5 January 2016 Edition
War is over but equal citizenship denied to ex-prisoners
The Good Friday Agreement accepted that the prisoner issue needed to be addressed and those in prison as a result of the conflict were subsequently released
“POLITICAL EX-PRISONERS face legal discrimination every day of their lives,” said Michael Culbert, Director of Coiste na nIarchimí, the republican ex-prisoners’ suport network. “The war is over yet for former political prisoners the legacy of their convictions is still being used against them.”
Michael was reacting to the latest case where a republican ex-prisoner lost his job in Belfast’s Great Northern Tower where the Child Maintenance Service is housed after the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) said he was unsuitable to carry out maintenance in the building.
Robert ‘Rab’ Henry, who completed a 12-year sentence in 1990, is challenging the DFP’s ‘Guidelines for Employment’ through the courts.
Michael Culbert, himself a former life sentence prisoner, also highlighted the recent cases where two former prisoners were refused entry to US airspace by American authorities on the basis of their convictions.
One of those is Pat Magee from Belfast. He was convicted of the 1984 ‘Brighton Bomb’ assassination bid on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet. Pat was not only released under the Good Friday Agreement but he has been a tireless promoter of the Peace Process and reconciliation, going as far as to establish the NGO Building Bridges for Peace with the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, one of the people killed in the Brighton attack.
Pat was flying to Mexico in November to speak at a peace conference when he was told at Heathrow Airport that he couldn’t fly through US airspace.
The conference organisers arranged for him to fly to Bogota in Colombia via Madrid in Spain and then on to Mexico, where he was taken into custody by immigration officials. He was subsequently deported to London by the same circuitous route through Bogota and Madrid. As Magee’s passport was not returned to him, he could only move through the airports under guard.
“Pat Magee’s case is full of ironies,” Michael Culbert laughed incredulously.
“Firstly, he was travelling to Mexico with Jo Berry, whose father was one of five people killed in the Brighton attack, and they have worked together through the Building Bridges for Peace organisation to promote peace and reconciliation in Ireland, Britain and internationally.
“Secondly, the fact that it was okay to deport Pat to Britain, where he was sentenced to eight life sentences for trying to assassinate the British Government, shows that the British accept he is not a threat.”
• RUC and British soldiers received pensions while former political prisoners face discrimination
For Michael Culbert, however, the wider issues around the legacy of the political conflict and how political ex-prisoners are still marginalised are matters that need to be addressed.
“Former political prisoners are being retrospectively punished. The Good Friday Agreement accepted that the prisoner issue needed to be addressed and those in prison as a result of the conflict were subsequently released.
“Yet the release of the POWs didn’t, in reality, resolve the legacy issues surrounding imprisonment. These examples demonstrate that legal discrimination is practised against former political prisoners and this effectively means they are denied the same rights as other citizens.
“Ex-POWs are not being treated as equal citizens,” said Culbert.
Broadening the discussion, the Coiste director said that the overall context for the debate was that the British baulked at the idea of a settlement that saw the IRA as a guerrilla army fighting a war of liberation.
“The British therefore ignored the accepted United Nations protocols around ‘Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration’ (DDR) as this would have given equal weight to the combatants and as such the British would, de facto, be acknowledging that they were fighting a colonial war here.
“So, given their attempts over the decades to criminalise the IRA and the republican struggle, it was unlikely they would accept a settlement based on DDR principles.
“By comparison, those members of the RUC, for example, who fought on the British side shared out a pot of £1.5billion (some receiving as much £500,000) when they retired under the Patten Plan, and British soldiers get pensions whereas former political prisoners are refused jobs, deported or blocked from travelling, denied home or car insurance, and prevented from adopting and fostering children.”
While there are many legacy issues to be resolved, the demand by former political prisoners to have their prison records expunged has both a practical and political objective.
Expunging the records of ex-prisoners convicted of politically-motivated offences will give them the equal citizenship they are denied; the political dimension has repercussions for how ex-political prisoners are seen in the British and unionist narrative of the conflict.
Michael Culbert concluded:
“The unionists and British continue to criminalise republicans in general and former prisoners in particular and portray them as perpetrators responsible for the war and by extension the deaths of those killed.
“As republican activists we accept responsibility for our role in the conflict but we are not solely responsible.
“We have also played a significant role in building the peace so it is time that was acknowledged.”