Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 7 October 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Engagement with Coiste na nIarchimí
We are back in public session. I thank everybody for attending and engaging with the committee. I apologise to our witnesses for the delay. As I said before we commenced the meeting earlier, we look forward to visiting Belfast and Derry in the near future. We hope to meet a number of different groups and organisations in the North. In particular, we hope to meet the Ballymurphy and Springhill families. We also hope to visit the WAVE Trauma Centre, which is the largest cross-community victim support group in the country. We also intend to meet people from many community groups on both sides of the great divide. The Good Friday Agreement is designed to bring us all together again.
From Coiste na nIarchimí, I welcome Mr. Michael Culbert, director, Mr. Thomas Quigley, treasurer, and Mr. John O'Hagan. I must inform them that the evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected pursuant to the Constitution and statute by absolute privilege. However, witnesses and participants who are to give evidence from a location outside of the parliamentary precincts are asked to note they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts does and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Witnesses are also asked to note that only evidence connected with the subject matter of proceedings should be given and should respect directions given by the Chair and the parliamentary practice to the effect that where possible they should neither criticise not make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the person's or entity's good name. I now call on Mr. Culbert to give his opening statement.
Mr. Michael Culbert:
I have provided a short introduction of what Coiste na nIarchimí is, what it does and what it hopes to do. Rather than repeat what I hope committee members have already read, I will take a moment to quote from the Good Friday Agreement in the context of the people we represent. The first quote is from Annex B on page 48 of the Good Friday Agreement, which states, "The Governments continue to 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 re-skilling, and further education." That is in the Good Friday Agreement.
Eight years later we had the St. Andrews Agreement, where the commitment was:
The Government will work with business, trade unions and ex-prisoner groups to produce guidance for employers which will reduce barriers to employment and enhance re-integration of former prisoners.
The only thing which we are here to speak about is our attempt to gain equality of citizenship on the island of Ireland. All we want is to work full time. This is the fifth engagement I have had with the implementation group, yet I am not aware of any actions by the Government in the South. Following the Stormont House Agreement, we have been very fortunate to get the setting up of structures in parts of Ireland-----
I am sorry, but we could hear very little of that. That is unfortunate from our perspective. It is a sound issue. It is not personal to anybody whatsoever. I could not hear what Mr. Culbert said clearly. I apologise for that. If he wishes to try again, he may do so in order that we can hear what he said. Alternatively, his colleagues are very welcome to comment. I do not know if anybody here could hear him clearly. I am sorry that happened.
I could not hear. I am just trying to be helpful. I can hear Senator Ó Donnghaile clearly. I have no problem proceeding, it is just that I did not hear. I say respectfully, as Chair, that Senator Ó Donnghaile’s hearing must be much better than mine. Both of us present in the committee room could not hear what Mr. Culbert said. That is being respectful to him. I hope he would not imply that I was being disrespectful or that we would not want to hear what he had to say, because we do. If Mr. Quigley or Mr. O'Hagan would like to address the committee, we would very much like to hear what they have to say.
Mr. Thomas Quigley:
I have been the manager of the ex-prisoners project in north Belfast, Tar Isteach, for the past 20 years. In fact, it is longer. Since 1999 we have been providing support for ex-prisoners in terms of welfare rights, counselling, training, employment and advocacy, all the issues and elements provided by Coiste na nIarchimí and Tar Anall. We are based in north Belfast. We see thousands of ex-prisoners every year. In the main, we have been receiving funding for our projects from the PEACE programme, but that has been haphazard and piecemeal. Sometimes it has been good. The only time it was sufficient was when PEACE III was in operation. Before and after that, there were no dedicated funds for supporting ex-prisoners.
