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21 January 1999 Edition

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Republican ex-prisoners organise

Launch of new group is ``historic moment''



by Laura Friel

Republican ex-prisoners are now organised and determined to play a full role in the future of their communities. That was the message at the launch of a new umbrella group - Coiste na n-Iarchimí - for 17 ex prisoners' groups currently based within the ten northern most counties of Ireland.

Sinn Fein Assembly member Gerry Kelly said the key dynamic of the new Committee was ``self help''. ``Over 15,000 nationalists have been through the jails during the most recent phase of struggle,'' said Kelly. ``They didn't come from nowhere, they came from and are intrinsically a part of the community. Ex-prisoners have a positive contribution to make. Their efforts can already be seen in relation to the Irish language and within areas of social need.''

Gerry Kelly was speaking at Belfast's Linen Hall Library where around a hundred people, many ex-prisoners, had gathered for the group's official launch this week. The Linen Hall Library, established over 200 years ago, is one of three independently-owned libraries in the world. The wood panelled members' room was packed to capacity with many well remembered faces.

The establishment of Coiste na n-Iarchimí was described by Mike Ritchie, recently appointed project manager for the group, as a strategic move by Republican ex-prisoners and said he was honoured to have been given the mandate to organise new structures. ``There are currently 17 groups, employing 50 workers,'' said Ritchie, ``but the funding is due to run out in 18 months time. To date ex-prisoners have been creative in attracting funding but it's important that we haven't blown a bubble that's about to burst.''

How long is an ex-prisoner to be regarded as an ex-prisoner, Richie asked. ``As long as society, backed by legislation, continues to identify ex-prisoners in terms of their `criminality' ex-prisoners have the right to organise collectively.''

Ritchie slammed the scapegoating of Republican ex-prisoners in the current debate around `victims' where ``Republican ex-prisoners are expected to assume the responsibility for all the conflict and pain that has been visited on the North,'' he said.

Laurence McKeown, development worker for the project who spent over 16 years in Long Kesh himself, described the launching of Coiste na n-Iarchimi as a ``historic moment''. ``The Coiste is a vital step in the development of the ex-prisoner community and it has the clear potential to become an important element in Ireland's post Agreement society,'' said McKeown. ``Ex-prisoners provide leadership in many areas and in many local communities. They are determined to use their talents for the good of those communities.''

The good humoured crowd stayed to chat, and for many ex-prisoners to catch up with old friends and comrades. ``We've come a long way,'' commented one ex-blanket protester and in such a confident and relaxed atmosphere his words had never seemed truer.

Meanwhile, a group of Republican ex-prisoners in North Belfast have launched a new initiative to tackle training needs of ex-prisoners. Based at the Ashton Centre, the project aims to identify the training needs of former prisoners as well as looking at ways of setting up sustainable community-based businesses in the New Lodge area. The scheme, developed after research by Paul O Neill on behalf of Loiste Uir, identified the need for a structured approach towards addressing ex-prisoners' needs.
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