Letter: Denial of prisoners' rights overshadows hope for peace

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The Independent Online
Sir: The issue of the transfer of prisoners to Northern Ireland is one chapter in a history of willingness to ignore human rights where Northern Irish prisoners have been involved.

In particular, the UK Government has consistently disregarded domestic and international provisions that require prisoners to be placed near their families to enable long-term contact to be maintained. The Government has imposed on these prisoners an additional punishment by refusing to allow them to serve their sentences in a Northern Ireland prison.

The real victims of this unlawful policy have been the families and relatives of the prisoners. The expense and difficulties of the journey have caused many personal tragedies. Elderly parents have died without having seen their children for years, marriages have broken down, and children have grown up with little or no knowledge of their parents. For those relatives who have managed to travel to Britain, their journeys have frequently been nightmares, involving arrests, strip searching, and the infamous practice of 'ghosting' prisoners (moving them to another jail at the last moment so that the visit is frustrated).

Prisoners and their families have been kept in suspense and subjected to an emotional seesaw, with some prisoners being told that they would be transferred, only to have the decision rescinded without explanation. In 1991, the Ferrers Committee finally called a halt, laying down clear guidelines for the temporary transfer of prisoners to Northern Ireland. In our view, these did not go far enough, but they were a start. They had the support of nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland.

The Government appeared to be reluctant to implement its own committee's recommendations, but finally in June this year the transfer process began with the first batch of four prisoners. Derek Lewis, director of the Prison Service, was indeed only carrying out Government policy when the second batch were transferred on 1 September. As he pointed out, the transfer date was set before the date of the IRA's ceasefire announcement was known. It is indefensible for the Prime Minister to ignore his own policy, and Derek Lewis ought not to be scapegoated. Neither, of course, should the remaining prisoners awaiting transfer or their families.

The path to peace in Northern Ireland is lit at the moment by a glimmering candle. Unless peace goes hand in hand with justice, and proper respect for the civil liberties and human rights of all concerned, there is a danger that the candle will be extinguished before it can shine.

Yours faithfully,

JANE WINTER, British Irish Rights Watch; STEPHEN LIVINGSTONE, Committee for the Administration of Justice; JOHN WADHAM, Liberty; PETER MADDEN (solicitor); BARRA McGRORY (solicitor); PATRICK McGRORY (solicitor); MICHAEL McCOLGAN (solicitor); GARETH PEIRCE (solicitor)

London, SW17