07 April 2005

Daily Ireland

Ex-prisoners once again rise to the challenge of opposing a strategy of criminalisation

Of late, the terms criminal and criminality have once again appeared in the speeches of politicians and in the media.
Just as in the mid-1970s the terms are being applied to republicans and republican activities.
Interestingly this time, the Dublin government of Bertie Ahern and not the British government is the instigator of this campaign of vilification.
Sinn Féin spokespersons have already addressed the accusations but as people who were on the end of earlier attempts to criminalise the republican struggle we feel it is timely that we speak out on the issue.
Coiste na nIarchimí is the umbrella organisation representing former republican prisoners, their families and displaced persons. Established in 1998 we have our head office in Belfast, an office in Dublin directly funded by the Irish government, and 15 ex-prisoner centres across the 12 northern counties.
The first republican ex-prisoner group, Tar Anall, was established on the Falls Road in Belfast in 1994, several months before the IRA’s cessation of armed struggle. Following the cessation, the European Union initiated a special economic support package for the North and a small portion of those monies was dedicated to assisting former political prisoners and their families.
Republicans have utilised that opportunity of financial assistance in an extremely productive manner and, in line with their politics, not just for the benefit of themselves and their families but for the wider community.
In the Creggan estate in Derry city, Tar Abháile, the republican ex-prisoner group, built a fitness and leisure suite to meet the needs of the community. In Clones, Co Monaghan the ex-prisoner group, Fáilte Chluain Eois, bought the former RIC barracks and transformed it into spacious offices and a crèche and child-minding facility which was sorely lacking in the area. Cumann na Meirleach in south Armagh is exploring a hill-walking venture; Tar Anall renovated part of the old Conway Mill on the Falls Road and now hosts numerous courses and facilities. Tar Isteach in north Belfast operates a counselling and emotional support service; Fáilte Abhaile in Dundalk is a vibrant youth project.
Similar innovative projects provide much needed facilities in Letterkenny, Sligo, Leitrim, Dungannon, West Belfast and Lurgan.
These projects reflect how former republican prisoners have used their skills and displayed their commitment to the communities that have given them and their families so much in the past.
In all of the work that has been undertaken and all of the funding that Coiste na nIarchimí and affiliated groups have been able to draw down under the European Union funds, no one can point to any mismanagement, misappropriation or misuse of funds. To even state that sounds defensive but it is necessary for the record and in light of the current campaign of vilification, which is being led by Southern politicians.
One wonders if that campaign is not primarily designed to divert attention from their own difficulties exposed by the inquiries and tribunals into the scandals of off-shore bank accounts, tax avoidance, bribery, corrupt practices of land development and other illegal and unethical practices.
Not only have republican ex-prisoners put their energies into creating valuable resources for the community but they continue to play a crucial role with youth to reduce violence and tension on the interfaces; in community development; with Coiste’s Processes of Nation Building programme which engages with representatives from all sectors of society, in social economy, in the arts, in the Irish language, in public life as elected representatives, and on a daily basis as ordinary, responsible civic-minded citizens.
The elements of criminalisation that exist in Ireland, North and South, are governmental in their origin and relate to the discriminatory barriers still in place against former political prisoners.
Although clearly recognised as political whilst in prison and released as such under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, former political prisoners are classed under the catch-all term of “possessing a criminal conviction”. This label has major implications in terms of employment, training, accessing compensation, insurance and mortgages, adoption, fostering, travel, representation on public bodies and so on.
The irony is that a former political prisoner could be the Minister for Policing in a new Assembly but be prevented from joining the civil service at a basic grade.
Our work is to remove these legal barriers and discriminatory practices. We thank those who have assisted us, especially the political representatives who recognise the justice of our case and the inconsistencies in current policy.
The governmental tactic of criminalisation of us and our community has never worked in the past. It will not work now because we will never allow it to work and those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat the mistakes and failures of those who went before them.
Coiste na nIarchimí will hold a rally in the Europa Hotel in Belfast at 7.30pm on Monday, April 11 as an opportunity for ex-prisoners, family members and supporters to protest at the current campaign seeking to criminalise republicans. For further information, contact Mike Ritchie on (028) 9020 0770.






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