Reintegration of ex-terrorists into Northern Ireland's society noble objective
"How long do you stay an ex-prisoner?"
The question was once posed by an ex-loyalist paramilitary. He wondered aloud when people should stop clinging to the prison experience and the paramilitary organisation that led them to offend.
The question came into sharp focus at Tuesday's loyalist Press conference. Should a prisoner be forever defined by violent crime, or encouraged to change? There are obvious dangers in marginalising prisoners trained in the dark arts of terrorism.
Denied employment, they are well-placed to create a criminal mafia. The Triads, the Chinese organised crime syndicates, were boosted as members of Chiang Kai-shek's armies joined after being defeated by Mao in 1949, and are still around.
The Sicilian Mafia came from resistance movements and defence associations which developed a life of their own when their original purpose passed.
Here, too, the dangers of sections of armed conspiracies moving into racketeering can't be taken lightly. The loyalist ceasefire was 21 years ago, but they still talk of "conflict transformation" as if it was yesterday.
Many Troubles-era ex-prisoners ended up drink or drugs victims, creating a social problem that will impact the next generation. It is in all our interests to defuse these booby-traps in our lifetimes, not leave them as a poisoned legacy for our children.
The statement from the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando said many of the right things. "We eschew all violence and criminality" was a good start, and the point was hammered home. "If there are those who attempt to use current or past associations with our organisations to further criminality, they will be disowned and should be aware that they will not be permitted to use the cover of loyalism."
A Loyalist Community Council has been made up by two members from each of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando groups. It will be chaired by the former senior aide to David Trimble, David Campbell. Would he, strictly speaking, be committing a crime by meeting members of these three illegal groups and keeping their identities confidential?
Perhaps we should be thinking, after enough good behaviour, of dropping the possibility of membership charges unless linked to a post-peace process offence. Another way would be to create ex-members' associations, which would be legal.
The bigger issue is to get these people to stop thinking of themselves as ex-prisoners or taking over the community sector. As Jonathan Powell pointed out, loyalists weren't strongly supported at the polls and ended up marginalised, but this was through lack of support. That doesn't qualify them to become community workers and gatekeepers for funding in loyalist areas. They should not get preferential treatment for community jobs, as in the past.
Communities need to be consulted before there is any thought of putting ex-paramilitary commanders in authority. That, and proper interviews.
Attempts to get funds from Norway failed; further applications are expected and any grants must benefit the community, not be jobs for the boys.
Money would be better spent improving educational resources for the young and adults. Most Troubles-era prisoners are now at least middle-aged and often barred from employment.
In all, 482 prisoners were freed early under the Good Friday Agreement; 143 were lifers. Some argue such sentences should simply be scrubbed, but that is a step too far. Someone may want to live a peaceful life, but the fact that (s)he committed a murder can't simply be forgotten. On the other hand, forcing a trained killer into the gutter creates obvious risks.
The emphasis should be on retraining prisoners for normal jobs and creating work they have access to on the same basis as the rest of us. We should be trying to end the era of ex-prisoners and footloose ex-paramilitaries.
Let's hope that reintegrating them into society, and not creating little community fiefdoms, is something Mr Campbell and Mr Powell can achieve.