We see the issues of ex-prisoners mainly concentrating on the barriers created by the criminal record that still remains 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement. Everyone else in society is allowed equality of rights, especially in terms of employment. In 2016, recommendations were made by the Fresh Start panel. We raised the issue of the Fair Employment and Treatment Order, which guarantees workers' rights and equality of rights for workers. There is a provision within the order that specifically denies the same rights to ex-prisoners. Section 2(4) has the proviso that anyone who supported violence does not have equality of rights as far as employment is concerned. You can legally discriminate against ex-prisoners with no problem whatsoever. You can legally refuse services to ex-prisoners. All you need to do is quote the Fair Employment and Treatment Order. Anyone who was imprisoned during the conflict is deemed to have supported violence, no matter what they were in for. The Fresh Start panel recommended that the Fair Employment and Treatment Order would be amended to take out the proviso about support for violence. That was back in 2016. It was the only recommendation in the report that it specifically asked would be addressed urgently, but it has not been addressed at all. At a meeting in the Wellington Park Hotel, I outlined what I just outlined here. I raised the issues of the Fair Employment and Treatment Order, equality for ex-prisoners, and the fact that state actors received more than £2 billion in support. Organisations were set up on their behalf. They were mainstream organisations. There are dozens of support organisations that anyone involved in the state can apply to and receive support from. Nothing was set up with the same structures and resources for ex-prisoners. Those state actors are not discriminated against in any way, but political ex-prisoners are. Most of the barriers to ex-prisoners come from that conflict-related conviction and they have a criminal record. They have problems with employment, insurance, travel and access to financial services, including mortgages and loans. We have difficulty navigating all the things most people take for granted. We meet a point-blank roadblock.
Those are the issues that still remain. They are the same issues that we spoke of three or four years ago. In the past we travelled to Dublin to raise the issue with the committee, and we met with the committee in the Wellington Park Hotel a few years ago. I know other people raised the issue of ex-prisoners with the committee. I know people were listening but whether they heard is another thing because nothing came out of any of those meetings. No actions were taken. None of our recommendations were ever implemented. The PEACE programme is the only programme that provided the same sort of support services that other actors in the conflict receive without any thought whatsoever. Since the end of PEACE III, that fund more or less dried up. We do a great deal of good relations work as part of the work that we do. The PEACE IV programme only provides resources to run good relations programmes. There are dozens of good relations programmes in the North, including the Central Good Relations Fund, which is basically the teabag strategy implemented by the Executive.
We had many good relations programmes already running when PEACE IV was introduced. It is another good relations programme, but it does not provide any support for ex-prisoners or any of the services they need in terms of welfare, welfare rights, counselling, physiotherapy, training and employment, all of which are things we know from our research and interaction with ex-prisoners they need. We have carried out a number of research reports over many years on ex-prisoners which, if members had time to read them, would enlighten them with regard to what ex-prisoners want and need and what needs to be addressed.
Basically, we need opportunities to engage with committees such as this committee and others that have influence. We have engaged previously with this committee and others but we are still waiting for someone to come up with the remedies for these issues. We need measures that will tackle the barriers that ex-prisoners face and ensure the provision of the supports that are needed for ex-prisoners who, in the main, are old aged now and dealing with all of the issues of old age with which everybody else is dealing. Their children and grandchildren are also facing issues because either their grandfather or grandmother has a criminal record. That is taken into account when they seek employment or want to travel or do all of the things that normal people want to do. That is the view from north Belfast.
We have done the best we can, along with the other ex-prisoner groups, to keep these projects going and to support ex-prisoners. It has been very difficult to get those resources and it is a struggle every day to keep these projects open. I will hand over to my colleague, John O'Hagan of Tar Anall, also in Belfast.
Mr. John O'Hagan:
I appreciate the opportunity to engage with the committee. Unlike Mr. Quigley and Mr. Culbert, this is my first time in front of the committee. It is important that we reflect on what has been already said by Mr. Quigley and Mr. Culbert. I represent an ex-prisoner organisation in west Belfast known as Tar Isteach, which along with Coiste na nIarchimí, delivers a host of services. Not to regurgitate what Mr. Quigley or Mr. Culbert have touched on, but since coming into operation in 1985, Tar Isteach has dealt with thousands of republican ex-prisoners and family members.
I would like to return to some of the points made by Mr. Quigley with regard to the focus on political ex-prisoners and their importance in the development of the peace process. To be clear, the role of political ex-prisoners was fundamental not only to the development of the peace process but to the maintenance of it. We have maintained the peace from 1998 in a wide range of adverse situations. We have led in that charge. What we have seen from particularly-----
Mr. John O'Hagan:
With regard to the development of an uneven adverse approach to political ex-prisoners, I refer the committee to the recommendations from the British Government with regard to the victims' pension scheme. Within that scheme, the only community discriminated against en masseis the political ex-prisoner community regardless of how they received their injuries. Approximately 95% of the people we represent are victims of state violence. Within the recommendations set out by the British Government, these individuals who were deemed victims are now being stripped of their victimhood because of their role within the conflict yet state forces would go forward unhindered and unrestricted with regard to a plan for their pensions. This is the development, as we see it, of things getting progressively worse with regard to the issue of political ex-prisoners.
