‘Another elephant in the room’ – By John Loughran

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Last week in Belfast High Court former Republican prisoner Martin Neeson was granted permission to challenge a decision from the Stormont’s Department of Finance and Personnel. The departmental decision deemed that he was unsuitable for continued employment despite performing his duties without incident for the preceding 18 years on the basis that he was an ex-political prisoner. The basis of his challenge was that the Department of Finance and Personnel acted “irrationally and unfairly in relying upon a conviction that was 40 years old in assessing the applicant’s character and suitability for continued employment.”

This case of discrimination feeds into the current legacy debate in all its manifestations. Among other issues the denial of rights of ex-political prisoners is a fundamental matter of inequality and a denial of their human rights. Restricted travel, restricted employment opportunities, barriers to adoption and purchasing of some goods and services define a life of exclusion for ex-political prisoners. This was compounded by the precedent established in the SPAD Bill which in effect sought to institutionalise discrimination against ex-political prisoners.

Engaging with this legacy question of ex-political prisoners in no way dilutes the need to engage with the pain, hurt and loss of all victims. That too is of course central to engaging with legacy. The issue of ongoing discrimination against ex-political prisoners however provides an insight into the wider challenge of how this society comprehensively engages with the reintegration into society of members of non-state armed groups.

Yesterday there was also the launch of the Loyalist Community Council designed to assist the demobilisation of Loyalist paramilitary structures. Its stated purpose is to assist the reintegration into community life of former combatants. Engaging with the issue of all political ex-prisoners, and the barriers and discrimination they face, is vital to underpinning the fragile peace.

In various ways both cases link back to the outstanding political commitments which date back to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the lack of progress, that most expected, in delivering full citizenship rights to all ex-political prisoners.

In 1998 both the Irish and British governments pledged to: “continue to 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, re-training and/or reskilling, and further education. Again eight years later as part of efforts to restore the power sharing Executive in the St Andrews Agreement (2006) it was again stated that: “The Government will work with business, trade unions and ex-prisoner groups to produce guidance for employers which will reduce barriers to employment and enhance re-integration of former prisoners.”

It is evident that despite explicit commitments in the Good Friday Agreement (1998) and latterly the St Andrews Agreement (2006) little progress has been made to remove the barriers to participation in civic for political ex-prisoners. This contrasts with the hundreds of millions of pounds paid to state actors, particularly former RUC officers who benefited handsomely from the Patten severance scheme. The Neeson case evidences that the discrimination of ex-political prisoners and their denial to full and equal citizenship is acceptable – and communicates more generally that in certain instances discrimination will be tolerated.

The deficit is that 17 years on from the Good Friday Agreement the same questions remain as to how to engage with the legacy of imprisonment and its continued impact through discrimination – and as importantly now where do non-state armed groups go when the conflict is over? How are these men and women reintegrated back into community and public life?

While the issue of ex-political prisoners will continue to divide opinion in 2015 for obvious reasons it is clear that many of the ex-political prisoner groups, Republican and Loyalist, make a significant contribution to building the future. Indeed I am acutely aware of the efforts of Coiste na n-Iarchimí, the Republican ex-prisoners network, in terms of leading internal dialogues, outreach to Loyalism and British armed forces personnel. Indeed they have been actively involved in managing the peace, involved in providing support programmes to ex-prisoners and their families and importantly providing key services to those experiencing hardship through provision of welfare advice.

There is no doubting that Martin Neeson, like many thousands of Republican and Loyalist ex-prisoners, feels the personal burden of unresolved and unhonoured political commitments to deal with barriers to employment for ex-prisoners. Yet 20 years into the peace process hard questions need asked about where are the: “measures to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community by providing support both prior to and after release”? Furthermore the question needs asked of Stormont departments within our power sharing Executive why is discrimination against ex-political prisoners being tolerated despite outstanding peace process commitments?

Indeed if we are serious about building a shared future surely it is now also time to end designation of ex-political prisoners as a Section 75 group which would basically mean they cannot be discriminated against on basis of past imprisonment. Indeed the denial of rights to political prisoners is an equality issue, a human rights issue that requires resolution.

