North’s peace dividend continues to elude loyalist ex-prisoners
‘Former prisoners aren’t high on the priorities . . . because it’s not a vote-catching issue’
Tom Roberts: ‘I think former prisoners provide a convenient hook to provide the blame for the conflict.’ Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
On the Shankill Road in Belfast, the streets still lie strewn with the red, white and blue bunting from the Twelfth of July festivities.
A gaggle of tourists mill around murals on the surrounding gabble walls which pay tribute to loyalist paramilitary groups from the Troubles conflict. Armed with bulky cameras and raincoats they snap photographs of slogans promising to honour and avenge the lives of fallen comrades.
Around them, Shankill locals go about their business; running errands in the nearby shops and relaxing outside their porches in the light August sun.
On the Woodvale Road, tucked beside a car mechanic shop, an unassuming shop front is home to the Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre, a crucial but little known peace process initiative.
Since the 1994 ceasefires, the centre has been helping to support former inmates upon their release from jail to facilitate their reintegration into mainstream society. The centre primarily helps former prisoners from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), which was responsible for more than 500 murders during the conflict between its formation in 1966 and the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
Inside the centre, the reception is garlanded with thank-you cards bearing images of flowers, bears and bows in an array of pastel colours, from the many ex-prisoners who have passed through its doors.
Upstairs in his office, Tom Roberts, an ex-UVF prisoner who has been director of the centre for the last 13 years, says that 21 years on from the Belfast Agreement, the former inmates with whom he works still face many serious challenges in integrating with mainstream communities. And this amid an increasing sense they are being forgotten about and left behind as Northern Ireland embeds its status as a post-conflict society.
“There was paragraph five of the Good Friday Agreement which deals with prisoners and said something to the effect that the government would put together measures that would facilitate integration or resettlement of ex-prisoners into the community. But that has never materialised,” he says.
He says many of those he helps continue to struggle with unemployment, debt, lack of suitable housing and discrimination at work. As a result, many feel forgotten about by mainstream society and ignored by politicians, including mainstream political unionism such as the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party.
“In my view, former prisoners aren’t high on the priorities of any political party because it’s not a vote-catching issue and I think former prisoners provide a convenient hook to provide the blame for the conflict . . . to allow other people to absolve themselves of responsibility. It wasn’t ex-prisoners who created the conditions for the conflict here, it was the result of political failure.
“There’s all sorts of elements of society who have absolved themselves from all blame for the conflict. Sectarianism has roots in religion, the churches don’t accept any responsibility and politicians certainly don’t accept any responsibility for anything, never mind creating the conditions for conflict,” he says.
“There’s not really much interest in wider society. Even there’s a real surprising level of ignorance among political establishment around the issues. Because whenever you hear some of their utterances on news programmes around ex-prisoners’ issues, they’re clearly not very well informed.”
In the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement, which saw many prisoners from both sides given early release from jail, Roberts’ work focused on the immediate issues of helping ex-prisoners find jobs, obtain housing and navigate the benefits system. But now, as the population ages, these men are finding new barriers in the form of accessing pensions.
As those imprisoned during their teens or twenties now approach their sixties, pensions are becoming more and more of an issue, pushing former prisoners into poverty and debt.
When people are in prison, they aren’t working, obviously, and so they don’t have national insurance contributions, so their pensions diminish accordingly. That’s if you’re lucky enough when you come out to be able to [work].”
Younger ex-prisoners who are still of working age continue to face barriers , as they are required to disclose a criminal conviction over the course of applying for a job or promotion and can often see an offer rescinded once an employer learns of their past.
“Ex-prisoners aren’t protected by any form of fair employment legislation, which we have argued that there should be. You can obviously see why employers would discriminate against [non-Troubles] criminals because they tend to reoffend but the levels of [reoffending rates] in the political ex-prisoner population is practically negligible,” says Roberts. “So the argument is that when the conflict is over people won’t commit any offences.”
As legacy investigations into unsolved Troubles’ deaths increasingly come before the courts in Northern Ireland, many ex-UVF prisoners live in fear of getting a knock on the door from police and ending up behind bars again.
“The ex-prisoner population is seen to be the first port of call in terms of any investigative processes because already their forensic details are in the system through having already been convicted, so we have had instances of ex-prisoners who served a life sentence being convicted again and going back to prison in recent years.”
Roberts says that as a result, some former UVF prisoners, many of whom will suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, are finding it increasingly difficult to use mental health support services as they fear that ongoing legacy investigations could use counsellors’ notes to bring a case against them. “With professional practitioners, if anything comes to their notice which is of a criminal nature, they’re duty bound to inform the authorities. So therefore former prisoners can’t really talk about things that may be bothering them, for fear of coming to the attention of the police.”
Roberts says nationalists have a more established tradition of dealing with former inmates.
“The nationalist community have a longer history of dealing with imprisonment – going back to the 1916 rising. So that community has a greater understanding of conflict and imprisonment, whereas it was only in the most recent phase of conflict that began in the late 1960s-70s, that was the only time that unionists and loyalists went to prison in any significant numbers.”
Above all, he says people in loyalist communities “have a feeling of being left behind” in the years since the conflict ended.
He gestures out of his office window, to the Shankill below: “A lot of places like this never really got the peace dividend.”