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Story of PEACE Key Themes Ex-Prisoners

Key Themes


The Good Friday / Belfast Agreement

In the preamble to the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement[1] (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[2]. 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[3] 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[4]. 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[5] and, in Ireland, in the Criminal Justice (Release of Prisoners) Act 1998[6]. 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[7], 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[8]

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[9]. The conditions included a requirement that the individual concerned should not support a specified organisation[10]; 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[11]. 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[12], 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[13], 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[14], 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[15], 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[16].

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[17]. 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’”[18]. This approach is corroborated by a number of additional research papers based on the Northern Ireland Conflict[19].

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[20]. The work that has been carried out in this area therefore has not benefited from the DDR framing that has emerged in recent years.

The Work of the Peace Programmes

 Since 1995, most of the funding for politically motivated former prisoner groups in Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland came from the PEACE Programmes[21]. During the early years (1995 to 2003 – PEACE I and the first period of PEACE II), funding of ca. €10 million was used to support the establishment of 61 self-help groups and a further 29 projects for those working with politically motivated former prisoners and their families. This work was extended and elaborated during the remainder of PEACE II and throughout PEACE III and PEACE IV.

Ex-prisoners received funding support under the following PEACE Programme themes/measures:

  • PEACE I: Social Inclusion.
  • PEACE II: Social Integration Inclusion and Reconciliation, Cross Border Co-operation.
  • PEACE III: Reconciling Communities and Regional Projects, Acknowledging and Dealing with the Past.
  • PEACE IV: Regional Level Projects.

Under the PEACE I Programme, ex-prisoners and their families were eligible to apply for assistance under all of the measures under the Social Inclusion priority, however Measure 1.1 was directly targeted to improve the employability of marginalised individuals and to cover related training opportunities.  The contribution made by the PEACE Programme helped to bridge the funding and strategic gap that was absent on both sides of the border. An evaluation[22] concluded that PEACE I funding for the ex-prisoner community had:

  • supported the healing process which is particularly essential amongst ex-combatants who had been engaged in violence as part of the overall peace process;
  • secured a wide level of community involvement, both in the establishment of ex-prisoner groups and in the on-going contacts which these groups have with the wider community;
  • provided significant levels of training to many ex-prisoners thereby enhancing the skills base of ex-prisoners and their communities; and
  • clearly involved user groups in the design and implementation of projects in keeping with the best practice in community development.

Under the PEACE II Programme, support continued under Social Inclusion and Cross Border Co-operation measures.  Ex-prisoners' groups were eligible to apply for funding from any measure where the criteria for eligibility were met. In some cases groups offered support to both victims and survivors as well as ex-prisoners, so it is difficult to disaggregate the total amount directed to support the ex-prisoners community alone. In a review of the PEACE II Programme it was noted that: “The programme permitted and validated work with ex-combatants and began their social and political re-integration.” [23]

The range of work across both PEACE I and PEACE II, significantly added to peace-building efforts, as concluded in research funded through PEACE II on the relationship between community relations and former prisoners[24]  “former prisoners have been at the forefront of a range of community and civil society initiatives which have entailed dialogue and cooperation (where possible) between traditional segregated and estranged working class communities”.

The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI), acted as the main channel for the funding  from PEACE I, PEACE II and PEACE III, and became the lead partner for two consortiums that were set up to work on ex-prisoner related projects, entitled: ‘Conflict Transformation from the Bottom Up’[25], which was a single identity project aimed at ex-prisoners from loyalist groups, and  ‘From Prison to Peace’, which was a cross-community initiative that included both nationalist and loyalist groups.  In addition, groups based in the border counties received support for courses and training for ex-prisoners[26].  In excess of £14m was awarded to groups working with ex-prisoners and their families[27].

In 2018, obstacles to employment for ex-prisoners still existed[28]. Support from the PEACE IV Programme sought to address this through Co-operation Ireland’s ‘Open Doors’ project with an award of over €1.6 million. This project set out to build relationships between the ex-prisoner / former combatant community, and other groups and sectors across the region: “The Open Doors project is looking at people who were former ex-prisoners from all of the communities in Northern Ireland and who have a useful contribution to make to rebuilding the society… Some of the most valuable assessments that we get are from people who were what we call former combatants or former prisoners, who want to see Northern Ireland progress”. [29]

A second project entitled ‘Building Positive Relations’ was funded under PEACE IV’s Regional Level Projects. The project was led by Ashton Community Trust and involved a partnership between the Coiste Network, Veterans for Peace, Irish Immigration Advisors and Belfast Conflict Resolution Centre. The project was designed to incorporate a multi-level approach to building positive relations. The project had a significant positive impact where ‘through the project workshops, meetings with external groups, conferences and outreach work, important strides have been made in understanding collective issues facing society and in setting out ways in which we can work together to address and overcome barriers’.[30]  Both the ‘Open Doors’ and ‘Building Positive Relations’ Projects also collaborated in the successful delivery of a Sustainable Leadership Programme, which developed and harnessed positive leadership skills among participants across both projects.

