7. Memorandum from Coiste na n-larchí
Committee of Ex-prisoners)
Coiste na n-larchimí is the co-ordinating
organisation for republican ex-prisoner support groups in Ireland.
Funded from 1998 under the EU Special Support Programme for Peace
and Reconciliation and currently under the PEACE II programme,
our network comprises 16 funded groups, employing 53 staff throughout
the northern 12 counties of Ireland and in Dublin. We estimate
that there are perhaps 15,000 republican ex-prisoners. In addition,
there have been perhaps 10,000 loyalist ex-prisoners.
Our local projects provide services by and for
republican ex-prisoners and their families including employment
advice and training, emotional support, counselling, economic
development opportunities, welfare advice and family support.
At the Coiste level, an important aspect of our work is the development
and advocacy of a policy agenda designed to achieve the equal
citizenship of the republican ex-prisoner community throughout
We recently became aware of the joint committee
hearing on the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and would value your
consideration of the following information.
The submission will cover:
the nature of the interaction we
have had with the HRC;
the failure of the Commission to
address political ex-prisoner concerns;
the lack of any sense of a strategic
vision within the commission;
the sense in nationalist/republican
circles that the HRC is overly concerned with unionist perceptions
of it as biased in favour of nationalism;
the danger arising from the apparent
incoherence and organisational dysfunction within the Commission;
the resource deficit and inadequate
powers granted to the commission by government
Since 1988, we have been keen to promote our
policy agenda with the Human Rights Commission. We have argued
consistently that, since the HRC was established as part of the
Good Friday Agreement, the HRC should see its function as part
of the conflict resolution process. In this context, the Commission
should be imaginative and see itself as mandated to develop those
areas of human rights law and practice directly relevant to the
peace process. Included in these issues was, in our view, the
question of the integration of former political prisoners. We
have indicated that the issues we raise affect perhaps 25,000
people and their families throughout Ireland. By any standards,
this is a significant proportion of the population, and crucial
in terms of the conflict resolution process.
We had an initial meeting with Professor Brice
Dickson and Rev Harold Good in 1999. We had a general meeting
to which we invited Professor Dickson and the then legal caseworker,
Maggs O'Conor. We have been invited to a number of seminars organised
by the Commission. Our direct, Mike Ritchie was invited to be
a participant on two of the working groups (Equality and Criminal
Justice) established to draft sections of the first draft of the
Bill of Rights. Finally, we have submitted a number of cases to
the legal caseworker. These do not appear to have been given any
priority by the HRC Casework committee and therefore, little work
appears to have been done on them We have noted that the political
ex-prisoner issue appeared in the draft strategic plan of the
HRC but subsequently disappeared when the Plan was published.
This appears to us to be emblematic of the Commission's engagement
with our issues.
As already stated, we articulated a clear view
to the Commission that political ex-prisoner re-integration was
a key element in post-conflict reconciliation and was therefore
an entirely relevant issue for the Commission to adopt a position
on. It would have allowed the Commission to explore the continuing
discrimination faced by our client base including the fact that
the criminalisation policy meant that ex-prisoners were faced
with a range of disadvantage arising directly from the fact that
they were processed through the courts anddespite their
differential treatment under emergency law and in the prisonsare
regarded by the law as "criminals". In our view, international
humanitarian law makes a clear distinction between ordinary criminality
and offences arising from the existence of a conflict. Protocol
ii of the Geneva Conventions, for example, calls for "the
widest possible amnesty" following the end of hostilities.
In addition, it is clear from the role of ex-prisoners in the
political, community and social life of their communities, that
their profile is entirely different from criminal ex-prisoners.
However, the HRC has steadfastly refused to
engage with the core issue we have been raisingthat former
prisoners, both loyalist and republican, need to have their criminal
records cleared in order to attain full citizenship as part of
the conflict resolution process. We are not aware of any meaningful
discussion within the Commission on these issues. Certainly, had
there been such a discussion, we would have hoped to have been
consulted and to have contributed to the discussion. This has
Part of the reason for this failure to address
these issues appears to be the absence of any coherent strategic
vision for the work of the commission. While there has been a
willingness to consult widely and freely with interest groups,
the Commission does not appear to have formulated a common view
on its role and how it could address perceived contentious issues.
Instead, it appears to have become dominated by factionalism and
An example of this is the draft Bill of Rights.
On the one hand it is a catchall document which contains a veritable
shopping list of rights from a variety of interest groups (though
not our own). On the other hand, it completely dodges the hard
contentious issues which some felt should have been the proper
context within which the Bill could have been driven forward.
In particular, the Commission has not been able to develop a process
or a unifying vision which all commissioners agreed and could
then have formed the basis of the wide consensus required to carry
a draft Bill forward.
THE HRC IS
As an organisation working with republican ex-prisoners,
we are attuned to the prevailing attitudes within that section
of the community. It is important to state that the human rights
elements of the agreement were an important determinant of support
for the Good Friday Agreement among nationalists and republicans.
This arose because of the consistent abuse of human rights under
both Unionist government and direct rule which was directed in
particular against Catholics in general and republicans in particular.
Given this background, there appears to have
been a feeling within the HRC that, rather than identifying rights
for protection on a principled basis, the important project is
to ensure that unionist suspicion of human rights is addressed.
An example is the Hoy Cross dispute. Whereas the Conservative
spokesperson on Northern Ireland, Mr Quentin Davies, clearly saw
the rights implications, the Chief Commissioner, Professor Brice
Dickson, was unable to articulate this perspective.
The general perception is that, where there
is vocal unionist opposition to (or even the suspicion that unionists
might oppose something) then the Commission will not address or
argue for it. One example is the question of addressing discrimination
against former political prisoners. Because unionism is so hostile
to this issue, the Commission refuses to recognise the distinction
and instead continues the criminalisation approach.
Given the resignation of three members of the
Commission, there is an appearance of organisational dysfunction
and factionalism in the workings of the agreement. As far as we
can see, the Commission is no longer representative of the community
in terms of political opinion or religious background ie Catholics
and declared nationalists/republicans. There is a rising frustration
and disillusion in the community within which we work that the
Commission no longer has a real understanding of, or even commitment
to, the creation of a human rights culture. This was intended
to be its function when one examines the Good Friday Agreement
as a whole. It therefore creates the danger that an integral safeguard
of the Agreement is undermined.
Of course some of the difficulties relate to
the fact that the British Government along with the Westminster
Parliament imposed a resource limitation on the Commission from
the beginning. The Commission's anticipated powers were also truncated.
It has therefore, from the start, not been the strong, independent
organisation which nationalists and republicans had hoped for.
These arguments have been well rehearsed by others but inform
the alarm with which this organisation views developments in the
25 November 2002