The Good Friday / Belfast Agreement
In the preamble to the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement (the Agreement), entitled Declaration of Support, the challenges of acknowledging and dealing with the past were recognised: The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families.
It is perhaps the most difficult challenge facing those involved in building peace in a post conflict zone. In the face of the trauma caused by the conflict, and the physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering experienced by all of the protagonists in a conflict, it is not possible to expect that people should just be able to move on and leave the past behind. The need for truth, justice, reparation, and closure face both those who perpetrated the acts of violence and those who suffered as a result, through loss of life, injury and / or loss of loved ones. Reintegration back into a normal society and learning to live in close proximity with those who had been your mortal enemies during the conflict are questions that cannot be ignored once the peace agreements have been signed and the reconstruction process begins
The Agreement did not set out to provide a formula for the resolution of these challenges. Instead, it set out to create the conditions under which, eventually, a way would be found to deal with them, based on the basic principles of partnership and mutual respect which should provide the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between these islands.
The Agreement also recognised that this is not a simple task. It acknowledges the substantial differences between our continuing, and equally legitimate, political aspirations, while making a promise to endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements. Thus, there would be no Truth and Reconciliation Commission as there had been in South Africa in 1995. The question of justice and reparation would be left to be addressed within the framework of the democratic and agreed arrangements set up by the Agreement.
The PEACE Programmes became the practical instrument that was used to begin the process of addressing these issues on a day-to-day basis. This entailed work with both the victims of the conflict and those who had been involved as perpetrators and actors within the conflict.
The section in the Agreement that deals specifically with the issue of Prisoners makes a series of commitments to the way in which those who were still in Prison for conflict-related issues in 1998 should be treated and, in particular, how the question of their release should be addressed.
The prisoners concerned were those who had been convicted by what were known as scheduled offences. Scheduled offences are defined in successive Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Acts. They include murder and manslaughter, kidnapping, serious assaults and armed robbery, and a wide range of firearms and explosives offences.
It was agreed that “both Governments would put in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners”. These mechanisms found expression, in Northern Ireland, in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act of 1998 and, in Ireland, in the Criminal Justice (Release of Prisoners) Act 1998. Both of these Acts stated that prisoners, who had been convicted of offences prior to the signing of the Agreement and, who were affiliated with organisations who had established and maintained an unequivocal ceasefire, were eligible for release.
The Acts provided for the establishment of an independent Body, The Sentence Review Commission, to oversee the process. It was also agreed that the process should be completed within two years. The work of the Commissioners was regulated by The Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 (Sentence Review Commissioners) Rules 1998
The release of prisoners under the terms of the Agreement and the subsequent mechanisms, did not amount to an Amnesty. Prisoners were released on a Licence Arrangement with a number of important conditions attached. The conditions included a requirement that the individual concerned should not support a specified organisation; should not become concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland; and, in the case of a life prisoner, that he/she does not become a danger to the public. The licence remains in force, for fixed term prisoners, until the date when the individual released would otherwise have been entitled to release from prison; and, for those with a life sentence, for the rest of his/her life. The Secretary of State may revoke a Licence if an individual is deemed to have broken a condition of his / her release.
The Agreement also states that the Governments “recognise the importance of measures to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community by providing support both prior to and after release, including assistance directed towards availing of employment opportunities, re-training and/or reskilling, and further education”. It is this commitment that provides the basis for the work of the PEACE Programmes in this area.
The Challenge of Scale
According to the Sentence Review Commissioners, between 1998 and 2020, a total of 650 applications for release from prison had been received. Of these, 127 were not proceeded with or withdrawn and 522 had been the subject of substantive determinations.
According to an analysis carried out in 2007, of the 449 prisoners released at that time since 1999 under the early-release scheme, only 16 had their Licenses revoked (of these, 12 were life sentence prisoners). Four of the recalled life prisoners were charged with paramilitary type offences; three on the basis of advice from the police; and nine because they had been charged with violent (non-paramilitary) offences and were believed to be a danger to the public. Of those who had their Licenses revoked, three were Republican and 13 were Loyalist.