These are also big legacy questions that need answered. They too require political attention. The Neeson case, and indeed there are many others, simply proves that the personal price is already too high and that ultimately without a positive step change this society will show that we can live comfortably denying others the rights that we so want strengthened for ourselves and our families.


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About Author

John Loughran is a Member of Relatives for Justice a support group that works to support families bereaved through the conflict. He is also a member of the Victims and Survivors Forum. He has recently completed an LLM in Human Rights Law focussing on the contribution of ‘unofficial’ truth projects to wider processes of dealing with the past in the north of Ireland.

6 Comments

  1. As a contributor to the negotiations that led to the GFA I can state, categorically, that almost 2 decades on such issues are not meant to be unresolved.

    The agreement negotiated should have led to a Bill of Rights, which, if confronted, debated & agreed, would have largely led to a sustainable, incremental solution to many issues (including the position of former prisoners as assets to society).

    All political parties have failed in delivering a Bill of Rights.

    As a member of VFP (UK) please refer http://veteransforpeace.org.uk/ I am aware of many veterans of Op. Banner (the HMG term for the deployment of the Army to Northern Ireland) who served 10-18 years on operations in this small place but got nothing but a medal. A General Service Medal issued for service in many theaters and for here a tiny bar of ‘Northern Ireland’; a trinket of bling.

    No golden hand shakes on disbandment (despite others getting such during a peace period); no unique welfare support; no respect or thought,

    Approximately 180,000 people served in the Regular Army during Op Banner. They, like the approximate 12000 Loyalist or approximate 18000 Republican prisoners were not created overnight.

    In specific of above, regardless of past, all are deserving of job opportunity to rebuild their lives.

  2. I can only suppose that the Northern Ireland Conflict is not acknowledged as being in a similar category to, say the Gulf War or Afghanistan. Perhaps the British Army soldiers who served there are not considered to have been in an officially recognised conflict (whatever that recognition might entail).

  3. John,
    As a victim/survivor/victor I fully agree that the issue of discrimination against ex political prisoners MUST be addressed/redressed as an integral component of dealing with the entire legacy issue. The conflict was complex. Victims issues are complex and ex prisoner issues are complex – but that does not mean they cannot be easily resolved if the will for resolution is there. I draw your attention to previous posts of my own in which I point out the hypocrisy of discrimination against ex prisoners when so many more were not caught/prosecuted and are never likely to be prosecuted. Eg: One UVF member went to jail for my father’s murder when up to 30 or more were directly involved. As you correctly commented at the time in response, I see the trigger man as merely the final link in the chain. Those who scream such and such an organisation killed people do no service to victims and bring nothing new to the table. In my opinion those who actually fought the war are best placed to support, negotiate and fight the peace. Whether anyone likes it or not ex-combatants are best placed to speak on what led them to involvement and are also best placed to ensure those conditions which led to the conflict are not recreated.

    Yes, I’ve heard other victims express opposing views but this just illustrates the diversity of the victim constituency. WE CANNOT RESOLVE THE ISSUE OF VICTIMS WITHOUT SIMULTANEOUSLY ADDRESSING THE ISSUE OF VICTIM MAKERS. The Stormont House Agreement (SHA), in my opinion, represented a real chance to make progress through a multi-track approach until the Westminster Government introduced the ‘National security’ get out of jail free card which is bad faith and totally unacceptable. If their position is that they were honest brokers among warring tribes let them open their files and prove it. I suspect they might have difficulty in explaining how murdering their own citizens, both directly and through systematic collusion, fits with this position. If your loved one was killed because of collusion then who is ACTUALLY and ULTIMATELY responsible? If ex security force combatants can be full and unfettered citizenship then why not others?

    I will finish by relating to you that I do detect a ground swell of change, a changing attitude in particular by loyalists, and I think it might well be this change which has sent the Westminster Government scurrying for the cover of ‘National Security’. Are loyalists finally realising how they’ve suffered and been used?

