16 November 2000 Edition

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The journey of Coiste na n-Iarchimí

Conference hears how republican former prisoners are organising across the country

A remarkable event took place last week in Sligo. Representatives from 18 projects all over the country, all initiated by the former republican prisoner community, came together to discuss their way forward, the extension of their role in the struggle, and future organisation.

All of us in this room are a face of the struggle. We all come of a background of political activists. We came from our communities, fought as part of them, and are now back in our communities, in the struggle of which we are all a part, to develop our contribution to justice and peace in Ireland
The conference was organised by Coiste na n-Iarchimí, which was first established in 1998 to act as the co-ordinating body for the growing number of groups, all around the country, representing republican former prisoners.

Over the last two years, this network has grown to some 25 active groups and associates, with 90 full-time workers, all involved in different capacities in their communities in Belfast, Derry, Strabane, Letterkenny, Newry, Clones, Fermanagh, Sligo/Leitrim, Dundalk, Armagh, Lurgan, Dungannon, Dublin, Galway/Mayo, Tipperary, Meath and Cork.

Gerry Kelly, Sinn Féin Assembly spokesperson on prison-related issues, addressing the conference defined the importance of the project: ``Coiste is a success story, for the former prisoners, their families and their children and for the struggle itself. Coiste has reclaimed people, resources, back into the overall struggle, people coming from 20 or 30 years ago, moving back into the broad republican struggle in their communities.

``Coiste represents political strength. Political strength is not the equivalent of electoral strength.''

100,000 years of prison

As mayor of Sligo, Alderman Sean MacManus officially welcomed the conference to the town. He paid tribute to the sacrifice that former prisoners had made and referred to the fact that over the 30 years of struggle, 15,000 people had been locked up, representing over 100,000 years in jail. He mentioned modestly that one month of this was his.

He called on the British Government to move swiftly on the amnesty process for those currently on the run (known as OTRs) so they too can return to their homes. MacManus also called on the 26-County government to take cognisance of the fact that there is an obligation under the Good Friday Agreement to release the prisoners known as the Castlerea Five.

As Ann O'Sullivan from the Dublin Coiste Office pointed out in one of several opening presentations, (Sean Lynch, Fermanagh, Sean Mathers, Newry) ``the government here is still at the pre-Good Friday Agreement stage because of Castlerea. The issue of reintegration, the ongoing discrimination against ex-prisoners, has to be addressed to bring an end to all the legal barriers.''

Coiste Projects

The conference itself reflected, as Mike Ritchie, Coiste's Project Manager, said, an astonishing achievement. Advice and support groups, education and training projects in skills, Irish language courses and groups, basic education courses, counselling, facilitation skills, management skills, computer use, prisoner art exhibition projects, building companies, building renovation work, political and cultural tourism, video and photography, youth projects, and so on. These groups have provided an amazing resource, not just for former prisoners and their families, but for the whole community.

The first republican ex-prisoner group established was Tar Anall in West Belfast, which has pioneered a long list of projects, especially for young people. Many of these projects are now well developed in other areas also.

Young People

Perhaps best known of all the Coiste and Tar Anall programmes is the well-established Irish Political Prisoner Children's Holiday Programme, which has enabled many children of prisoners, former prisoners, dead Volunteers and the children of displaced families, to go on a holiday to the United States.

And this project hasn't been altogether one-sided. Two student groups from America also came to Ireland, under ther auspices of Coiste's Cultural and Political tourism group, to study the conflict here as a part of their college studies.

But the US holiday project is just one of many remarkable programmes with young people set up through Tar Anall. There are projects such as the Oganaigh Le Cheile, a peer education programme for 14 to 19-year-olds that includes residential meetings, some of which have been cross border and some cross community. There is also Clar na nOg for 10 to 14-year-olds, with team building, alcohol and drugs awareness, and health and sexuality programmes.

These projects have included discussion around the effects of imprisonment and loss for the children. It was these two programmes that led to an amazing booklet, presented to the conference, titled Left in Limbo, which emerged from discussions amongst young people of their experiences. The booklet covers many of the difficulties which children of former prisoners endured, including the resentments, the anger, even hate, which can result from the prolonged absence of a parent in jail, and the difficulties of adjusting to a parent, whom children had perhaps never known, coming home.

Youth submission to Prisoners

Another booklet, also presented at the Conference, by Roisin Kelly, Tar Anall's Training and Education Resource Worker, was Ag Teacht le Chéile, which documents through discussion the impact of imprisonment on prisoners and their families. It is a marvellous resource based on personal testimonies by prisoners themselves, but also their wives and partners; the difficulties they faced in the community, the loneliness, and the effects of imprisonment on close relationships.

