Councillors are divided on a suggestion to ask a County Fermanagh native, described as “an expert on prison refrom”, to provide a presentation on the subject.

During a meeting of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council’s Policy and Resources Committee, members discussed a public consultation on the Reform of Rehabilitation Periods in the criminal justice system.

A draft response put to members was commended by Ulster Unionist Councillor Howard Thornton, who proposed it be accepted.

Seconding, Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh, Independent, said he was: “Shocked ... by how backward some sentencing structures are ... We understand the nature of crime, and people have to face the consequences, but it’s also vitally important they have an opportunity to turn their lives around.”

Councillor Chris McCaffrey, Sinn Fein, recalled working previously with a prison guard who “gave me great insight".

He continued: "He was a big believer in rehabilitation and the importance of how society treats prisoners. People can go in all sorts of directions in life.”

But tension arose when Councillor John McClaughry, Ulster Unionist, proposed inviting Ian Acheson, who is “highly-qualified when it comes to prison reforms” to give a presentation to members.

Councillor McClaughry pointed out: “He worked in the Prison Service and writes a lot of papers for different bodies, including the Government, on prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation.”

This was seconded by Democratic Unionist Councillor Errol Thompson, who also commended the response document.

When Committee Chair Councillor Stephen McCann asked if all members agreed, there was immediate dissent.

Councillor Bernice Swift, Independent, said: “I’m not so sure. I’d like to know a bit more about that chap. There are serious issues regarding imprisonment in this country.

"Also [issues regarding] detainment and the continuing stop-and-search, and indeed, ongoing internment. I haven’t heard tell of that chap.”

She wasn’t supportive of “having names and professions bounced on us with little knowledge”.

Councillor Mary Garrity, SDLP, suggested information could be obtained “so members could decide whether they want a presentation or not".

She added: "Like others, I’m not sure who we’re talking about. I’ve no objection to a presentation from anyone, whether I agree with them or not. It’s the lack of knowledge which is turning people off.”

The Chair asked Councillor McClaughry to “advise members of this gentleman’s credentials and the purpose of his presentation or bringing him in”.

But Councillor Garrity said this should not came from Councillor McClaughry, because “like others have indicated, that’s an impression of someone; it’s not that I doubt him, but obviously how I would perceive someone could be different”.

She suggested an independent appraisal would be more informative.

The Chair decided to put the matter onto the agenda for next month’s meeting when “we can have a bit of a background on this fella and decide whether or not we will have him in”.

Councillor McClaughry said: “I cannot vouch for his credentials. I apologise.  I just know he’s from Fermanagh and an expert in prison reform. That’s all I know about the man.”

The matter will be revisited at the March meeting.

Meanwhile, BBC Local Democracy established Mr. Acheson is now based in England as a counter-terrorism expert.

He is a former prison governor, and a one-time prospective election candidate for the Ulster Unionist Party.

Originally from Enniskillen, his father was the first ambulance driver on the scene of the no-warning IRA Remembrance Day Bombing in 1987, digging friends – alive and dead – from the rubble with his bare hands.

Mr. Acheson was studying at Durham University at the time, travelling home in the aftermath to be with family and friends.