We have lost you again Mr. O'Hagan. This failure of technology is really unacceptable. We cannot hear you, Mr. O'Hagan. If any of Mr. O'Hagan's colleagues have a number for his office they might contact somebody there to let him know we cannot hear him. I am really sorry about this. It is an embarrassment to the Oireachtas that our witnesses cannot be communicated with properly.
We are back in public session. I apologise to our guests for the interruption with the quality of the sound and so on. We have agreed that when we go to Belfast on the 11th, we will ensure that we meet fully with our witnesses and discuss and deliberate on the issues they raised with us, some of which we were unable to hear. Tá cead cainte ag an Seanadóir Ó Donnghaile anois.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an múinteoir - gabh mo leithscéal - leis an gCathaoirleach. Gabhaim buíochas le Michael Culbert, Thomas Quigley agus John O'Hagan as an gcur i láthair. Tá brón orainn faoin droch-chumarsáid a bhí ansin. I thank Mr. Culbert, Mr. Quigley and Mr. O'Hagan for the contributions. I was at the previous committee at which Mr. Culbert presented. Many of the issues to which he referred are the same as those he outlined previously. He is right to say that there has not been a huge amount of progress. I speak as someone who deals quite regularly with the ex-prisoner constituency and the families involved. I am keen to focus on the issue of transgenerational discrimination, particularly as it has featured at these meetings and other engagements we have had with representatives from both the republican and loyalist ex-prisoner constituencies.
Given that this is the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, it is our role and obligation to look at what aspects of the Good Friday Agreement have not been and need to be implemented. Certainly, the discrimination and issues faced by the ex-prisoner population and the families, children, grandchildren and now, in some instances, great-grandchildren involved remain as live as ever, 23 years after the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements which made reference to equality issues relating to ex-prisoners.
The highest concentration of the ex-prisoner population is in the Six Counties, but there are a number of ex-prisoners in the South as well. What level of engagement do they have, through organisations like Coiste na nIarchimí, with the Government and the relevant Departments? Mr. Culbert mentioned in his presentation, and he can correct me if I am wrong, that the Stormont working group was established under Fresh Start, which deals with a range of issues under the title of equality of citizenship for ex-prisoners.
My question is two-pronged. Has the Stormont working group had any engagements with the Government on ex-prisoner issues? Is there merit in the committee and Coiste na nIarchimí engaging with the Government to see if a similar forum can be replicated and established in the Twenty-six Counties that would look at the issues faced by ex-prisoners and their families in this jurisdiction, and what the Government can do as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement to assist? Sin mo mhéid for now. I hope that was clear and I hope the witnesses were able to hear me.
Mr. Michael Culbert:
Once again it is very awkward for me because there is a major echo. At the moment, I am still listening to the Senator speaking because there is a terrible echo. If the committee can hear me, will somebody give a thumbs-up? Okay.
What the Senator said was spot on. What we need is some sort of structural situation. We have a rather casual one. The Stormont working group was set up under the Stormont House Agreement and it has been quite effective. It gave an imprimatur and a little gravitas to situations that were arising. I would not presume to speak on behalf of loyalist ex-prisoners, but they are a major section of our community and we interact with them quite a lot. They deal with the same situations we do and they also, with us, sit on the Stormont working group. To a degree, we very much need a similar structure in the South, set up formally under the auspices of the Government, to give an imprimatur to situations that arise and are dealt with by the Stormont House Agreement for the purposes of employment. We have trade unions and employers' organisations there. It is quite good because of the interactions that are created. Resolutions are found without having to take them very far into the legal world. In a similar way, quite a few human rights organisations also-----
Mr. Michael Culbert:
About 20 years ago, Mark Fitzgerald set up a casual organisation, based in Glencree, which dealt with political ex-prisoner issues. It was not structured and did not have any state input. For what it is worth, when we are dealing with employers' organisations or individual employers, even formal letters coming from the offices of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are very effective in persuading people that there is gravitas behind the issues that have been raised with them and that it is not just an individual former political prisoner trying to provide their case. The Senator's idea is excellent and is something that should be set up.
