02 May 2006

Still shackled by system


Former prisoners are still being discriminated against says Coiste na nIarchimí director Mike Richie

by Damian McCarney

Twenty-five years after the hunger strikers won political status for prisoners convicted as a result of the conflict, former republican prisoners are still facing the effects of criminalisation on a daily basis. Discrimination stemming from ex-prisoners’ previous convictions have led to obstacles in many areas of life including gaining employment, and obtaining loans.

Speaking to the Andersonstown News, Mike Ritchie Director of republican ex-prisoners’ welfare group Coiste na nIarchimí, said that the criminalisation of former political prisoners lies at the centre of the problem.

“The main problem is that having been processed through the courts and sentenced they have a ‘criminal record’. It is a unique problem faced by political prisoners, who do not see themselves as criminals.

“This is the 25th anniversary of the hunger strikes, the culmination of a long campaign in jail for political status, which resulted in prisons conceding that they were different from other prisoners,” said Mike.

Coiste are campaigning to have the special status that was acknowledged in prisons to be recognised in normal society, removing the obligation on prisoners to disclose details of convictions stemming from the conflict.
One of the most significant problems facing ex-prisoners is gaining employment.

The startling extent of the problem is illustrated by figures that show long-term unemployment among former prisoners standing at approximately 60 per cent, compared to the national average of five per cent.

For ex-prisoners, finding a job is fraught with difficulties, as many, particularly those that involve contact with children or vulnerable adults require security vetting. In such instances it is likely that convictions arising from the conflict will be equated with those derived from criminality.

“Political prejudices come into play as well, so when they see any IRA related offences, they immediately refuse to employ that person.

“Unfortunately it is not illegal to discriminate on grounds of a person’s criminal record,” said Mike.

Some employers appreciate that the former prisoners would not have been imprisoned had it not been for the conflict, however many more still perceive them as dangerous ‘terrorists’.

“Rather than assume that the application is from a ‘terrorist psychopath’, they [employers] should meet with them and talk about their record, and judge them on the contribution that they could make to the place of employment.

“I am confident that many would come up to the mark of being very good employees.

“Ex-prisoners now already hold jobs as headmasters, teachers, prominent community workers, and elected representatives.

“Martin McGuinness even became a minister, and yet he couldn’t be a civil servant in his own department,” said Mike.

In terms of specific jobs, for many years the Department of Environment enforced a de facto ban on ex-prisoners becoming taxi-drivers, by requiring the applicant to be, in their opinion, a ‘fit and proper person’ before issuing a taxiing license.

Up until recently it was routine for ex-prisoners to be turned down, and they would have to appeal to the Magistrates’ Court.

“Happily though they seem to have decided that enough time has passed and it is only in exceptional circumstances that they refuse,” said Mike, who has been Coiste’s Director since 1998.

Family life is also deeply affected by this far-reaching discrimination. For instance, some ex-prisoners who missed out on the normal child rearing age, due to lengthy periods of imprisonment, are unable to adopt or foster children as Department of Health guidelines preclude people convicted of violent offences from doing so.

Family holidays are something that most people take for granted, but for ex-prisoners, they have to take three of the more popular countries off their list of potential destinations.

Gaining entry to Canada or Australia is problematic and such is the difficulty in visiting the United States, that Coiste advise former prisoners against even trying.

“They [ex-prisoners seeking to visit the States] are interviewed by a consul official in incredibly moralistic terms about their views on violent politics, and their views on the police.

“Uniformly they tell us that the interview is an attempt to humiliate.
“Then they are left to wait weeks and weeks and only in exceptional cases, basically senior Sinn Féin members, are they allowed to visit America. Our advice is to avoid trying,” said Mike.

Dealing with financial institutions provide yet more problems. Obtaining mortgages, insurance, and bank loans require disclosure of convictions and some companies will view conflict related convictions as commensurate with criminal convictions.

In terms of insurance, if previous convictions are not disclosed, then the policy is unlikely to be valid in the event of an accident.

The problems faced by republican ex-prisoners are equally shared by their loyalist counterparts, however Coiste are hopeful that there may soon be movement on the issue of discrimination.

“All ex-prisoner networks have been in discussion with British and Irish governments over the last 12 months and we hope to see some fruits to these discussions in the coming months.

“We have been making these arguments for some years, particularly after the IRA statement of last July and we can see no reason why there should be any delays.

“We believe that since the conflict is over, the residual effects of the conflict should also be over, and we are campaigning for ‘criminal records’ to be expunged, to enable former prisoners to achieve full citizenship,” said Mike.

Journalist:: Staff Journalist

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