17 October 2002 Edition
The Process of Nation Building
Coiste groups gather to discuss ways forward
It was a powerful occasion. Some 55 members of Coiste na n-Iarchimí groups across the 32 counties gathered together earlier this month for a three-day workshop and intensive discussion to map out the way forward for the Coiste at a residential conference themed Processes of Nation Building.
Coiste na nIarchimí is the network of republican ex-prisoner groups set up after the Good Friday Agreement to provide support, based on mutual aid, for the POWs on their release. It also aims to secure the full integration of the republican former prisoner community through recognition of the contribution they have made to the community in the past and to develop their contribution to justice and peace in Ireland.
After an arduous year of uncertainties and difficulties in securing new funding under Peace 2, many programmes and projects are now on stream and have secured funding. The conference was to centre a new project, Processes of Nation Building, within the overall strategic objectives, structures and activities of Coiste na n-Iarchimí.
Mike Ritchie, coordinator of Coiste, began with a review of some of the achievements of the Coiste groups over recent years. He ran over such projects as the redevelopment of the Clones old RIC barracks, now the centre for Fáilte Cluain Eois; the very successful Leisure Centre project in Derry; Tar Abhaile in Dublin; the Welfare Rights work which has been done so successfully in many Coiste groups to ensure that people in our communities win their welfare entitlements; the counselling services, which have had such a strong take-up from local communities; and the youth projects, especially in North Belfast.
He talked of the work many Coiste groups have done involving their local communities and working alongside other statutory agencies, development and partnerships groups. He talked of Clonard in Belfast, where a whole community was involved in the building of the Memorial Garden, and the many training schemes that have built capacity and have enabled people to play a role in their communities.
"We have broken through the propaganda barrier: ex-prisoners are no longer portrayed as demons," he said. "It is a victory."
Processes of Nation Building
The project of Nation Building is about moving on to engage key sectors of Irish society, across the 32 counties, to explore visions of the kind of united Ireland they want to see. The project did not drop from the sky. It is the continuation of the Coiste political education work under Peace I.
The process envisages republican ex-prisoners reaching out through dialogue to civic society: the Protestant community North and South, the unionist community in the North, all churches, political parties in the 26 Counties, the trade union movement and business community. It aims to involve them in developing a vision of a nation rooted in diversity with a commitment to justice and peace.
The Process of Nation Building (PNB) will use the political, economic, social and cultural models derived from international conflict resolution to engage society, and all those who are not afraid to embrace change, in a series of interactive discussions on the shape of this new Ireland.
The project will also involve a programme of debate and discussion on divisions in broad nationalism, between constitutional nationalism and republicanism; differences in republicanism and differences between nationalist opinion North and South. This will involve coordinated outreach with youth on a cross community basis through established youth networks.
Mitchel McLaughlin, Sinn Féin Chairperson, addressed the conference on how this project fits into the party's work and the broad republican perspective. He spoke of how "no one can write the script of what may happen in the coming weeks, but the tide of change cannot be held back". He spoke of the challenges that face the struggle for the Republic and the strong anti-republican forces of conservatism that have colluded to maintain the status quo and to resist the reality of change which must come.
"Republicans are providing the dynamic in a most unequal society, where, especially in the South, the social gap is widening," he said. "And it is by reaching out to those who do not fear change, that we will strengthen the opposition to these forces of conservatism, and the securocrats. We need to engage with those who are not afraid to embrace change, to explain our ideas, to develop our vision of how the New Ireland will be shaped, if we are to bring the Republic forward."
PNB has a central role to play in advancing this engagement, and to contend with the nightmare of ignorance and fear which faces us, he said. Nation Building is about addressing the concerns of the inner cities, of rural Ireland, and focusing on the kind of Ireland we want to have.
"If we do not effectively engage with this process of nation building, more and more young people will become caught up in conflict, and I do not need to explain to this gathering the cost of conflict. It would be tragic if through complacency, they did not understand. It is up to us to explain. We can move mountains, but to do this we need clear strategies."
Concepts of PNB
The conference addressed the concepts and mechanics, and how the Coiste groups can contribute to these processes. The discussion was initiated by the PNB coordinators, Laurence McKeown, Angela McEvoy, Rosie McCorley and Declan Kearney. It was developed through a series of contributions from Ella O'Dwyer, Carál Ní Chuilín and Pat Treanor, who considered PNB from different regional standpoints, North and South and the role that Coiste groups can play to engage our whole republican ex-prisoner community in the project.
The conference delegates also had the opportunity to view "Inside Stories", made by Tús Nua, a Coiste group in Belfast. The video tells, in short clips, the story of people who were involved down the years from Internment up to the present day. It will be an extremely valuable asset for the young people today who were not even born at the time. It was a powerful and unassuming video of our history told by those who made it.
The conference was indeed an inspiring couple of days. The 'Processes of Nation Building' programme represents another step in achieving the objectives of Coiste na n-Iarchimí to facilitate former prisoners in deepening and developing their contribution to justice and peace in Ireland.
Ferris opens Abhaile Arís in Letterkenny
Martin Ferris, Sinn Féin TD for North Kerry, was given a rapturous welcome by a big crowd when he arrived at Lower Main Street in Letterkenny on Friday afternoon last to open the Party Abhaile Arís Office which is funded by the EU Peace and Reconciliation Fund.
In his speech inside the building, Ferris departed from his script to say that despite the present posturing of unionism, the Sinn Féin party would not be deflected from its ultimate goal of a united Ireland. He also called for the immediate release of all republican prisoners in the state, saying that to continue their detention was in clear breach of the Good Friday Agreement.
Among the many guests were MPs Pat Doherty and Michelle Gildernew and Councillor Ciaran Brogan, the Deputy Mayor of Letterkenny.
The sun shone on the opening and the attendance viewed an exhibtion of the crafts of republican prisoners, among them Hugh Doherty of Carrigart, County Donegal, whose paintings adorn the walls of the new facility.
The Abhaile Arís building will cater for 450 prisoners and their families and others displaced by the troubles of the Six Counties over three decades. Many have spent over 20 years in prisons and detention centres and some have been hounded out of their homes for their convictions.
A staff of three is in charge of the running and administration of Abhaile Arís: Pearse Doherty is project coordinator, Peter Ogle is office administrator and Gerry McMonagle is outreach worker.
A comprehensive plan is now in place to include a series of objectives. These are promotion of education: providing employment through training and development: a facility for interaction: counselling and advice: promotion of self-development: improving public perception. A number of classes in the Irish language: arts and painting along with computer training are due to start in mid-October and the project has already identified from research the needs of their community.
Martin Ferris said it was a fitting occasion to remind ourselves of the fact that the republican former prisoner community, far from being a helpless dependant of the social welfare system, has taken control of its own interests and is an integral part of the ongoing struggle to free our country.
Ferris said that in Donegal, as in many other parts of Ireland, republican former prisoners are playing an active role at all levels. A large proportion of Sinn Fein's elected representatives in both states are part of that community. Many others are active within the party as community activists, he added.
"What this proves is that far from being the breakers yards envisaged by our enemies, the prisons became the furnace in which our revolution was tempered and steeled."