Billy Hutchinson: told researchers problems are widespread

The peace process has failed loyalist prisoners who suffer widespread discrimination and are far more disadvantaged than ex-IRA inmates, according to a report to be launched this week.

'Beneath the Mask: an Imperfect Peace' argues that 17 years after the loyalist ceasefire and 13 years after the Good Friday Agreement, there has been no peace dividend for loyalist prisoners.

Former UDA and UVF inmates can't find jobs, have been offered no education or training programmes, and are treated with suspicion and even hostility in their own communities, the report says.

Some are addicted to prescription and illegal drugs that they became dependent on while in prison, it states.

A range of ex-paramilitaries and their families took part in the study.

It focuses mainly on those living in Kilcooley in Bangor, Co Down, the North's third largest housing estate.

Former UVF prisoner Billy Hutchinson told the report's researchers that the problems of ex-loyalist prisoners in Kilcooley were replicated in Shankill and other areas.

Local community worker Mark Gordon said there was a danger of seeing the rise of "dissident loyalism".

He said loyalist prisoners, courted when peace was wanted, were looked down on once it was achieved.

He claimed promises made by the British government to men when they were in jail had been broken.

"They believed they'd be given a clean slate and their prison records wouldn't be an issue. They thought they'd be able to get jobs and earn a decent wage. Instead, employers don't want to know because of their past.

"These men haven't been welcomed back into their own community with open arms in comparison to ex-republican prisoners who are treated as heroes and freedom fighters.

"The republicans are given far more support from their community, their politicians and their church than loyalists receive." The report notes "the perception" that republican areas have benefited from British government and foreign funding substantially more than loyalist districts.

"Republican areas have received extensive US funding. Violent feuding between loyalist paramilitaries has also been an obstacle to funding coming into Protestant areas," Gordon said.

"And the feeling is that the British government has invested more in republican areas in order to keep Sinn Féin and the IRA on board the peace process, to stop the likelihood of attacks on the British mainland, and to halt the rise of dissident republicanism."

Gordon claimed that the electoral failure of the loyalist paramilitary parties, the PUP and the UDP, meant ex- loyalist prisoners were left voiceless at Stormont and elsewhere.

"Sinn Féin has ensured that the interests of former republican paramilitaries are on the agenda. Many Sinn Féin Assembly members are ex-IRA prisoners themselves so they're well-placed politically to lobby for funding.

"Loyalists have no influence over government decision-making. We urgently require equality of treatment between former loyalist and republican prisoners."

The report recommends training and education programmes for former inmates, legislation to end discrimination against prisoners in employment, and counselling and psychiatric services for those ex-UDA and UVF members suffering from "stress or domestic problems".