Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Wednesday, 20 May 2009 13:23 UK

Ex-prisoners fail in lords appeal

Homeless people sleeping rough
The Simon Community cares for homeless people

A homeless charity did not break anti-discrimination laws when it refused to employ two former republican prisoners, law lords in London have ruled.

John McConkey and Jervis Marks were turned down for jobs at Simon Community hostels in Belfast and Newry.

They complained they were unlawfully discriminated against on the grounds of their political opinion.

But the law lords accepted the charity refused them work out of over-riding concern for the care of its residents.

They said some of the people cared for by the Simon Community were homeless because of actions or threats from paramilitary organisations

McConkey was jailed in 1986 for murder, possessing a firearm and belonging to a proscribed organisation. He was released on licence in 1997.

Marks served a prison sentence for possessing explosives and conspiracy to murder. He was released in 1998.

They say they no longer approve of the use of violence for political ends and claimed they were victims of discrimination because of opinions held many years ago.

Others have to live out their lives under the permanent burden of injuries sustained in such an atrocity. Some of them, understandably, might not be able to forgive
Lord Rodger

Their case was rejected by a Fair Employment Tribunal and by the Court of Appeal, before they took it to the House of Lords.

Their lawyers argued that if the law allowed such discrimination it would amount to a "bigot's charter".

Speaking at the hearing on Wednesday, Lord Rodger said most people in Northern Ireland might now feel able to overlook an expression of support for the use of violence, "voiced long ago in very different times, and long since repented of".

"But there are, unfortunately, many people on both sides of the sectarian divide whose lives have been blighted by the death of relatives or friends killed in a politically-motivated atrocity," he said.

"Others have to live out their lives under the permanent burden of injuries sustained in such an atrocity. Some of them, understandably, might not be able to forgive.

"This does not make them bigots; they are just people who have been deeply and immediately affected by the violence and who do not yet feel able to move on."

The Simon Community's reasons for refusal were based on concern that the presence of the two men in the hostels might give rise to unacceptable risk to the residents because of their violent past and the contacts they had had with terrorist organisations.

It was not a question of political discrimination, the lords said.

Lords Phillips, Carswell, Brown and Neuberger agreed in dismissing the men's appeal.

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland supported the appeal.

Chief Commissioner Bob Collins said they felt it was "important to establish a definitive view of this issue".

"The Commission has argued that the law should adopt a sensible balance between assisting in the rehabilitation process for ex-offenders and maintaining public safety," he said.

"In the context of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the integration of ex-prisoners is important to the creation of a peaceful society as is sensitivity to the suffering of those who have been victims in that conflict.

"The ruling today clarifies this aspect of the law beyond any doubt."

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