • In Ireland, I would be one who believes there is a hierarchy of victim hood and I believe I am generous in that thought:

      Those of us who could be classed as contributors to violence (aggressive or passive) cannot be counted in the same league as an innocent civilian.

      The motivation or socio-economic that created a generation to ‘fight’ whether that be unlawfully or within the rule of law, cannot be used as a yard stick, to qualify for victim equality in comparison to an innocent civilian killed or injured?

      Rightly or wrongly those of us who put our hand up – paramilitary, armed forces, police, HMG, IG knew the risk involved in completing ‘our duty’.

      On the paramilitary side prison (if caught) was one of those risks, and the same could be said on the State side – if lawful commands where broken then prison or other reprimand was real.

      Prisoner issues where an integral aspect to the GFA negotiations, indeed ‘prisoners’ nearly brought the evolving settlement to asunder. Post GFA prisoners have and do play an integral role in the continuing political process (personally feel there should be more, especially on the Unionist side) however I go back to that ‘risk factor’ all who put their hand up considered.

      The global Insurance Business is also about risk. Calculated commercial decisions in that industry are made against an analysis of life facts which are graded to indicate the potential of claim in the course of a policy. The generalizations are wide ranging, and the grading that governs a former prisoner being denied insurance are the same as the grading that governs a former cancer patient being denied. They’re both denied insurance because life events or activity consider them a risk. That ‘grading system’ is an industry problem, that is predominant in the Western World, and it needs revised from a ‘computer says no’ stance to a compassionate appeal element or procedure enabling clarity.

      Job opportunities are different. I believe that with any job opportunity the best candidate (by experience and / or qualification) should be awarded the position. If that person is a former prisoner then it should hold no bar on their appointment. As someone who has employed former prisoners I have no issue in lauding this but I can accept the reluctance of some employers to embrace this for certain job roles however such attitude could be swayed with slight changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

      Finally, with the global recession pulling apart world economics I cannot see HMG or the IG wishing to embrace any additional costs to assist any small section of society here.

      • Glenn – We all know what happened within the “fight” or “fights”, and in real-time reporting of conflict this was the main focus – on what happened.
        There has not been the same concentration on why it happened; on why so many thousands of people became involved in our wars.
        This is the information gap that has to be filled – the missing research.
        Many would argue that in this conflict much happened outside the rule of law, and the questions are not just for the prisoners and the organisations they were part of, but for those in security/intelligence/politics and governments.
        There is much in the “dirty war” that needs explanation, but I doubt we’ll get those answers, and I doubt those who were involved in these intelligence and covert plays have the same problems with insurance, travel and jobs.

        • Barney,

          I whole heartedly agree with your sentiment.

          To concentrate on the ‘why’ would focus the mind on extremely uncomfortable realities and facts which thus far are disbelieved, smoke screened, not cared for or swept aside in sectarian bitterness. In addition, the emotion of ‘why’ overwhelms some.

          I resolutely believe there are size able sections of society here who live in utter denial, and there are major individuals from successive HMG, IGs, RUC and Garda living in fear of ‘why’.

          Often truth hurts and that fear of hurtful reality is ‘the elephant in the room’ to discovering the why, what, for of our recent Troubles?

          John’s comment above has me remembering explorative political meetings, initially held in secret, post the first PIRA cessation between members of the UUP and SF. Pat McGeown sought me out and came round the table holding out his hand with a grin exclaiming “Irish Republican Freedom Fighter meets Brit” to which I retorted “Former Field Army NCO meets terrorist”. That introduction led to prolonged heavy debate, heated exchanges and eventually a long respectful but distant comradeship until Pat’s untimely passing.

          We, each, had no problem forgiving the other for our roles or activity. We each agreed that ex-prisoners had a role to play in the future and that the integration of prisoners to society should be a condition of any agreement. That dirty word (to some) ‘amnesty’ was discussed in those early days of 1995. It is a fact that Irish Republican ex prisoners are supported more by their movement in their reintegration, and some high profile ex prisoners have gone on to leadership roles in the Political SF Party of today but Loyalist ex prisoners have fared worse. This is largely because of Unionist electoral apathy for Loyalist political parties, and an non-compassionate stance by mainstream Unionism (now the DUP).

