22 May 2003 Edition

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Coiste launches political tours of Belfast

On Thursday 8 May, Alex Maskey, launched Coiste na nIarchimí's new Political Tourism initiative. The republican ex-prisoner group's programme is being funded by the Belfast Local Strategy Partnership Board and intends to provide a structure through which Coiste can offer visitors to Belfast a range of study and leisure tours. The long-term aim is to prepare for the establishment of a tourism business that would build the skills base amongst former political prisoners and their families.

This is not the first time Coiste has acted as host to groups and delegations who have been interested in getting first hand experiences of the conflict. Three-day tours have been organised for Bradford University, incorporating mural tours, meetings with community/ campaigning groups, meetings with political parties and visits to interface areas.

This project could, in the long-term, create employment opportunities for ex-prisoners and it is also an opportunity for the ex-prisoner community to tell their story to international visitors, who have come here to listen. It certainly has the potential of tackling the employment discrimination practices used by the both the public and private sectors against the ex-prisoner community.

"If we look around the Falls Road, we see tourists at all times of the year. They have come to Belfast to hear and see first hand experiences of the conflict. Who would be better positioned than ex-prisoners to deliver such a message?" explains Caoimhín Mac Giolla Mhín of Coiste.

"The programme is particularly focusing on delegations and groups who may wish to spend a few days in Belfast. We have many different ideas and opportunities, which could entertain our guests for a few days. We have a wealth of community initiatives to choose from and we intend to tailor packages of various descriptions depending on demand and the nature of the group.

"The tour could be thematic and could vary according to different times of the year. They could take a purely historical theme and could focus on particular periods in the history of the conflict. Whatever the focus is on, there is certainly a wealth of experience and knowledge within the republican community to ensure that our visitors get a service that they will not forget."

The project intends also to target the individuals and small groups we all see walking around with cameras and backpacks, especially during the summer months. It is, at this stage, probably somewhat restricted as to what can be organised for the ordinary tourist.

The Coiste is appealing for any ex-prisoner who would be interested in the delivery of such a tour to contact either Caoimhín or Ciara at the Coiste office in Belfast 90 20 0770.

Although this project is initially restricted to Belfast, Coiste does intend to use this as a pilot project or gauge to test the possibility of putting together tour packages, which would involve trips to other areas.

This project is offering communities the opportunity to take ownership of the stories and history that rightfully is their privilege to pass on at first hand to those who are interested.

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