Former Troubles prisoners need help to ‘civilianise’

Calls for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of ex-prisoners

A panel of experts is scheduled to present a report on disbanding paramilitary groups after the Stormont Assembly election on May 5th.

The Fresh Start Agreement, negotiated last year to stabilise the political process in Northern Ireland, appointed a three-person panel to advise on the issue of paramilitary activity.

The members of the Panel on Disbanding Paramilitary Groups are former Alliance Party leader Lord Alderdice, University of Ulster professor and former politician Monica McWilliams and solicitor John McBurney.

The panel is scheduled to report in May, at a time when some experts in the field are arguing for a version of the United Nations-endorsed concept of DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration).

This could see existing barriers to employment, travel and insurance removed for many ex-prisoners, allowing them to reintegrate into society.

The Department of Justice said it had no official figures for the numbers of former paramilitary prisoners. But estimates place the figure for ex-prisoners jailed during the Troubles at 30,000-40,000.

The Northern Ireland Office declined to reveal how many of the 464 prisoners released early from jail under the terms of the Belfast Agreement of 1998 had since breached the terms of their release.

However, the Sentence Review Commission confirmed that since 1998, 21 of the prisoners released early were recalled to prison, while 13 ultimately had their early-release licence revoked.

Recruitment tool

According to Michael Culbert of Coiste na nIarchimí, a group that works with former Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoners, removing barriers to employment would also eliminate a potential recruitment tool for dissident groups.

“A weapon being used against support for the peace process are people, a lot of them former political prisoners, pointing and saying nothing has changed,” said Mr Culbert, who was a republican prisoner.

“There is a sizeable rump, not very big, but if we are truthful about it, it only takes one finger to pull the trigger.”

Tom Roberts, a former loyalist prisoner, is now project co-ordinator of the Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre (Epic), a group working with former loyalist prisoners.

He said employment guidelines proposed by a working group from the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister who had produced a strategy to reintegrate ex-prisoners failed as a result of political barriers.

Availing of services

“If you don’t give people who were involved in the conflict the chance to avail of the services that are available to the general public, then it makes it more difficult for these groups to civilianise,” he said.

Mr Roberts said civil servants who service the ex-prisoners’ working group in operation since the Belfast Agreement “have been more than helpful in trying to address the issues” but “without the political will there has really been no movement on those issues”.

“Some of the opinions and some people and parties in Northern Ireland are very retributive in their nature and I can understand that to a certain extent.

“But in terms of being pragmatic about these things, is it wise to have potentially 30,000 people economically inactive and potentially their offspring having difficulties becoming economically active?”