Northern Ireland

The issues facing former paramilitary prisoners in NI

gates of maghaberry prison
Image caption Many former prisoners face challenges reintegrating into their communities and the wider society

Around 30,000 paramilitaries passed through Northern Irelands jails.

About two thirds of them were republicans, the rest loyalists.

When you take into account their wider families and friends it is estimated that as many as 200,000 people may have been affected by what's termed "the prisons experience".

Former prisoners now meet regularly under the umbrella of the EU funded Prison to Peace project.

All the main paramilitary ex-prisoners' groups are represented.

Robin Frampton, who is from a UVF ex-prisoners group, said it's been an eye opener.

"I had limited contact with republicans before I joined the project which is an excellent project. It's very honest, and to me very worthwhile, and it will have a big impact in sustaining the peace process."

Genuine

Jackie McDonald speaks for UDA ex-prisoners, and in doing so he has found himself in the heart of republican areas at times.

"I don't have a problem being on the Falls Road or Short Strand. They're very genuine people, they wouldn't be here if they weren't genuine," he said.

It's hard for people outside the room to understand exactly why we work together and how we work together sometimes. It's because everybody in the room is genuine that makes it work."

Much of the work within their own communities is aimed at young people, with a central theme of stopping them becoming involved in sectarian violence as Danny Murphy of the IRA ex-prisoners group explained.

"It's about informing and educating young people about the history of the conflict in terms of the sectarianism while ensuring that the next generation don't have to go through that or don't grow up and into that same format of conflict that we've had in the past."

Among those working along the sectarian interfaces are a number of former paramilitary prisoners.

Seamus McHenry is a member of the INLA ex-prisoners group.

"Ex-prisoners can and are playing a very proactive role on interfaces," he said.

"They do have the respect of certain members of their communities and on occasions they've been in there helping solve problems on sectarian interfaces."

Social reintegration

The work began by looking at former prisoners' welfare issues.

Now it includes social reintegration and that includes facing up to the reaction of victims of the violence, such as the controversy of the appointment of convicted killer Mary McArdle as a Sinn Fein special adviser.

Martin McKevitt of the Official IRA former prisoners group said it's an issue that must be confronted.

"Political ex-prisoners are not just politicial ex-prisoners, they're also citizens," he said.

"They're members of the community, family members, fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers and they've a role to play in the community just like everyone else.

"It's a difficult issue for many people, but these are things we are willing to address as best we can."

When the prisoners returned to their communities following early release from jail, they were faced with re-adjustment issues at a personal and local level.

Dealing with reintegration into the rest of society is something else.