Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Submission to Forum from Republican Spokesperson on Prison Issues Pat McGeown

It is somewhat disappointing that the first time the Forum should come to discuss the issue of political prisoners in public session that it should do so in this narrow way.

This does not detract from the fact that former political prisoners do have a positive and constructive role to play in the process of social and economic reconstruction. I have no doubt that they will be glad to do so and indeed many of them have already participated in this process.

However, it is worthwhile laying down a marker at this point. The issue that really needs to be dealt with at this Forum and indeed through-out all the structures of the peace process is the release of political prisoners. This needs to be dealt with with some urgency. There are many people who will judge the worthiness of the peace process on the basis of how urgently it will tackle problems like the release of political prisoners.

It is appreciated that the people who primarily need to discuss and take decisions on this issue are the British and Dublin governments and indeed the US and German administrations, who also hold Irish political prisoners. Today we welcome the decision of the Dublin government to release eight Republican prisoners. These releases are in the spirit of the ongoing peace process and we commend the Taoiseach and government on them. We now look forward to the progressive release of all political prisoners. Whilst it is not the role of this Forum to make Government policy it is surely it's role to make clear recommendations as to how you believe the process of peace and reconciliation can be moved on and strengthened.

It is in this context that I hope and trust that the Forum will very shortly return to the most pressing issue facing our prisoners, their families, and to a degree their communities. That is the release of all political prisoners.

One should not under-estimate how deeply this issue effects the Nationalist community in the North of Ireland. The most conservative estimate is that around 20,000 nationalists have been imprisoned in the Six Counties. This would be the equivalent of over 100,000 people in this state. Other estimates for the Six Counties place the figure at closer to 60,000 people when you include those who have been interned or held for long periods on remand. In Britain a similar ratio would mean the imprisonment of over 1 million people . That is the depth of the prison issue in the North.

In terms of the issue that you have decided to deal with here i.e.; 'participation in the process for social and economic reconstruction' I would like to introduce a note of reality particularly concerning the North. This process should be described as 'construction' because in many of the areas that prisoners come from there has never been any economic base due to the blatant sectarian discrimination of the statelet.

Prisoners have a role to play in building within their communities and indeed in wider society. Many are already doing so and others have spent their time in prison preparing for the day when they can participate in this process. One has only to look at the involvement of former political prisoners in community based projects in the inner cities of Belfast, Dublin, Derry and Cork and in rural areas from the wilds of Tyrone to the fishing coasts of Kerry. In some places it is impossible to find projects that have not had former prisoners in key positions.

Many local government councillors in the north and some in the south are former political prisoners . They play a constructive role in politics at that level despite often facing opponents who operate a policy of political apartheid.

In the sporting organisations from the GAA to the Irish league you will find former political prisoners. The same goes for all areas of commercial and business life.

In the 'big politic', is it not former political prisoners who have played a key role in moving their communities to the position that we are in now? Is it not around such men and women that many people now build their hopes for a peaceful future?

All the above may well be important when one comes to look at the subject that you have chosen today. But is there contained within this, the implication that former political prisoners somehow need to be reintegrated or rehabilitated back into society?

Nothing could be further from the truth. The countless numbers of former prisoners are living proof of this. Rather than be reintegrated back into their communities the former political prisoner often arrives back into his or her community with the expectation from local people that they will play a leadership role.

These are not people going back into resentful communities. They are generally people who are held in high regard by their communities, because so many of their people have been effected by imprisonment themselves or through their families. To be a former political prisoner is a badge of respect not shame. Even those who may politically disagree with the method often hold in high regard the sentiment and individual integrity of those who chose that form of struggle. The personae of Bobby Sands and his comrades is not so easily forgotten.

So what can be done to help our prisoners play a more positive and effective role in the process of building. Well, the first thing to do is to release them. The idea that they need special training before they leave prison is not realistic. Release them onto the streets and they will find the many skills they need in training schemes, in business and in political life. They don't need to be rehabilitated they need to be released.

Give their communities, not the former prisoners as some special separate group, the resources and means to progress and build. The establishment must also stop discriminating against projects that involve former political prisoners. In the North this means the end of the 'Hurd Directive' which continues to politically vett groups perceived to be too Republican or too Loyalist. Throughout this island it means ending the practice of silent vetting and political apartheid by government agencies against groups, parties or organisations that are perceived to be too Republican or too Loyalist.

So if this Forum wants to play a positive part in helping former prisoners make positive contributions let them first accept that primarily what they can do is help make all political prisoners former prisoners. We, the former political prisoners, will do most of the rest ourselves.