Prisoner voting rights can make prison work

The best way to put prison conditions on the political agenda is to give prisoners the vote.

It is no surprise that the government proposal to give thousands of prisoners the vote has caused such a furore in the right-wing press. But while the Lib Dems stay silent about a policy they have supported for many years, the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, has been brave enough to take the press on.

Following David Cameron's cowardly decision to allow his MPs a free vote on the matter – making it very likely that the proposal will be rejected in the Commons next week – Clarke said that he would ask anybody who voted against the proposal to give prisoners serving sentences of under four years the vote "how they are going to explain to their constituents, at a time like this, we're spending money on compensating prisoners".

Predictably, Clarke woke up yesterday to a Sun editorial demanding his dismissal and to a series of rent-a-quote Tory MPs telling whoever would listen that giving criminals the vote is a disgraceful idea and, completely dishonestly, that the proposal was all the EU's fault. The worst offender was Dominic Raab MP, who wrote a tub-thumping article in the Telegraph in which he stated that "the government should refuse to enact EU laws that make no sense". He's factually wrong on several counts.

First, this has nothing to do with the EU. Last year's judgment that Britain is breaking the law by denying all prisoners the vote was the second such ruling made by the European Court of Human Rights, whose rulings are based on the European Convention on Human Rights, which Britain signed up to in 1947. The convention includes provisions on the "right to vote", although it gives countries some leeway on how they apply this. That is why many countries have limits on voting rights for felons or leave the decision to their courts on a case-by-case basis.

Moreover, just as flagrantly breaching EU law leads the country in question to be fined, so will ignoring the court judgment. Since the first court ruling in 2005 that Britain was acting illegally, our prisons have had over 100,000 inmates. Compensating them could cost upwards of £100m.

But more serious than Mr Raab's fabrications are the way they illustrate how debate on penal reform has plumbed the depths. Britain and the US (which, with its huge prison population and dismal record on rehabilitation and reoffending, is hardly a model to follow) are alone in the western world in denying all prisoners the vote. Figures by the Howard League for Penal Reform show that 60 per cent of British prisoners reoffend within two years, with a 74 per cent rate for young men. If other public services had such an appalling record, there would be rioting in the streets.

It is to our shame that these facts are deliberately ignored in debate, while Tory and, sadly, many Labour MPs pander to the editors of the Sun and the Daily Mail. Perhaps this is why our prisons are overcrowded, underfunded and failing? The bang 'em up brigade simply won't listen to the fact that prison doesn't work. Instead, prison is where offenders get angrier, and more likely to reoffend.

This is highly emotive. The idea of rapists, child abusers and other violent criminals enjoying democratic rights leaves a sour taste. Most of us have been victims of crime and it is particularly difficult for those who are related to or are victims of violent crimes. But we should remember the words of the former home secretary Douglas Hurd, who said that, in office, the only pressure on him to improve prison conditions was his own conscience.

In Hurd's words: "If prisoners had the vote, MPs would take a good deal more interest in prisons and making them better." His views are backed up by the Prison Governors Association, the former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham, the Prison Reform Trust and numerous other crime reduction charities.

Prisons exist to punish, but also to rehabilitate and ensure that criminals integrate back into society and do not reoffend. They are failing because there is no political incentive to improve them. The best way to put prison conditions on the political agenda is to give prisoners the vote, regardless of how many of them actually vote.

"Votes for prisoners" is never going to be a vote-winner. But MPs should do the right thing and vote next week to give felons the franchise – not just because it's morally the right thing to do but also, to paraphrase Michael Howard's infamous statement, because it will help make prison work.

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Overlooking the effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland is dangerous for the whole UK

We voted to remain in the European Union. The tensions caused by the referendum outcome, and ignoring its effect on us, will cause utter carnage in Northern Ireland.