    Two/three years ago I approached the UVF via a mediator who will remain anonymous. I received a stark and blunt answer that “the UVF has a policy of not talking with victims”. Then, last Friday 9th October, I noticed social media traffic about the PUP Annual Conference. I sent a direct message to a senior member of the PUP asking if someone like me would be able to attend as they were having a panel/section on legacy (someone like me being a Nationalist, Republican and person bereaved by the actions of the UVF). To my surprise I received an instant reply, not only inviting me but the person said he would meet me at the door and gave me his mobile number for contact. I attended the PUP Conference on Saturday and was made welcome. It was also made crystal clear that I could address their legacy session if I wanted to and there was no restriction on anything I might say. My very presence was what Declan Kearney might describe as an ‘uncomfortable conversation’ and I believe my invite and attendance marked a real step forward by the PUP (and to my thinking the UVF also given the large number of ex UVF prisoners present).

    This was followed by the loyalist press conference midweek. For the record I welcome their stated goals on education and eradicating criminality but oppose the idea that all legacy prosecutions should stop. I personally do not see further prosecutions as justice but here are many victims who do and they should be facilitated where uncontaminated evidence enables it. This is just one of the SHA tracks.

    I would welcome loyalists playing a full role in the peace and all forums but to achieve this they should put themselves before the electorate.

    To facilitate all of this a level playing field should be created by ending discrimination against ex political prisoners to enable them to participate in full citizenship – just as their un-convicted comrades and masters have been doing without hindrance throughout, And the Westminster Government should participate openly a the combatant group that it was.

    • Get you terminology right Paul and others….there were no ‘POLITICAL PRISONERS’ in Northern Ireland or anywhere else in the UK’ Get it? Good, don’t insult us…call them what they were Terrorists. OK…good !

  4. I’d love to know who the political prisoners were. No person as far as I know was jailed for their beliefs, but were jailed for the terrorist crimes they committed. It’s an insult to persons in other countries who were jailed for their beliefs, to call the terrorists who murdered and bombed this country and other parts of the UK and in mainland Europe to call these people ‘political prisoners’. They were Terrorists, nothing else.

  5. Firstly please let me say that I NEVER launch personal attacks on anyone and that any comment directed by me is in regards to opinions etc expressed.

    That said – thank you Raymond, you’re two comments are direct and blunt and have made me feel as if you are standing in front of me screaming aggressively into my face. Even so, it is my opinion that your two responses also illustrate the complexity and diversity of the issues being discussed, not to mention the passion/anger they can stir.

    I am one person, I’m equally entitled to my viewpoint as any other person and when expressing my views I speak only for myself.

    Whether I like it or not there were approximately 40,000 people in this community who went to jail because of conflict related actions. This was an armed conflict in which many people died, were injured or were traumatised. The conflict was political – the prisoners were political prisoners. Who might or might not have been terrorists depends on personal viewpoint. Can I recommend that people read-up on collusion, perhaps ‘Killing for Britain’ by John Black, or ‘Political murder in Ireland’ by Martin Dillon or ‘The Shankill Butchers’ I think by Cusack and Mc Donald.

    All of the dead, injured, traumatised or jailed were human beings, I think this point is often missed and there is a tendency to label human beings as something less than human.

    I’m not naïve, quite the opposite. There were reasons why people did what they did and a truth recovery process which addresses victims and victim makers alike might shine some light on these reasons, might enable the creation of a society where no-one repeats the decisions or actions of the past and where resolution can be pursued by purely peaceful means.

    Can I add this, since the ‘ceasefires’ loyalists have killed over 30 human beings. The UVF were also on ceasefire between November 1973 and February 1974 during which they killed 11 human beings one of whom was my father, so I will judge the latest initiatives down the line when they deliver or not.

    I was made welcome at the PUP Conference and I thanked the person who invited me. It was a genuine thanks and an enlightening experience – not what I had expected at all. I again say this, I welcome the mid-week pledge to stamp out criminality etc but consider that a place at the negotiating table must come through a political mandate.

    As a final postscript to this particular post I would say that although my invite to the PUP Conference (and Jude White as a panellist) might indicate a new willingness to engage with victims the UVF have made no such move. Should the politicians of the PUP care to discuss possible ways in which they might assist the UVF to engage with their victims I (and I suspect many others) would be happy to meet them.

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