Ulster should say 'yes' to Guantánamo prisoners

Northern Irish politicians have never been shy about going cap in hand to Washington to ask for help with our political and economic problems. They were there again this week for the annual St Patrick's Day shindiggery.

Now it's time for them to return the favour by helping Obama out of the hole dug by his predecessor: it's a legal black hole called Guantánamo Bay.

Within 48 hours of taking office in January, President Obama signalled his intention to close the detention camp. One of the problems his Administration faces in making the promise a reality is the question of what to do with the fifty to sixty prisoners who have been cleared for release but who cannot be returned to their country of origin for fear that they will face further detention, torture and possible death at the hands of States who may regard them as political or ethnic enemies. Countries like China and Uzbekistan, which have little compunction about locking up and torturing political dissidents.

What is needed are third countries which are willing to provide a new home, a refuge, to these men who have already suffered so much over the last seven years and have now been deemed not to be a threat after all (oops!). Portugal, Spain, Italy and France have already stepped up to the plate and indicated a willingness to take some of the detainees released from Guantánamo.

Now up steps Brian Cowen, Irish Taoiseach who, in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, has said that the Republic is now willing to do the same.

So isn't it time for our Northern Ireland politicians to make a similar offer and urge Foreign Secretary David Milliband and Downing Street to get with the programme?

Given the UK Government's (albeit belated) endorsement of Amnesty's call to close Guantánamo, shouldn't they be willing to shoulder some of the responsibility for getting the job done. Especially as we are now learning (drip, drip, drip…) of the Government's apparent complicity in the torture and rendition and of its own residents to the Cuban hell-hole.

And which part of the UK has most experience in dealing with the release and re-integration into society of prisoners after lengthy periods in custody? Northern Ireland, of course, which has built up significant expertise in this area and which has numerous ex-prisoner support groups to ensure such individuals are supported.

Obviously we may not have a significant Uighir or Uzbeki population in Northern Ireland (but then neither may Portugal) and no ex-detainee should be obliged to come to a particular country against their free will, but at least Northern Ireland should be willing to offer humanitarian help to these individuals.

In doing so, we would be helping Obama with one of his key campaign pledges and showing a willingness to give, not just take, in our relationship with the US.

You can join Amnesty's campaign for Obama's first hundred days here.

UPDATE: Looks like Hillary Clinton agrees with us:

"It is clear that we will need help because many of the detainees cannot safely, for themselves or others, be sent back to the countries from which they came.

"We are trying to do the best we can with the problem that we inherited, and that certainly is something that Europe, from one end to the other, called upon us to do. So we would hope to have the cooperation of European governments."

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