From the beginning, the work was focused equally on those who had been released under the terms of the Agreement and the many thousands of others who has been imprisoned and released throughout the period of the Troubles. The work was aimed at fulfilling the commitment made in the Agreement to providing assistance in 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.

Most of the work that was carried out with these groups was managed by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI), an independent NGO that acted as an intermediate implementing agent on behalf of the Peace Programmes[31]. The work of CFNI has been well documented and their commitment to undertaking such an important role has not been without its own risks[32].

Political Ex-Prisoner Support Centres opened in the period immediately after the 1994 cease fires, providing a range of basic services including information and advice on welfare benefits, personal finances, housing, employment opportunities, education and training and, where necessary, referrals to specialist counselling and support agencies. The centres also provided a social drop-in function, providing a listening ear and mutual support network. These centres subsequently developed into training and counselling service centres in their own right, and the services were provided by former prisoners who had obtained additional training and professional qualifications themselves.

The centres and the groups became adept at a range of self-help interventions that assisted former prisoners in identifying and addressing their own needs. Many former prisoners suffered greatly from alcohol and drug related medical and psychiatric problems; many of them experienced great difficulty reintegrating into their families and communities. There was no formal help available to them to address these needs, so the importance of the self-help groups cannot be underestimated in the process of reintegration. The support work of groups for ex-prisoners and their families to receive full participation in economic, political, and social life has been especially important in border counties where they have been isolated and in some cases, they have felt ‘discriminated’ from mainstream society[33].

The work of the groups also developed into the area of peacebuilding and conflict transformation within and between the communities in which they lived. One good example of this work is the PEACE III Funded initiative ‘Prison to Peace’. This was a joint project by the political ex-prisoner support groups from loyalist (UVF and UDA) and republican (IRA, INLA and Official IRA) constituencies. The project set out to explore ways in which political former prisoners could use their narratives to engage with young people in order to de-mythologize the conflict and the prison experience and to encourage them to make a positive contribution to their communities. They developed the school-based educational programme, targeted for use primarily as part of the Key Stage Four (age 14-16) curriculum for citizenship education. The aims of the programme were to: prevent young people from becoming involved in and/or returning to violence through presenting the realities of the conflict and the prison experience from the point of view of those directly involved in the conflict; demonstrate to young people alternative ways of dealing with conflict which do not necessarily require individuals to give up their political aspirations or cultural identity; present young people with alternative ‘bottom-up’ perspectives on the conflict through a comprehensive and complex picture of the political ex-prisoner experience; and provide young people with an opportunity to engage directly with those who were involved in the conflict in panel discussions with former prisoners.

An independent evaluation of the project concluded that: While there are many ways in which the ‘Troubles’ and its legacy could be addressed in the curriculum ‘Prison to Peace’ provides young people with a unique perspective on conflict, its impact and on the processes of conflict transformation. In doing so it has a significant positive impact on their knowledge of the complexity of conflict, attitudes towards those from the ‘other’ community, and on their intended behaviours in relation to support for violence and intention to be politically engaged[34].

The work of the ex-prisoners groups with educational institutions was part of the approach encouraged and supported by the PEACE Programmes to encourage dialogue aimed at acknowledging and dealing with the past and building positive relationships as key pillars in the promotion of reconciliation[35] as outlined in another Thematic Paper available on this platform. The groups and individuals involved developed mechanisms, in partnership with a range of other actors, to facilitate this kind of engagement.

In addition to the work done in the area of education, ex-prisoner groups have also been engaged in initiatives aimed at opening up dialogue with former members of the security forces, both those who had served in the British Army and in the RUC. In 2015, for example, The Belfast Telegraph reported on[36] how former republican paramilitaries and British soldiers are taking part in a remarkable reconciliation project. The project involved evolving conversations … in Belfast and elsewhere … in a partnership with the republican project Coiste na nIarchimi. Similar initiatives took place in partnership with the Veterans for Peace UK[37] leading to initiatives such as the tour of Northern Ireland undertaken by former members of the British Army in collaboration with individuals and organisations who had been their enemies in the past[38]

The Peace Programmes also funded activities aimed at promoting dialogue between victims and survivors, former members of paramilitary organisations / former combatants, former members of the security forces (RUC and British Army). Examples of this can be found in the work of the Theatre of Witness Programme developed in the Derry Playhouse[39], and in the work of Healing Through Remembering[40].