          Reviewing my initial post in this thread, I guess my ‘wee Methodist’ inner self was speaking out i.e. “stop gurnin’ over spilt milk” that Woodvale-Prod upbringing in me still that yells “we all knew what we where getting into, stop windging” … however John’s comment above has forced me to think, and while I still believe innocent civilians should be the priority of all, I must reflect to further positively change my stance on ex prisoner issues.

          • What we are now witnessing in contributions on eamonnmallie.com is serious scholarship. These contributions are further bringing value added over and above so much university output because they are being authored by living human beings who were ‘players’ in Northern Ireland’s Troubles. It is impossible to emulate primary sources. Glen, John, Barney et al, I have detected another trait starting to emerge which is invaluable. People are becoming confessional and showing a willingness to share their experiences. Here we have Glen speaking of Pat McGeown, a senior Republican with whom he had many exchanges. McGeown passed on far too prematurely. Imagine the contribution he would be making to this dialogue. Thanks guys. Let us drive this discussion forward and collectively let us lay bare the bankruptcy of so much falling from the lips of mainstream politicians who have not found the compass to the future yet.

          • Glenn/Eamonn – Michael Culbert opened this conversation with a statement pointing to insurance difficulties, and that seed has flowered into this much more significant and critical conversation.
            Look at the mess of parades as an example of what happens when issues are ignored, or parked or addressed in some half-baked fashion.
            This debate is now touching on what really matters and, yes, on raw nerve and deeply divisive matters.
            Have politicians and governments and all the rest of us the courage to make the next moves in our minds, to take the next steps in this process of peace building?

          • To judge by the utterances of some senior politicians, including Executive ministers on the marching débâcle outside St Patrick’s Church, these people have a long way to travel. The convoy is always as fast as the slowest ship.

  3. As a Loyalist life sentence ex-prisoner, i have first hand knowledge regarding the contribution of the ex-prisoner constituency, both Loyalist and Republican to the peace-process.
    Indeed, I would be happy to argue the toss with anyone that the peace-process itself was conceived in prison, although it is now widely adopted across society.
    The words of David Trimble, then our first minister, come to mind, who overseen the early tentative steps of that developing peace, and these words were particularely poignant in relation to the prisoner issue:
    “just because you have a past, doesn’t mean you can’t have a future”.
    In essense this indicated that you would not be excluded by the new post-conflict society we were all committed to create, and that your status as an ex-prisoner, would not restrict you from equality of opportunity.
    The process of DDR (decomisssioning, demobilisation and re-integration) is a central tenet within transitional justice, towards moving from a conflict into peace, and involves the transition of combatants into civilianisation.
    We have had the first D with the guns being decommissioned, the second D has occurred across many of the structures of those organisations (i can point to the disbandment of the UYM and the standing down of the UFF as examples of this), yet it remains the final R that is more difficult and the remaining challenge. Lets be clear, many Ex-Prisoners i have contact with want to be re-integrated, they don’t want to be classed with the status of ex-prisoners for the remainder of their days…but yet this is a difficult legacy to evade when there are still so many obstacles that prevent them moving on.
    certainly there are insurance, travel and meaningful employment restrictions placed upon their shoulders that prevent them from accessing the future David trimble outlined, yet there are also major health deficits underlying these, with prisoners facing higher rates of depression, adiction and medication than the average population, and these issues are exasperated by the exclusion at the core of their existance. Then there is the fact that many, because of the length of their incarceration, and the fact that this meant not having made national insurance contributions for most of their lifetime, means that when it comes to pensionable status, they will receive a meagre amount, way under the expectations of wider society.
    This continues to ensure that ex-prisoners remain trapped in a society that they cannot effectively become a stakeholder in, and thus the ex-prisoner tag remains their millstone, that just doesn’t impact on them as individuals, but also their wider families and the community to which they belong.
    The truth for me is, that the two governments left the stage too soon, without an adequate policy and the plans to guide it, towards inplementing an effective DDR process.
    until the prisoner issues are addressed, like many other issues around victims etc, then we as a society will continue to exclude those that need our help, which can only ferment anger and frustration and leave us all trapped in an unfinished paradigm

    • Eamonn Mallie. on

      John, this is a significant insightful narrative and exposition on how “ex prisoners remain trapped in a society that they cannot effectively become a stakeholder in.” At the heart of your thesis is the need within us all to forgive and to be generous. We have big decisions to make.

    • John,

      Written from the heart without malice. You’ve made me think and reconsider my position on ex prisoner issues.

      Keep up your good ‘fight’.

      FaB
      Glenn

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