This booklet also records the submission which young people, through Oganaigh le Chéile, put to the prisoners who were still in Long Kesh, last March, which includes a section entitled ``Advice for parents when they get out of prison.'' The booklet includes the response that the prisoners themselves made to this submission. These booklets are part of an historic record: of life as it has been for all those involved and affected by 30 years of struggle.

The representative voice of the prisoners

The Coiste has been funded by Governments, Partnership and Development Boards, and Peace and Reconciliation money, to create, as Mike Ritchie asserts, ``not mickey mouse jobs, but long term employment at decent wages''.

The Coiste is recognised by the British and 26 County governments and internationally as the representative organisation of the republican former prisoners. It has aimed to leave no prisoner isolated, and through the outreach project to seek out all former prisoners, some living in the most remote areas, Coiste has worked to establish connections and support them in establishing ex-prisoner groups in their own areas.

Research indicates that these groups will eventually involve almost 4,000 ex-prisoners living in the 26 Counties alone.

Coiste Organisation

Coiste also includes an Economic Development Unit, which organised this conference, and a Political Education Project. This project aims to develop dialogue and debate with many minority groups across the country and with groups seeking to establish human rights.

What is the Journey, the project the Political Education Project has taken on, aims to document what has motivated, guided, inspired, depressed, entertained and developed the prisoners over the last three decades, in their own words.

The Coiste network also includes a Border Region Project, which aims to increase awareness, especially within the voluntary and statutory agencies, of the issues and discrimination facing former prisoners and the communities of displaced people. The coordinator, Sean Ó Conghaile, based at Fáilte Abhaile in Dundalk, has been actively involved in pursuing fair employment rights, challenging legal barriers, and also in providing help and counselling to families who are separated by the border as a result of the conflict.

A recent seminar in Dundalk, and another organised for Letterkenny later this month, aim to bring people working within the statutory agencies together with ex-prisoners, the displaced people and their families. They bring into the public domain the reality of what has been Ireland's refugee crisis down the years, as families fled sectarianism, war, arrest and intimidation, to become a ghettoised community, isolated, separated and alone.

Coiste - The Future

``Peace II, which should come on stream by next summer, is your money,'' Mike Ritchie pointed out. ``We want to make sure that all former prisoners make use of the services we can provide and that there is equal access for all areas across the 32 counties. We have to work for the removal of all legal barriers, and the securing of human rights following the Good Friday Agreement. Patten represents another barrier to former prisoners. All these things are a part of our common project in Coiste. It's about working locally, thinking globally''.

An important paper was given at the conference by Declan Kearney, from the Economic Development Unit of Coiste, on the Implications for Coiste of Sustainability. The ability to sustain a project is a political ventyure and should not be seen as a simple matter of funding, he explained. ``The development of Coiste is key to bringing about and resourcing the process of change in Ireland from a republican perspective,'' he said. ``It needs to be looked at this from the angle of equality in access to funding and redressing the north-south dichotomy.'' The conference discussed in workshops these ideas and in particular how to develop Coiste as an extension of the struggle for justice and equality.

North Belfast Consortium

Finally, Tommy Quigley and Paul O'Neill presented a study of how Coiste groups, in North Belfast had grown together, complementing each other's work in different areas of activity. This area alone has had over 600 people killed in the struggle. There is a `constituency' of 450 former prisoners, 1,300 children of former prisoners. It is also an area of the most serious economic deprivation, with some 62% unemployment.

The projects include An Loiste, in the New Lodge, set up in 1997, Tar Isteach in 1999, Ardoyne's Amach Agus Isteach in 1998 and the Marrowbone ex-Prisoner group in Old Park, established last year. Amach Agus Isteach is perhaps the most adventurous of this `consortium' of projects. Involved in construction projects, its members are self employed and all profits go back into the business and will ultimately provide a source of revenue to fund services and posts organised through the North Beflast ex-prisoner consortium. It represents an important step in the developing of ideas of social economy.


The former prisoners also discussed the H Block Armagh Hunger Strike commemorations planned for the months and year ahead, in a discussion introduced by Raymond McCartney, Jim McVeigh, Mariead Keane and Laurence McKeown. The latter, who was on hunger strike in 1981 for 70 days, talked about the film he and Brian Campbell (both authors of `Nor Meekly Serve Their Time') are starting to film at Ardmore Studios in Bray this week. It is planned to have the film on general release by summer.

``This was our finest hour,'' said Jim McVeigh, ``and is the finest of opportunities to engage young people, and all those people who ignored the Hunger Strike at the time. It is an opportunity to understand its lessons: the aftermath in the jail, elections, the escape, the control of the jail, and all that has followed since, including the Good Friday Agreement, the release of prisoners and Coiste na n-Iarchimí itself.''

The journey goes on.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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