I will conclude my remarks because Mr. Molloy is looking to come in. This issue is perhaps something we could tease out in that follow-up engagement when we meet with Mr. Culbert in Belfast, if God spares us. I hope there is action because he rightly criticised the lack of action. This is a very pertinent issue. I again make the point that we are the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and this is very clearly an aspect of that agreement that is not being implemented even though it would help to change the lives of ex-prisoners and, increasingly, their families. This is a demographic that in terms of discrimination is not reducing as the years go on. It is actually increasing as more ex-prisoners' families have families. It is a demographic that is growing all the time.
We need to deal with this and I would certainly be keen that we tease out the issue Mr. Culbert raised about a more formal structure that would allow us to engage with the Government in this State to talk about support, signposting, advice and engagement with the ex-prisoner population. Coming off the back of our next meeting, I will say to our visitors and our Chairman that we can perhaps look at the actions of this committee. I appreciate we are limited in what we can do but there is an onus on us, as the implementation committee, to look at actions as we go forward. Arís eile, sin mo mhéid. Gabhaim buíochas leis na finnéithe as an ionchur.
I welcome the witnesses. It is disappointing that since we last met this representative group there has not been progress on those key issues. At the outset, Mr. Quigley referred to Annex B of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. He mentioned in particular the extract, "The Governments continue to recognise the importance of measures to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community by providing support", which goes on to refer to the importance of availing of employment opportunities, retraining, reskilling and further education. That particular clause in the Good Friday Agreement is supplemented by the St. Andrews Agreement of 2006 in the annex that states, "The Government will work with business, trade unions and ex-prisoner groups to produce guidance for employers [to] reduce barriers to employment and enhance re-integration". Those are clear messages.
I am a firm believer that when international agreements are made between governments, all aspects of the agreements should be implemented. Agreements between governments that are lodged in the United Nations should be implemented in full. Quite a number of years have passed now and it is disappointing to learn that obstacles are still being put in the way of people training. One of the current issues mentioned in the briefing notes was that of education and voluntary work. If people are to be reintegrated into society to contribute in a very positive way and to reach their potential, there is a necessity for employment training and reskilling. That leads on to employment opportunities. We have often discussed at this committee the need to ensure people have the opportunity to work and contribute to society. Barriers to education, training and employment should be removed for the good of society and for the good of individuals.
As the Chairman said, if there are some particular proposals we can pursue with Departments or statutory agencies, we should do that. Are the obstacles a matter for legislation from Westminster or can the Stormont Executive and the assembly assist in removing some of the barriers and giving some momentum to ensure people get the opportunity to get education and training and take up employment opportunities?
Mr. Michael Culbert:
I will step in there. The point brought up by Deputy Smith is totally valid. The problems we face are in practice, rather than as a result of legislation.
There seems to be an assumption, and rightly so, that people going into employment or training cannot be put into places where there is a possibility of criminality. We get that it could be related to protection of vulnerable people, financial issues, etc. Our problem is that the types of imprisonment we experienced over the years of the conflict are not relevant to the matters at hand of going into employment. For instance, a young man employed as a cleaner in Belfast city centre was charged with particular activities during the conflict. He was put out of employment as a cleaner. We were quite successful in reasoning with the employer. It was an American employer but was obliged to follow local rules. The employer did not want to dismiss him but, initially, did so. After consultation with the Stormont working group, the man was reinstated to his work.
The problem is some employers are stuck because they are aware of legislation relating to a person with a criminal record, which, unfortunately------
Mr. Michael Culbert:
If a person has a record, they automatically take that as meaning they cannot employ them. That is not the law. We want that to be taken into account and then a decision made to employ them or not. We have tried to emphasise that throughout the country with employers. Because a person has a record-----
Mr. Thomas Quigley:
One of the main barriers is legislative. It is through an employment treatment order and that can be amended via the Executive. It would be a positive move if something similar to the Stormont working group was set up in the South. We would see that as a step forward. Even that working group has not changed a great deal. We were able to introduce the employers' guidance, which is still voluntary in the private business sector. It allows people to join the civil service. The guidance is implemented in the service. That was one of the victories of the Stormont working group. However, anybody in prison is deemed a supporter of violence and does not have the same protections under the fair employment order or under section 75, which is supposed to protect everyone in employment.
