Brian Feeney notes that for all the hype around the Belfast (and latterly St Andrews) Agreement, one group (at least) is being rather conveniently forgotten by the main negotiators – ex prisoners:
The problem is this. It’s estimated that since the early 1970s, between 24,000 and 30,000 prisoners and internees spent time in custody in the north. After the Good Friday Agreement 447 prisoners were released. They all face difficulties finding jobs, in some cases insurmountable difficulties. Although many republicans and a few former loyalist prisoners have degree qualifications and some have also professional qualifications, their criminal record disbars them from the professions. However, it is not simply access to professional jobs that is the problem. Ex-prisoners find it difficult to land any job.
He then cites a recent decision by a Fair Employment Tribunal to uphold a contention from The Simon Community “that they were entitled to refuse to employ the men because the 1998 Fair Employment and Treatment Order specifically excludes any political opinion which consists of or includes approval or acceptance of the use of violence for political ends connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland”.
People convicted of offences over 30 years ago, people released on licence because the state is satisfied they no longer pose a threat to society, people released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, all fall foul of the same handicaps.
Bear in mind that the vast majority of them would never have seen the inside of a cell were it not for the circumstances of the conflict here. Bear in mind the fact that the ex-prisoners are not the only people condemned to live in the poverty consequent upon permanent unemployment. Many of them have families whose futures are also affected by the ex-prisoners’ inability to find work.
He is critical of Sinn Fein, but nevertheless argues it is time the British took action to update the law in light of changed circumstances in the last two years:
Sinn Féign is the party which bears most responsibility for these people but they have been singularly ineffective in promoting their case almost a decade after the Good Friday Agreement.
It is true that any public push by SF would automatically result in opposition from the DUP, who would be quite happy to see former loyalist paramilitaries they marched beside and conspired with go to the wall as long as republicans got nothing. It really is up to the British administration here to act to put flesh on the promises in the Good Friday Agreement and at St Andrews. Talking about working with business, trade unions and so on is just so much hot air.
None of it will work unless the 1998 Order is amended to take account of the new circumstances of the last two years in particular when decommissioning has taken place, the IRA has stood down and SF has voted to support policing and justice.