It has been interesting to follow the debate over the last week on the question of expunging the criminal records of political ex-prisoners. The issue has been around for many years.
We put the issue to Adam Ingram, then Northern Ireland Office (NIO) security minister, in May 2000. At a second meeting in May 2001, he described his government as being "a willing participant" in discussion on the issue. We have actively raised the issue in the context of discrimination against political ex-prisoners and this has been a consistent theme in negotiations around equality and human rights. The current story began with an article in the Irish Independent a week ago. It then appeared, along with an editorial condemning concessions to republicans, in the English Daily Telegraph. Neither of these papers are known for their objectivity with regard to republican ex-prisoners.
The 'story' was reinvigorated by a throwaway remark on BBC Radio Ulster, on Tuesday morning, by David Trimble who said he would be "astonished" if the British government considered it. When Mr Trimble sneezes, the BBC generally catches a cold. BBC Radio and TV dutifully examined the story, with a moral compass which framed the issue as contro-versial, "astonishing" (as per Mr Trimble), giving goodies to baddies and so on. Regrettably, the SDLP's Alban Maginness described the issue as "absurd". Despite its dubious origin, we welcome the debate on this important issue. Why is it necessary to deal with residual criminalisation? It is because political ex-prisoners:
- experience consistently high levels of long-term unemployment
- are barred from applying for many areas of employment either through explicit discrimination or general prejudice
- face explicit legal blocks such as Section 2 (4) of the Fair Employment and Treatment (NI) Order which is being used by employers to justify discrimination, or the bar on ex-prisoners becoming police officers
- still have difficulties applying for taxi licences
- face constant hurdles regarding the disclosure of 'criminal' convictions and dealing with the prejudices of employers. (The system was developed for non-political offenders and been extended significantly because of concerns over sex offenders seeking employment involving contact with young people. This is an important safeguard, but its effect is to restrict political ex-prisoners from accessing employment)
- have difficulty accessing finance for self-employment and insurance or mortgage facilities. All forms request 'criminal' conviction information
- cannot adopt children
- cannot access compensation when they are victims of attacks on their person or their property
- face difficulties travelling because their records appear on security checks, leading to harassment at ports.
In response to the discrimination and barriers facing our constituency which also affect loyalist ex-prisoners we have developed a straightforward policy platform:
- discrimination against political ex-prisoners should be made illegal
- 'criminal' convictions attached to political ex-prisoners should be expunged
- a policy initiative across the island to implement the commitment with regard to ex-prisoners contained in the Good Friday Agreement.
We have, since 1998, made representations to the NIO, the Irish government and the Stormont Executive concerning the commitment in the Good Friday Agreement to "measures to facilitate the reintegration" of political ex-prisoners (see paragraph five of the section on prisoners). We have also lobbied the Equality Authority, the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the National Economic and Social Forum (NESF). All these organisations have made policy proposals regarding legislative and/or administrative barriers facing political ex-prisoners.
The NESF in the Republic reported (January 2002) on arrangements for the reintegration of prisoners.
It affirmed an equality authority proposal regarding protection against discrimination. (The Equality Commission in the north has also adopted this position.)
It further proposed that some mechanism should be established through which 'criminal' records could be expunged. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, when launching the report,, said that this recommendation in particular "is close to my heart". Little has happened since either in the north or south. Though we note in passing that the few British soldiers convicted of conflict-related offences are well looked after by their masters. Our conclusion is that our issues receive low priority because the debate on the morality of the conflict still continues. In wider society, ex-prisoners are seen as the people responsible for the war. In republican communities, it was the policies of Unionist and British governments which brought conflict.
This is not an argument which will be resolved quickly. It is not right that involvement in the conflict should mean a life of poverty and second-class citizenship.
Our constituency deserve full and equal citizenship across Ireland. It is often said that one can judge the quality of a society by the way it treats its prisoners. In similar vein, one can judge the quality of a peace process by the way ex-prisoners are treated.
On this criterion, it is easy to see why many ex-prisoners are critical of the British and Irish governments' failures to implement commitments in this area.
Five years after the Good Friday Agreement, it is surely time for these issues to be addressed.
Mike Ritchie is director of Coiste na nIarchimi, the national network for republican ex-prisoners. Coiste advocates the full and equal citizenship of former prisoners in the context of political transformation. It is also engaged in a programme of dialogue and debate with other sectors in Irish society.