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Sunday, 23 July, 2000, 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK
Northern Ireland
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST HOSTED BY PETER SISSONS INTERVIEW

DAVID ERVINE PROGRESSIVE UNIONIST PARTY LEADER, LAURENCE MCKEOWN and ANDREW HUNTER MP

JULY 23RD, 2000 Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

PETER SISSONS
By the end of the week 89 more prisoners in jail in Northern Ireland will have been released under the Good Friday Agreement, in fact the Maze prison with its infamous H blocks will only have 16 inmates left, they'll be transferred and the prison will be closed probably within months. Events at the Maze have been at the forefront of the troubles for more than 25 years and in turn have affected the peace process itself but of course not everyone believes that the prisoners should be leaving it early. Our Ireland correspondent Dennis Murray reports.

[FILM CLIP]

PETER SISSONS
Dennis Murray reporting there. Well I'm joined by David Ervine, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party who was a Loyalist prisoner in the Maze. From Belfast by Laurence McKeown a former Republican prisoner and Maze hunger striker and here in the studio again by the Conservative MP Andrew Hunter who is a member of the Northern Ireland Select Committee. David Ervine what was the Maze like when you were inside?

DAVID ERVINE
Grey concrete ground, grey wire, very often grey skies, it was just a lot of grey. We had our, we had each other, we had a sense of appreciation of dialogue and discussion among each other, you can be lonely in a crowd but if you ask the question they give it as clear as I can give it, absolutely just grey.

PETER SISSONS
What, did the Republican prisoners ever get the chance to talk about what they'd done with, with Loyalist prisoners?

DAVID ERVINE
Well I don't know about talk about what they'd done but certainly in terms of why they had, why they existed and why we existed, opportunities still exist, they weren't easy to create but sometimes we'd play soccer and their compound surrounded the soccer pitch was an opportunity for dialogue and that was the first, I think, real dialogue that took place in the very difficult society and divided society that is Northern Ireland.

PETER SISSONS
So there were political discussions about what might happen?

DAVID ERVINE
Yes they were rather informal but nevertheless I think that they all had their place in the jigsaw puzzle I suppose, that brought us to '94 and ceasefires and subsequently the Good Friday Agreement.

PETER SISSONS
Laurence McKeown, good morning, would you share that view that the Maze actually did play a part in pushing eventually the prospects for peace a little further forward?

LAURENCE MCKEOWN
Well I think the case has been central to the whole conflict that's been going on here. The period that David is talking about there which was in the cages at Longkesh when, people had political status was actually brought to an end officially by the criminalisation policy so in terms of even the initial dialogue that might have been going on in the cages that was all sort of abruptly brought to an end and it actually heralded what was really for the next ten years within Longkesh the blanket protest, the hunger strikes and all of the conflict that developed out of that there, so it was only as we started to move out of that situation again once the criminalisation policy was really dropped that it again allowed politics to develop both within the jail and outside and I think certainly the debate of what went on within the jail, certainly within the Republican wings had a major impact upon the outside and also people have been released who are now very active in political life.

PETER SISSONS
No British government ever used the term political prisoners but you regarded yourselves as political prisoners and effectively you were allowed to run the jail weren't you?

LAURENCE MCKEOWN
Well certainly, the argument that Republicans always had was they were arrested under special legislation, interrogated under special legislation and sentenced in special courts so the idea that following all that process we're just ordinary prisoners was, was totally illogical, the other thing was that when you existed in the jail. I was 16 years in Longkesh and a few hundred yards from me were people who had political status and had it right up until the end, end of the '80s so the whole issue, which actually led to the problem, whenever there was an attempt to deny the political nature of the people who were in jail then it led to conflict in the jail and outside, once that attempt ended the jail actually became fairly peaceful and I think some of the people on the outside and have always seen the jail as a microcosm of the outside. But whenever people's politics were deemed illegitimate and there was no space for them to sort of debate and, and put forward to promote those policies then we ended up with conflict, but when that space was created and when people were accepted regardless of their politics, that there was space for them to debate them were able to develop a conflict situation until the situation at the moment which is still fairly unstable but at least it's moving gradually, I think, piece by piece...

