Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence


7. Memorandum from Coiste na n-larchí Committee of Ex-prisoners)

INTRODUCTION

  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 Ireland.

  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; and

    —  the resource deficit and inadequate powers granted to the commission by government

THE NATURE OF OUR INTERACTION WITH THE HRC

  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.

THE FAILURE OF THE COMMISSION TO ADDRESS POLITICAL EX -PRISONER CONCERNS

  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 and—despite their differential treatment under emergency law and in the prisons—are 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 raising—that 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 not happened.

THE LACK OF ANY SENSE OF A STRATEGIC VISION WITHIN THE COMMISSION

  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 personalised agendas.

  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 SENSE IN NATIONALIST/REPUBLICAN CIRCLES THAT THE HRC IS OVERLY CONCERNED WITH UNIONIST PERCEPTIONS OF IT AS BIASED IN FAVOUR OF NATIONALISM

  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.

THE DANGER ARISING FROM THE APPARENT INCOHERENCE AND ORGANISATIONAL DYSFUNCTION WITHIN THE COMMISSION

  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.

THE RESOURCE DEFICIT AND INADEQUATE POWERS GRANTED TO THE COMMISSION'S BY GOVERNMENT

  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 Commission.

25 November 2002


 
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