Business boss who works to help terrorists

MOST SUCCESSFUL middle-class businessmen in Northern Ireland could be forgiven for keeping their heads down, raising their families and making money.

Ken Clelland sees things differently. He chairs a committee of republican and loyalist representatives, one of whom has served time for a double murder, all dedicated to finding employment for IRA, UVF and UDA ex-prisoners.

He has, passionately, voluntarily and for no financial reward immersed himself in a world which most of Northern Ireland's business class has avoided: the world of released prisoners, many of whom retain paramilitary attachments.

That is the first surprise. The second is the reaction he reports from others in business: "In the three years I've been quietly doing this I have not met one employer who has said to me 'What are you doing, are you mad, do you think I'm going to take those guys in here?' "

"Every single person has said they believe in it, it's the right thing to do. They are happy to participate but they don't want any publicity.

"Since I did TV and radio interviews recently I've been contacted by a number of leading industrialists who've said they will offer places in their companies. All they want is an assurance that they're not going to have any more difficulty than they would with a normal employee, and I can assure them of that."

All this speaks to a more open and pragmatic attitude among Protestant business people than is evident among Unionist politicians, many of whom are against the early-release scheme established by the Good Friday Agreement.

Apart from the idea of giving a man a second chance in life, Mr Clelland reports that there is a sound practical reason for business to take this approach.

He explains: "The business community have a difficulty filling vacancies at the moment. There is a general skills shortage, and if we have a potential labour force of guys who can do a good day's work, wouldn't we be foolish to turn it down?

"We have people coming out of prison who believe it's important to get to work at 8 o'clock, who genuinely believe it's important to do a good day's work. I have to say that many young people do not display those characteristics. These are mature people who've gone through a learning experience - a very heavy learning experience."

Hundreds of prisoners, loyalist and republican, are now getting out because of the Good Friday Agreement, but they represent only a small part of the problem.

The calculation is that over the 30 years of the Troubles no fewer than 20,000 men have been behind bars for paramilitary offences.

Many of these have joined Northern Ireland's large army of long-term unemployed. Some have found work, but they are not welcome in the public sector which, in the province, provides an inordinately large part of the workforce.

Mr Clelland says he does not want preferential treatment for them, but a level playing field: "I don't believe that prisoners should be given anything better than anyone else. All I believe is that they should have equity and fair treatment, but I've learnt that society continues to punish them long after release.

"We want to provide within the private sector meaningful, well-paid jobs. It's all about self-respect and family respect. There are young children who've grown up with their father away in prison for 10 years, and that's a hard thing to come to terms with. You need family units to be brought together again," he says.

Mr Clelland himself has family roots in the loyalist Shankill Road area. However, his committee does not differentiate between loyalist and republican, and he has watched fascinated as representatives from both sides of the community have worked well on it together.

He started with a general interest in training but has come to concentrate on released paramilitary prisoners. The committee has representatives from a training agency and the probation service but is independent from government and statutory bodies.

Asked what the committee actually does, he explains: "We are a mentoring group. We want to help one person get into a job; two people to start a little business on their own; a group to start a company - whatever it takes to get people working and making money, that's what we're about, so they don't have to rely on the dole."

So what has made him put his head above the parapet? "It has to be said," he replies, "that there were concerns about personal safety. For an east Belfast Prod to be travelling up the Falls Road to meet republicans - it has been a journey of faith. I believe in social justice. I suppose that goes back to my student days when I was a bit of a socialist. Now I'm the arch-capitalist, but I still maintain social justice is right.

"Does the journey we've come through in the past 30 years teach us nothing? I don't want a society of people who feel they've nothing to offer. We've been down that road. I believe passionately that if we don't do this that the seeds of future conflict will be sown.

"The bottom line is that I don't think of myself as being altruistic. I'm doing it for very selfish reasons because I want Northern Ireland to be a place where everybody feels there's a future for them."

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