PETER SISSONS
Andrew Hunter if you were Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would the place still be full?

ANDREW HUNTER
Well I certainly think that the release scheme which now was virtually history, it's almost complete, has not been the way to proceed. I don't think one should lose sight even at this late stage of the argument that this early release scheme has so undermined the rule of law, that the rule of law is fundamental to a civilised society and one can ask what sort of values is this new Northern Ireland being built on. And I think it's worth recalling that effectively over the last two or three years we've been saying that crimes of violence committed with a political motive are less serious than other crimes of violence and those who perpetrate them can be treated more leniently.

PETER SISSONS
But you most know we wouldn't have got the Northern Ireland peace agreement, the Good Friday Agreement if the releases had not gone ahead?

ANDREW HUNTER
I think the release of prisoners have obviously formed a central part of that agreement, the weakness is that it was unrelated either to a decommissioning or to the level of ongoing violence in, in society in Northern Ireland also unrelated to the issue of process of the executive. I think there was a fundamental flaw in the agreement in not having that linkage.

PETER SISSONS
Do you think there should have been more conditions laid down of that type, David Ervine?

DAVID ERVINE
I frankly get somewhat depressed when I hear all of these perfectly fine moral arguments, made from a society which regards itself as normal, that's London. Northern Ireland is not and never has been a normal society and in terms of trying to create normality at times you have to do abnormal things and what we've done, I suppose, in creation of a, of a system that, of governance that will hopefully take us into a new future, we've gone to the beauty parlour, the prisoners ensure, the release of prisoners ensures that we don't emerge with warts on our nose, they are part of the problem therefore have to be part of the solution, we cannot manifest all of our anger and our frustration on a couple of hundred people when you consider that there are 30,000 ex prisoners in Northern Ireland of a population of 1.6 million. Now that's not even counting the ones who were never arrested or caught, we're a pretty unreasonable little society and when I hear Andrew, who by the way supported the Conservative government who created a 50 per cent remission scheme in 1985 as a thank you to the paramilitaries for the two ceasefires, without any agreement, and, and did release prisoners early, and not a word of it. So we need to get all those things in context, the important issue for us is that we've had to do what we've had to do to try and create a normality in Northern Ireland.

PETER SISSONS
Let me put this question to Laurence McKeown in Belfast, Laurence some really chilling, hard men have been released, guilty of terrible crimes, terrible things they've done, multi-murders, is Northern Ireland really a better place for them being free?

LAURENCE MCKEOWN
Well I think it isn't the challenge that statement in the sense that...

PETER SISSONS
Well the, on both sides, I'm not taking sides here, Loyalist and Republican, there are some real, there are some mass murderers at large, is the, is the place a better place for that?

LAURENCE MCKEOWN
Well we would equally say there's members of the British Army and RUC who are walking about, who have been responsible who have never come to the courts, so I think there's always a difficulty when we try to individualise this and continue on with those sort of constructs of people who are mass murderers and such like. People regardless of where they came from, be it Republican, Loyalist or members of the RUC or prison warders whoever else, were born into a society that was in a conflict. Now for a long time there was an attempt to crush that conflict and, and one way or another through military means and hopefully we're moving out of that situation. When Andrew Hunter talks about early releases we could equally say that Republican prisoners have served at least 100,000 years in prison, members of the security forces who have been responsible officially for one in ten of all killings in the North have served less than 20 years and in fact those who have been sentenced the very, very small number such as Lee Clegg when he has been sentenced, have the people such as Andrew Hunter in support of their release and have been released after two years. So I mean we've got to even put that idea of early releases in context. But the other thing I think is to say is that the, any society moving out of conflict tries to use those people who have, can provide leadership and whether people like it or not people who have been imprisoned from, from both sides of the community are people who have been providing leadership throughout what has been a very, very tense period. I mean often when people in the community now say, where I come from, are unsure just where things are going a bit tentative about movements will often say oh find out what the prisoners think. Now we could maybe say that shouldn't be the situation but that's the motive, connection between imprisonment and, and the community on the outside and I think we only have to look at the work that ex-prisoners have done in terms of sustaining the peace and continue within the community to build on it and I think often that I find in my experience that particularly Republican and Loyalist ex-prisoners have more of a willingness to sit down and engage and recognise the differences that exist and not try to ignore them but move on from them rather than all of the other groups who've had millions of pounds pumped into them over the years who've been attempted to go down some sort of societal cross-community work that really in effect hasn't achieved anything.