We would like to see something written into the legislation that specifically addresses equality for ex-prisoners. It does not just affect the prisoner, it also affects the family. We are getting more and more people presenting at our offices saying that their child has been asked if anyone in the home has a criminal record when they apply for jobs, mortgages or insurance. What ex-prisoners used to do, and many still do, is they will not say they have a prison record. They will not say they were in prison during the conflict for fear of not being able to get insurance, a loan, a mortgage or whatever. Many people will also not apply for jobs across vast sectors of employment. They believe there is no point in people applying because they are at a disadvantage once it comes out that they were in prison during the conflict. They would have more chance of getting most of those jobs if their offence was not political. If you were imprisoned for some form of criminality, it is easier to get a job. It is easier to state that you were in prison for those reasons, but if you state you were in prison for the conflict, section 2.4 of the fair employment treatment order allows employers not to give you that job. We would like to see a similar working group set up in the South. The working group in the North has had some successes but it has not addressed the vast majority of those barriers.
We are coming up to the introduction of the PEACE PLUS programme. In the past, we were successful in what we were able to achieve under PEACE III. Under PEACE IV, all those advancements were lost because the PEACE IV programme only addressed good relations programmes. We raised these issues at every level of government we could before the PEACE IV programme was introduced. We told people what was happening and that ex-prisoners would be excluded from the resources of the peace programme. We warned it would happen and it did. It will happen again with PEACE PLUS. The same programme, more or less, as PEACE IV will be introduced. It is a good relations programme and exactly matches the good relations programmes already running in the North. We do not need more good relations programmes. We have many of them. They are well used and well resourced. There was nothing in PEACE IV and it looks like there will be nothing in PEACE PLUS to support ex-prisoners or the services, including advocacy services, they need. That is a problem we see quickly coming down the road. If it is not addressed now, we will end up with another peace programme that does nothing to address the issues of supporting ex-prisoners.
I offer a big thank you to Mr. O'Hagan, Mr. Quigley and Mr. Culbert for that. I offer apologies on the committee's behalf for the technological difficulties we are experiencing in this room. It was the same there so we only heard bits and pieces.
I have a couple of basic questions. I will rattle them off rather than asking one question, getting an answer and coming back in, particularly as we might have further technological difficulties. My first question was mentioned in one of the opening statements, but I could not hear what was said. Roughly how many ex-prisoners are there on the island of Ireland? What is the ballpark figure for the number of people Coiste na nIarchimí represents? It was said the level of peace programme funding can be haphazard and go up and down in different years. What type of funding on average does Coiste na nIarchimí get from the peace programme? Is there any other funding streams it can avail of? Where does the majority of its funding come from? One of our guests mentioned that the organisation works to remove legislative barriers that still exist. Will the witnesses outline a couple of the key legislative barriers they think still exist, whether in Northern Ireland or in the South? I googled the website before the witnesses came in and I looked at the walking tours their organisation does. When we visit Belfast, it would be excellent if it was available for members of the committees to take part in some of those walking tours. That would be interesting.
Mr. Michael Culbert:
I did not quite hear everything that was said. My apologies. The easy question to answer concerns the number of political ex-prisoners on the island. Queen's University and several organisations did research. It is quite difficult to find out numbers. The approximate numbers are 24,000 republicans and 16,000 loyalists were in prison. We are talking about a population of about 40,000 political ex-prisoners on the island, plus their families.
One of the major issues we have been trying to highlight is that that imprisonment affects the families, not just the former political prisoner himself or herself. Within the Protestant-----
Mr. Michael Culbert:
In terms of republican ex-prisoners, there are in the region of 6,000. I have no idea what the general breakdown is within the loyalist community.
With regard to the legislative barriers and the British Government, Westminster legislation is what impacts on us - we have no way of affecting that at all because Stormont has no input. We still have four pieces of Westminster legislation that discriminate against us. We tried but there is no way to possibly-----
Mr. Thomas Quigley:
To give some perspective to the numbers, it is believed that there are nearly 40,000 ex-prisoners altogether. They are in pockets scattered around the country. I can give an example. We are working in the New Lodge Road area of Belfast. It is a small working-class area, right on the peace line between the Shankill Road and Tiger's Bay, with a population of 5,000. We have on our register more than 600 ex-prisoners just from that small area. That is between 10% and 12% of the population of the area. It is the same in Ardoyne, in west Belfast, Derry and places like Lurgan. That is a high percentage in those pockets. Around 10% or 12% of the local population have an ex-prisoner in their family and that is replicated all over the North.
