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30 January 1997 Edition

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Where unemployment is normal

By Laurence McKeown

I met a friend the other day with whom I spent time in prison. He's a laid-back guy, the sort who reckons an issue is not a problem unless it is raised repeatedly for several weeks. We'll call this friend Theo.

Anyhow, we got to talking about the mid-1980s when there was a lot of discussion in prison about Sinn Féin's entry into electoral politics. Some were very wary of this new development and questioned how Sinn Féin members would conduct themselves in the council chambers.

In one such discussion a comrade made the outburst that all Sinn Féin was interested in was building leisure centres. This took the assembled group by surprise and there was silence for a moment before Theo asked, ``how many have they built?''. After a moment the reply came, somewhat reluctantly, ``they haven't built any''. ``How many have they asked to be built?'' Theo asked. This time it took a raised eyebrow from Theo after a few moments before a reply was elicited. ``I don't know that they've asked for any to be built''.

Only because the cell was by this stage embarrassingly silent the reply would never have been heard. Theo allowed it to hang in the air for a moment and then asked with a quizzical look on his face, ``Come to think of it, what's wrong with leisure centres anyway?'' This was like a lifeline to his opponent and he grasped it like someone who had come up for the third and last time. ``Because it's all part of the normalisation process, that's why.''

This sounded good. We had all read the lectures on Normalisation. Things looked grim for Theo who still lay slouched in his seat. But discussions like these were his life's blood. ``Tell me this,'' he said ``did you ever go to dances when you were out?'' ``Of course,'' came the reply. ``And did you ever go to pubs for a night out?'' ``Sure.'' By this stage Theo had moved to an upright position in his seat. ``Then what the fuck's wrong with someone going for a swim?''

We're now ten years older. Sinn Féin's participation in the council chambers today is accepted as a given fact and, outside of Belfast, many Unionists even find they can reach agreement with them on certain issues. The state hasn't collapsed as a result of such a move and neither have republican principles. The issue of leisure centres is still with us, however, because Sinn Féin today are to the fore in trying to keep them open against Unionist attempts at closure. They are involved in much more of course, which is what I have been getting around to.

Following the cessation of hostilities by the IRA in 1994 the European Union responded by announcing a peace and reconciliation package to the tune of £240 million. This money was directed at those communities most affected by the conflict and was to benefit in particular the long-term unemployed, the young and ex-prisoners. In 1997 we don't yet have peace, and reconciliation is for some later stage, but no doubt once the Brussels bureaucracy was put in motion it would have cost even more to halt it in mid-stride. So the funds keep coming in.

Some Sinn Féin councillors, amongst others, have a role in advising on the allocation of these moneys but I believe their role should be extended beyond allocation to how the money is spent, how decisions are made in relation to expenditure, how those decisions are arrived at, on what criteria, who the decision-makers are responsible to - Brussels or the community - and how community input and evaluation is ensured.

Success in these matters, I believe, should be gauged not by how many commendations are received from Brussels but by the extent of goodwill expressed by the communities concerned and the impact evident upon them.

For some people, the Brussels financial package represents merely an opportunity for career advancement. For others it is a once in a lifetime chance to finally escape the vicious poverty trap of unemployment and inadequate social welfare payments. They are unequal starting points and thus the injustices and discrimination perpetrated on these communities down through the years are perpetuated if relevant recruitment and employment processes are not put in place to counteract this imbalance. It's a case of damned if you are unemployed and damned to remain unemployed.

Indeed, as Theo might say, there's nothing wrong with normalisation if it teaches us to swim - so long as we all share the same pool.
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