PETER SISSONS
Thank you for that. Andrew Hunter what's your answer to that, Laurence McKeown is really saying you've got to make a fresh beginning, you've got to put the past behind, you, there's no other, there's no other way forward, there's no hope otherwise?

ANDREW HUNTER
Well I wouldn't disagree with that basic principle, indeed the Downing Street Declaration enshrined those very principles that where there is a genuine renunciation of violence, a genuine commitment to democracy there there can be participation in the democratic process. What I would quarrel with is that the paramilitaries are playing the ceasefires practically, that they have not genuinely and permanently renounced violence, I'd also throw in the point that although there is the moral absolute argument against early release on pragmatic grounds this scheme has been handled very badly indeed, nothing positive has been achieved from it in the sense that it was the governments ace of trumps in terms of influencing paramilitary organisation, that has not happened, we have the prisoners out, we still have an unacceptable level of violence in the community and no sign of decommissioning.

PETER SISSONS
David Ervine?

DAVID ERVINE
You get the impression Andrew could never be happy, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people alive who might be dead in a changing circumstance in Northern Ireland and if I leave you with one thought, for the first time, next week for the first time in my lifetime there will be no political prisoners in Northern Ireland, now that's got to be a watershed, that's got to be a curtain that says something about our past and opens the opportunity for the future and I can understand the difficulties that bad people look like they're doing well, the important thing from our society is that we've got to get what we can get when we can get it. To simply demand that which you know you can't have and then get upset when you can't have it is to simply create circumstances where people have to be proving themselves all the time. I'm a democratic, I want democracy to work, I want a society that functions and above all I want my children to live in a normal society.

ANDREW HUNTER
But what is insufficiently appreciated is that society in Northern Ireland is increasingly becoming mafia like, the competing rival paramilitary organisations are there and the release of prisoners has reinvigorated those organisations and is ill omen for the future.

PETER SISSONS
How many people are we talking about here, when we talk of the paramilitary groups that are still active, you see the Loyalist firing their guns in the air at Drumcree, are we talking of hundreds or scores or?

DAVID ERVINE
I think if the paramilitary groups wanted to be active there are many thousands of them, the importance is that they don't want them to be active, there are only a few isolated groups who still want to put their chest out and if you like let everyone know that they exist in the manner that they formerly did and I think that we just as a society have to constantly keep moving and marginalise those who can't countenance change whether they're political or violent.

PETER SISSONS
And a final question to you Laurence McKeown in Belfast, how big are the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA, how significant are they, how powerful are they, what, what's your assessment of that briefly?

LAURENCE MCKEOWN
Well to be honest, I couldn't put figures or numbers on them, I think, as David Ervine has said there, I mean moving out of a situation of conflict, not everyone was happy with the Good Friday Agreement, it was a compromise situation and on both sides there are people who have...

PETER SISSONS
But do you want to see the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA dissidents locked up as common criminals if they carry on with the struggle?

LAURENCE MCKEOWN
Well certainly I wouldn't use that language at all and I think that's the sort of language which has led to the difficulties in the past. What I'd like to see is first of all there is space given for people who are involved in that process to further develop it, to show that, that there isn't a need to continue on there with an armed struggle and the, that there's another way forward.

PETER SISSONS
I must stop you there Laurence McKeown, thank you very much, and too to Andrew Hunter and David Ervine too.

END

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