Letter: Seize chance for peace in Ireland

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The Independent Online
Sir: We warmly welcome the restoration of the IRA ceasefire and hope that this opportunity will be used to secure a just and lasting peace. Trust and confidence cannot be built overnight and many problems need to be resolved; one important one concerns prisoners in England who are serving sentences in connection with the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Some have already spent over 20 years in jail and still do not know how much longer they will have to serve. Others have spent years in what human rights lawyers have described as "concrete coffins" : the Special Secure Units (SSUs).

During the last IRA ceasefire, conditions for these prisoners actually deteriorated. The regime became even harsher. Sixteen months into the IRA ceasefire a Fine Gael parliamentary delegation visited these prisoners and concluded in their report (January 1996): "Their treatment is both cruel and inhumane ... current Home Office treatment of prisoners is damaging and destabilising of the peace process." Parliamentary delegations by the Irish Labour Party and Fianna Fail came to similar conclusions.

This year an Amnesty International report said: "Many aspects of the SSU regime violate international standards. The conditions, which have led to serious physical and psychological disorders in prisoners, constitute cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment."

Urgent attention to the prisoners issue is vital, if political progress is to be secured. A first step would be the immediate transfer of all prisoners connected with the northern conflict to the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland according to their choice.

The procedures are in place. Both governments have signed the European convention for the transfer of prisoners. Progress, however, has been far too slow. Last week's transfer of one prisoner is welcome and hopefully signals the start of a fresh approach. We call for the immediate closure of the SSUs and the repatriation/transfer of all these prisoners without further delay.

PETRA SCHURENHOFER, Dublin Peace and Justice Group; PAUL MAY, Britain and Ireland Human Rights Centre, London; JANE WINTER, British Irish Rights Watch, London; ROBBY McVEIGH, Centre for Research and Documentation, Belfast; MARTIN O'BRIEN, Committee on the Administration of Justice, Belfast; JEROME CONNOLLY, Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, Co Dublin; NUALA KELLY, Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas, Dublin; MICHAEL FARRELL, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Dublin; JOHN WADHAM, Liberty (National Council for Civil Liberties), London; PAUL O'CONNOR, Pat Finucane Centre, Derry