On the funding we received from the PEACE programme, the funding from PEACE II was relatively small. From PEACE III, there was a significant amount of money. Under PEACE IV, there was again a relatively small amount of funding and that was for the 12 counties of the North. We tried to set up a network of co-ordinators to undertake good relations work within those areas but the reason those groups exist and the reason the organisations like Tar Isteach, Tar Anall and the groups in Derry, Monaghan and Louth were set up was to support ex-prisoners. They do good relations work and always have. They have always done peace and reconciliation work. That is part of the work they do but they are there, in the main, in order to support ex-prisoners because they are the only organisations that are speaking for ex-prisoners. The vast majority of research that has been carried out in respect of political ex-prisoners has been by groups like ours. We have done five different research projects in the past 15 years and the reports relating to them are used widely to show what is happening within the ex-prisoner community. Very few other groups, academic or otherwise, are taking up those research projects unless we instigate them.
One thing that was touched on earlier is that findings are not gradually getting better for ex-prisoners. There has been an ongoing campaign from day one from people who did not support the Good Friday Agreement in the main within the DUP, and now within the Traditional Unionist Voice, TUV, who are actively working to restrict the rights of ex-prisoners every day of their lives. There has just been a further attempt by Jim Allister to introduce another Bill that would specifically restrict the rights of ex-prisoners. It would apply to nobody else; just ex-prisoners. He is not interested in anyone other than republican ex-prisoners, by the way. No matter what he says, that is what it is about. His special adviser, SPAD, Bill was another very successful campaign on his part to restrict the rights of ex-prisoners. He and his like are trying every day to restrict the rights of ex-prisoners even further than they already have been. There is no better example than the new pension scheme, which specifically excludes ex-prisoners.
I will just cut in there, if I may. Mr. Quigley mentioned the likes of Jim Allister and so on. Excuse my ignorance for asking this question, but how successful are the legislative approaches he is trying to implement? Is it just bluster and PR from his point of view or is he getting anywhere with the legislative stuff he is trying to introduce?
Mr. Thomas Quigley:
The SPAD Bill he introduced was voted on in the Executive. They won that vote, so now any ex-prisoner cannot be an adviser to the Government. No one who has been in prison can be nominated as an adviser for any part of Government or any political party. If Jim Allister's last Bill had succeeded, we would have been excluded from any board whatsoever, including public boards, educational boards and health boards. There are all those aspects to it and that is not the end of Jim Allister's campaign. He will come up with something else. He has been very vocal on the pensions campaign and more legislation is now being put in place to exclude ex-prisoners from those pension schemes. We did research in 1998 and found that more than three quarters of the prisoners had either been injured themselves, had family members injured or had lost relatives or close family. They were victims of the conflict but their victimhood is seen as far less or of no value in the ongoing war about the hierarchy of victims. The latest victory for unionism, basically, has been that ex-prisoners are excluded from the pension scheme. That will not stop. Jim Allister will not stop his campaigns. Unionists, especially those within the DUP, will not stop with their campaigns.
At this very moment, there are unionists standing outside a court in Belfast complaining about a man being brought to court because he shot a disabled man in the back as he ran away. If that had been anyone else except a young man from a Catholic background, Carla Lockhart would not be standing there and the DUP would not be standing there. If that was for any other type of killing, she would not be standing there. That is the type of campaign that is ongoing here. It is a continuation of the war by other means. It is coming from people within the DUP and within the TUV who were against the Good Friday Agreement in the main. Things are not getting better and we have no evidence that there has been any sort of softening of the attitude of unionists like Jim Allister or elements of the DUP.
I have been asked to point out that the witnesses should not be naming anybody who is not a Member of the Houses. I understand why Mr. Quigley has done so, but we have to be observant of our rules here at the committee. I understand the point Mr. Quigley is making.
Senator Black was present but I think she is gone. Is there anybody here who has not spoken? They can raise their hands if they wish to speak.
Mr. John O'Hagan:
I will introduce myself again in case it was not picked up at the start of the meeting. My name is John O'Hagan and I am the manager of Tar Anall, which is an ex-prisoner organisation in west Belfast.
I think it is important that we take on board what Mr. Quigley outlined because there is a concerted effort to restrict and restrain any attempt to allow political ex-prisoners to develop and re-engage as equal citizens. Mr. Quigley has given a number of examples around where unionism has tried to frustrate that. Proactive attempts to deal with people in this way, like the Special Advisers Bill and the Political Appointments Bill, have failed, as recently as last week in the latter case. We see this with funding. One of the other Senators made reference to the funding. When we look at piece 1, 2 and 3 it was broadly accepted that these were mechanisms or opportunities to engage with the political ex-prisoner community. We see a concerted attempt by enemies of the peace process and of the Good Friday Agreement very clearly trying to restrict any elements of positive funding. This is where we see the Peace Forum not doing what it was meant to do when it was first designed.