I’ve been from Northern Ireland all my life. Having spent many years living in Dublin, and now London, I’m quite used to that very fact making people uncomfortable. I get it. From a glance at the news, it would seem we fight each other about flags and anthems and are inexcusably proud of throwing glass at people in bowler hats, or daubing on our own homes the worst paintings ever committed to brickwork. Our tiny little protectorate has generated such disproportionate levels of confusing violence, most people are terrified of saying the wrong thing about any of it. We’re the celiac vegans of nationalities; the worry is that almost anything you offer will offend.

Most people avoid such worries by – whisper it – simply never acknowledging that we exist. This reflexive forgetfulness is, of course, a happy state of affairs compared to what went before. I refer, of course, to the period named, with that Ulster-tinged strain of sardonic understatement, the Troubles, when some 3,600 people were killed and ten times that injured. By some estimates, as many as 115,000 people lost a close relative to violence in this time, and many more a good friend, a colleague or an old school pal. Taken as a portion of 1.5m people, this means a startlingly high percentage of Northern Irish citizens have been directly affected by the conflict, certainly a higher percentage than that of, say, the English electorate who have ever voted for Ukip.

Northern Ireland also contains Britain’s only fully open border with the EU. I know because I grew up on it, specifically between Derry and Donegal, where my dad's back fence demarked an invisible boundary, a small hop from the UK to the Republic, and back. From a migration point of view, this poses a problem, so when Brexit was being deliberated, it did seem odd that Northern Ireland was barely mentioned at all, that the one border that exists in the entire country was given such scant reference during the campaign’s interminable duration. A dreaded EU migrant, travelling freely through Ireland toward my father’s house will not be subject to border checks once he has passed it quietly behind him. No machine guns, no "papers please", none of the fortified rigour mandated by the Leave campaign. Implementing such fortifications would, of course, be a practical nightmare, since so many live in Ireland but work in the UK, and vice versa. But the psychological effect of such a move would be infinitely worse.


Much of the Good Friday Agreement was predicated on free movement between north and south, and cross-border bodies that reinforced a soft-union of the two states; just enough to ameliorate nationalists, but nothing so resembling a united Ireland as to antagonise unionists. Making Irish-identifying Northern Irish citizens undergo any form of border checkpoint between the two countries would not just be a bureaucratic hassle, it would massively inhibit the self-determination nearly half of Northern Ireland's population takes from both countries’ status within a wider European state.

The peace that exists rests largely on this status quo, the acceptance of people who reject violent means and see little injustice in being allowed to live their lives within a British state that dignifies their close connection to their southern neighbours. It is hard to overstate how different this situation would be were armed checkpoints to re-emerge. I remember checkpoints as a child. I remember machine guns and dogs and my dad making sure we weren't nervous while he was being interrogated by armed men inspecting his driving license and checking under our car for explosives. This was every day. Rather than some novel development, this will be a direct, unbidden return to something we worked very, very hard to get away from, something we were promised was over, and something for which thousands of very stubborn, dangerous people struck what many considered a highly improbable truce.

It is this effort to which thousands of Northern Irish people now owe their lives, to which tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands more can count among the living and healthy their siblings, their friends, their colleagues. This may not be at the forefront of minds in Carlisle or Cornwall or aboard the statesmanlike grandeur of a battlebus, but it is the lived reality of Northern Irish people. To stoke up these tensions risks sleepwalking out of a peace that was hard-fought and long considered unthinkable. To do so as a side effect of what appears to be, on its face, little more than a tussle for the leadership of a single political party with little-to-no presence in Northern Ireland seems distasteful in the extreme.

Having stating these facts to friends here in London, I’ve been touched by their sorrow for our plight but, for all their sympathy, it might still not have registered that our problems have a tradition of travelling to people in London and Dublin, in Birmingham and in Monaghan. If greater care is not given to the thoughts, aspirations and fears of Northern Irish people, and those still-present agents of chaos who would seek to use such discontent to their own violent ends, we risk losing a lot more than free use of bagpipes or pleasingly bendy bananas.

Westminster must listen to those who would bear the burden of Fortress Britain’s turrets near their homes or else, to borrow a phrase, Brexit will be a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family's security.

Séamas O'Reilly is a writer and musician. He tweets @shockproofbeats. His website is shocko.info.