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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Ex-paramilitaries have to be reintegrated into society

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)


Some years ago a loyalist paramilitary prisoner whom I occasionally visited sent me a message that said he thought I might be under threat. I decided to install some lights and strengthen the doors at my home. A tradesman named Mitzi was recommended to me, and he turned out to be efficient, cheap and an able adviser on protection against various sorts of assault. I confided that I had also been warned of hostility from a group of republicans, but didn't think they had my address.

I next saw Mitzi in Crumlin Road courthouse and nodded to him in the dock. He was on trial for taking part in a kidnapping by the IRA's security department.

On another occasion, I asked a man in painters' overalls whom I'd met in a car park to come round and give me a quote for a decorating job. The mystery of why he never showed up was solved when I turned on the TV and saw Torrens Knight hurling abuse at a crowd outside the courthouse, where he'd been charged with UFF membership and the massacre of eight people at the Rising Sun bar in Greysteel.

Neither encounter did me any harm, but they both illustrate how intimately the paramilitaries are woven into society. Terrorists were not dropped into Northern Ireland from an orbiting space station. They were not some Al-Qaeda-type group who infiltrated the structures of civil society and could be clinically excised. They were ordinary people who had reacted to events by deciding that violence was justified.

One of the problems with commemorating victims of violence is that the categories of victim and perpetrator frequently overlap.

At one stage there was talk of a building in which a separate plaque for each victim would be mounted. The model was the hall of names in Jerusalem's Yad Vashem memorial to those who died in the Holocaust. The question immediately arose as to who would want to be on the plaque next to Lenny Murphy, the leader of the Shankill Butchers gang. Would the families of the security forces want to see relatives commemorated alongside IRA volunteers, or vice versa?

The National Graves Association has issued a biography of every IRA member killed in the Troubles. Many were victims of sectarian attacks or had family members killed before committing themselves to paramilitarism. The same can be said of loyalist terrorists, most of whom maintained that they were defending their community against a ruthless republican foe.

None of this removes moral agency. Winston "Winkie" Rea, the leader of the Red Hand Commandos for much of the Troubles, told the News Letter last week that he wouldn't "normally" have got involved in anything like this, but "it felt like a war" and you had to defend your community. He conceded that some people in loyalist areas managed not to.

Most of us try to claim the high moral ground for our decisions. But the UVF's effort to do so last week was laughable. They saluted "the dedication and fortitude of our officers, NCOs and volunteers throughout the difficult, brutal years of armed conflict". Like everyone else, they think of the Troubles as something that happened to them and to which they reacted. They were trying to solve the problem, not the ones who caused it.

Yet the UVF shot the first person to die in the conflict, the first Protestant to die, and even the first policeman. Most of their victims were noncombatants. Their history is not studded with massacres of IRA army council meetings. It is punctuated by shot-up bars, indiscriminate bombings, dead taxi drivers, and fellow loyalists murdered in feuds over money.

Whatever illusions they cherish about their past, it is good that the UVF has stopped and it is necessary that they should go further. Putting arms "out of reach", as they have done, is not terribly reassuring when the weaponry is still in the control of the same UVF leadership that presided over the organisation during its worst atrocities.

Still, it is clear from their statement that they do not intend using the weapons. They know it is pointless.

Unfortunately, the pressure that can be put on the UVF to provide full assurance on the weapons issue is limited. The big factor forcing the IRA to decommission was the refusal of unionists to let Sinn Féin enter government until it did so. That incentive is not available to loyalists, who have only one elected member in the Assembly and no hope of ever being in government.

Sinn Féin activists can become ministers, MLAs, advisers and constituency workers – all paid from parliamentary and Assembly grants. Those options are not available to loyalists, nor to many former republican prisoners who are out of favour with the leadership or whose faces don't fit in the new dispensation.

That is one reason why it is important that former prisoners are given every opportunity to reintegrate with society and feel part of the new dispensation. Many of them joined the paramilitaries because they felt they had no choice or that they belonged to part of a disadvantaged group excluded from the benefits enjoyed by the rest of us.

The guidelines issued last Friday on the treatment of job applicants with Troubles-related convictions is a start, but only that. It does not, as some critics have claimed, expunge criminal records. It does not constitute the sort of "act of oblivion" that has been used to deal with former offenders in some Latin American peace processes. On the contrary, former prisoners must declare their convictions, but must not be excluded from job pools as a result.

It is only if a candidate is selected that the conviction can be taken into account and then only if it is directly relevant to the job.

These rules will have strong ripple effects. One anomaly is that prisoners, some of them with doctorates that should allow them to teach in university, are excluded from primary schools, where there is a shortage of male teachers. Then there is the PSNI, which, alone in the public sector, does not intend to follow the guidelines even for civilian staff. There may be a case for not allowing ex-prisoners to become police officers, but what about cleaners and receptionists?

And yes, when I get the money to do all the work I would like done on my home, Mitzi and Torrens will be considered on their merits, should they apply.


May 6, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on May 6, 2007.