We can also look at it in another context. When we argue for small pots of funding for community organisations such as Tar Isteach, Coiste na nIarchimí and Tar Anall, automatically there is political opposition from unionism saying "No, we will not give that type of money over", even though people within their own community require the same assistance. They are so fixated on the republican ex-prisoner community that they will tell lies and attack. They will write off one community in the hope that we will get nothing to support our community. Even though they have signed up to the Good Friday Agreement, they do not proactively want to support it. It is very evident why funding is seen as a separate issue. It is clearly not when you are dealing with it from a Northern political perspective where opponents of republicanism will never allow funding to go where it is needed within our communities.
Ms Michelle Gildernew:
Cuirim fáilte roimh na finnéithe. It has been great to hear from them. An ex-prisoner in my constituency was injured trying to save lives in a nightclub in County Tyrone. Not only was he denied compensation for that but also he had to pay for his own physiotherapy treatment. He was denied ongoing medical assistance because of the fact that he was an ex-political prisoner. This is far-reaching. I wish to point out that the attempts at legislating against ex-prisoners have been extremely insidious. Gerry Kelly could be a minister in the Executive but he could not be a special adviser. If the second legislation had gone through, he would not have been able to sit on the policing board. Do any of panel want to discuss that? The total of 40,000 people is a great many ex-prisoners. A big chunk of society is being denied a voice and the chance to play a positive part in their society moving on. The transgenerational issues are certainly affected. Thousands of people are affected by travel bans and such things. That has been touched on already. There are layers and layers of discrimination and it is really useful to discuss them in this forum today. I thank the three witnesses for coming, and the committee for facilitating them. I would also like to make the point that I know how hard they have worked with loyalist groups. We tried for many months to get them into this meeting as well. It is not that they have not been invited, but that they have not been able to send somebody.
I thank Mr. Culbert, Mr. Quigley and Mr. O'Hagan for coming and making their presentations today. I have a question on the funding. The funding that the witnesses have received is limited. The witnesses talked about the barriers. In regard to other things the witnesses do, they are advocates but how do they support ex-prisoners? What services do they provide that the funding would go towards, as well as towards the advocacy carried out today? If the funding has been so limited, where does funding come from at the moment? When they talk about the intergenerational effect, I presume they are talking about the effect on children up until they become adults. How does it work that it is carried on to the next generation? These are just technical questions. The witnesses have explained a great deal today and now I am looking to get the full picture.
Mr. Michael Culbert:
I thank the Senator. She raised a number of broad issues, including employment. In many cases at the moment, and for some time back, it varies. We do a good deal of voluntary work. We also employ counsellors, advice workers and a limited number of staff as front-line personnel. The good relations unit in Stormont sometimes can assist with some funding. In many cases, we also have locally based enterprises such as local tourism projects that are able to employ tour guides for political tourism. In the main, we are quite restricted. Mr. Quigley spoke earlier about issues of employment and self-censorship. Some people are very well qualified but cannot get work. We try to help with basics. We generally try to assist people to self-help, for instance, to be self-employed as builders or taxi drivers at low-key levels.
The Senator also asked about the intergenerational and other effects of imprisonment on other members of the family. It is not only with the next generation. It can also affect the siblings of people who have been in prison. At the moment, brothers and sisters of political ex-prisoners who are disemployed cannot get employment because of the prison record of the sibling. It is as basic as that. I cannot propose people for employment. I have loyalists within the Coiste na nIarchimí network who work as tour guides but their children and their brothers and sisters who might have an affiliation with state forces including the British military and the PSNI are totally blocked from joining those forces. This issue is not confined to nationalist and republican ex-prisoners and their families. People in the loyalist community are blocked in the same way because of the status of their father or sibling. It is not only the ex-prisoners and their children who are affected by this whole issue of having been in prison during the conflict.
It is important for us to say that we had a good exchange. Apologies about the sound quality. Our commitment is to meet with the witnesses in Belfast on 11 October 2021 and if they can share with us any issues they would like us to consider as a committee before then, we will put it before our members. Hopefully, we will have a better hearing and articulation of what witnesses are saying. Apologies for the fact we could not hear everything that was said.