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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 September 2006, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
From prisoner to peace officer?
By Brendan Anderson
BBC News Website

It is one of the most emotive issues of the times and always certain to lead to lively debate.

Could former prisoners ever fill this role?

Should former paramilitaries be permitted to join the police service?

Or, put another way, could a revolutionary become a guardian of the law?

Many ex-prisoners, loyalist and republican, have espoused the more peaceful path of politics and that is generally accepted, if not always welcomed, in Northern Ireland.

And by one of the many quirks of the peace process, it is entirely feasible that, in a restored assembly, an ex-convict could be the justice minister responsible for law and order.

Uproar, however, followed the comments of Democratic Unionist Party member Gregory Campbell who suggested it was theoretically possible that former paramilitaries could plod the beat as rank and file police officers.

They have to demonstrate that they are repentant and they have to show that they do not advocate that sort of activities
Gregory Campbell MP

"They have to demonstrate that they are repentant and they have to show that they do not advocate that sort of activities," he said on BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show

"If so, they could then be considered, only if they demonstrate that, if they don't, they should not."

During the heated exchanges that followed those comments, it was suggested that, in a country such as Canada, for example, it could never be envisaged that those regarded as former criminals would be entrusted with enforcing the law.

Others, opining that Canada was not a country coming out of conflict, pointed to South Africa where ex-prisoner and ANC activist Robert McBride is now a chief of police.

Robert McBride
Robert McBride on death row in 1992

McBride, a member of the ANC's military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe, took part in a shoot-out with security forces during the successful rescue of a wounded guerilla commander.

He was sentenced to death for his part in the 1984 bombing of a Durban public house which resulted in three deaths and 69 people being injured.

McBride was reprieved in 1992 and was attached to the Mandela government's Department of Foreign Affairs before being appointed chief of police in Johannesburg's East Rand district.

He remains a hate figure to some white South Africans while retaining folk hero status amongst the black population.

His background, he said, far from being a millstone around his neck, gave him the skills to tackle the serious crime problem in his area.

He said his appointment was welcomed specially because of his background.

"So it's the people who really know my work, who I've defended and physically put my life on the line for. They know my work," he said.

David Ervine also served a prison sentence for explosive offences. He now heads the Progressive Unionist Party and is an assembly member.

He said he is not in favour of former convicted paramilitaries being accepted into the police service.

"The Progressive Unionist Party has a long-standing policy that ex-combatants could not be involved in the police service, simply because we don't need them," he said.

"We have 1.7 million people, we have a police service that's meant to have about 3,000 to 4,000 people involved in it.

Denis Bradley
Denis Bradley believes former prisoners should be allowed to join

"One has to think logically. We've got a police service here who are building great credibility in terms of not being a politically-driven police service."

Denis Bradley was until earlier this year vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

A former priest credited with having an insight into militant republicanism, Bradley believes part of the problem lies in convincing unionists that the conflict was political, not criminal.

While acknowledging the huge public interest in the issue, he said it did not appear to be very high on the agenda of politicians.

"Sinn Fein has not fought very strongly for this. There has been no great political demand from any of the political parties," he said.

"What I support is the possibility of people who have actually been involved in a conflict over a period of time who now want to join up, because what they have to do is make an oath of fair play and decency and putting the past behind them.

"That's actually what they sign up to."

Gary Blair, now a DUP member, served a prison sentence for murder.

He resolutely opposes the idea of "people like me" being permitted to become police officers."

"A conviction is a conviction and it should rule everyone out. I would never put myself forward to join the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland)," he said.

"If the police want to be a credible police force, then I think they need to have credible officers and obviously people who broke the law repeatedly don't have that credibility and I include myself in that."

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