The number of prisoners released under the terms of the Agreement, whose cases have been dealt with by the Sentence Review Commissioners, only refer to those who were in prison at the time of the signing of the Agreement in April 1998. In truth, they represent only a fraction of the total conflict-related, politically motivated former prisoner population who would have served sentences during the period 1971 to 1998, commonly referred to as The Troubles.
It is difficult to arrive at an exact figure for the number of individuals who were imprisoned for conflict-related, politically motivated offences during The Troubles. A number of authoritative attempts have been made to arrive at a precise figure, many of which are assessed and summarised in a paper published in 2008, which also explains some of the challenges associated with arriving at a precise figure. According to Jamieson et al., the Secretary of State estimated that during the period 1971 to 1998, 75% of the Prison Population of Northern Ireland consisted of individuals convicted of ‘terrorist type’ offences. It was also estimated that the reconviction rate for scheduled offences was 20% of those who had been released after having served a prison sentence. In addition, there were a number of prisoners who had been interned during the period 1971-1975 and an additional number who had been imprisoned in Ireland, in England and elsewhere during the period 1974 to 1998.
Taking all of those figures together, the authors of the study estimated that almost 40,000 people had been imprisoned for politically motivated offences or were detained on suspicion of such offences during the period 1971 to 1998. The study further estimates that over 95% of these were male and 5% female and the vast majority of them (ca. 70%) were from urban backgrounds. In all, it is estimated that over 30% of Northern Irish men of the generation 1971 to 1998 carry criminal convictions for politically motivated offences. Taking into account the fact that the population of Northern Ireland over the period in question (1971 to 1998) varied between 1.5 million and 1.7 million, it is clear that the incidence and impact of the ex-prisoner population on local communities was enormous.
The Importance of Vocabulary
One of the difficulties in addressing this topic in the context of Northern Ireland and the PEACE Programmes is vocabulary. The words that one uses in speaking about the challenges involved in this area of peace building can be interpreted to infer a certain view of the conflict and of the roles of the various protagonists, depending on which side of the cultural and historical divide you are on. This is a theme that has been addressed in some of the authoritative research and commentary that exists about the Northern Ireland peace process and is worth bearing in mind when considering the work of the PEACE Programmes in this area.
The Agreement refers to ‘Prisoners’, as it sets out to address the issue of those who were in prison at the time convicted of offences related to the conflict. They made up only a small portion of those who had been imprisoned over the whole period of the conflict, hence the emergence of the concept of ex-prisoners, and former prisoners, as part of the wider target group that were addressed by the work of the Peace Programmes.
One of the features of the work of the Peace Programmes in this area has been the provision of support for self-help groups, formed by those who have been imprisoned and released and are now committed to building peace and acting as a positive catalyst for reconciliation within and between their communities.
These self-help groups generally prefer to refer to themselves as ‘former-prisoners’ and / or ‘former-combatants’. The groups to which they belonged are often referred to as paramilitary groups. The use of the word ‘paramilitary’ in the Northern Ireland context is quite different from how it is used in other conflict zones, where it is frequently used to designate armed gangs involved in criminal activity that is not politically motivated.
The use of the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ is difficult in Northern Ireland. They go to the heart of the interpretation of the political status of former prisoners / former combatants. The PEACE Programmes have avoided the use of these terms. The individuals and groups are generally referred to in the PEACE Programmes as politically motivated former prisoners / former combatants. This is in line with research on best international practice in this area: “Although those who are considered ‘politically motivated’ former prisoners in Northern Ireland are not strictly recognized as ‘combatants’ under international law, there now exists an increasing amount of literature which refers to those whose incarceration is conflict related as ‘former combatants’”. This approach is corroborated by a number of additional research papers based on the Northern Ireland Conflict.
It is important to remember that the work of the PEACE Programmes in this area pre-dates the emergence of modern approaches to Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) as it has evolved over the last 20 years under the aegis of the work of the United Nations. The work that has been carried out in this area therefore has not benefited from the DDR framing that has emerged in recent years.