Business plans replace the bullets in Northern Ireland

Ex-prisoners are being helped to start up their own firms, writes Paul Gosling

Once they were called terrorists; now they are business executives. As part of the Northern Ireland peace process, dozens of released prisoners are being helped to start their own businesses - not least because existing companies will not employ them. The new firms have proved com- mercially successful and are providing a range of new community facilities in parts of the province that had been economic deserts.

Prisoners from both sides of the religious and political divide are being helped by the Nicda Social Economy Agency and are even working together.

Despite the opposition of some politicians, Nicda is working with the three main prisoner release programmes: the Coiste na n-Iarchimi network of 17 republican groups; the Epic loyalist network connected to the Ulster Volunteer Force; and Pang (Prisoner Aid Networking Group), which is related to the Ulster Defence Association. Hundreds of prisoners released through the Good Friday agreement are seeking work. The networks also represent thousands of prisoners released before the agreement, many of whom remain unemployed. Nicda is simultaneously working with a range of victims' groups.

One of the projects supported by Nicda is Linc (the Local Initiative for Needy Communities) in Belfast, which is led by Billy Mitchell, a former Ulster Volunteer Force prisoner and leading member of the Progressive Unionist Party. Linc was first conceived a decade ago in the Maze and Maghaberry prisons. The aim of the scheme is to re-integrate released prisoners into the community and provide them with an income. To this end, Linc has built up working relationships with former republican prisoners, too.

But the focus of Linc is on the loyalist estates of north Belfast, where unemployment is widespread and there is a risk of continued social problems if the economic difficulties are not overcome. Former prisoners visit youth groups to stress the importance of non-sectarianism and help them to raise their educational standards.

Linc was established through grants from the European Union's Special Programme for Peace and Reconciliation and from the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust. It is selling its services to the Community Relations Council, the NI Mediation Project and local authorities and is attempting to become fully self-financing.

Another project led by a former prisoner is already financially successful and forms part of a wider project that has attracted millions of pounds into the city of Derry. Raymond McCartney was one of the original IRA hunger strikers, but today he is managing the Aras Tar Abhaile, a health and fitness suite on the deprived Creggan estate, where unemployment approaches 60 per cent and seven out of 10 males have been out of work for a year or longer. All of the management committee are former republican prisoners and the client base includes hundreds of released prisoners, as well as young people, who are encouraged to turn to fitness instead of violence.

The gym is one of a community of enterprises that is achieving a regeneration of the area through the Rath Mor project. Traditionally, Northern Ireland has been dependent for employment on a few multinational corporations. When one of these, United Technologies Automotive, withdrew two years ago, it devastated Creggan. But a community group, Creggan Enterprises, purchased an adjacent derelict site for pounds 45,000 and raised pounds 3.2m from the International Fund for Ireland, a body financed by the governments of the US, Canada, Australia and some European countries, and by Northern Ireland's Department of the Environment. The local community itself raised 20 per cent of the capital.

Creggan Enterprises has since attracted pounds 10m in investment from businesses moving on to the estate for the first time since the troubles began. The Wellworths/SuperValu chain has put in pounds 1m to establish a big retail operation, enabling residents to shop locally. The post office, abandoned during the troubles because of attacks and vandalism, has reopened. There are also banking facilities in the area for the first time in 50 years, and the regeneration has encouraged new social housing to be built locally. Altogether, 125 jobs have been created on the estate.

Across the city - in the part that is called Londonderry - the loyalist Fountain estate is also setting up community businesses. For years it has suffered high levels of long-term unemployment, and social provision such as the youth club has only been possible through volunteer labour. Just last week one of the leaders of the community businesses, Jeanette Warke, was awarded the MBE for helping to maintain local facilities during the troubles.

Remarkably, Nicda and the EU's Urban Initiative have brought community groups from the Fountain estate together with the equally deprived but republican areas of Bogside and Creggan to create 18 new businesses that are all owned, controlled and managed by their local communities.

The so-called social economy - co-operatives, community businesses, credit unions and voluntary groups - sustained Northern Ireland during the conflict and saved it from total economic collapse. Nicda is keen that the new assembly remembers its significance and gives it a leading role in building the new economy.

"The dominant economic theory is still inward investment," laments Conal McFeely, agency manager at Nicda. "Yet we have worked with 218 groups across the whole of Northern Ireland in the last three years. Out of that we have managed to establish through co-ops and community businesses some 170 jobs, and through the Peace and Reconciliation Fund we have brought pounds 8m into communities where nothing has happened before.

"Each job costs about pounds 6,000, whereas the cost of keeping someone economically inactive is pounds 30,000 per annum. For inward investment the figure for each job created ranges from pounds 70,000 to pounds 260,000."

In the loyalist and republican heartlands the levels of unemployment are among the highest in Europe, so that is where the initiatives have their greatest focus.

"Some of the former prisoners are highly skilled. Before the political conflict some were in the building trade, others were teachers," says Mr McFeely. "They have a wide range of experience, and may have continued their education to degree level while inside. Their political activities enable them to see how their communities tick. They don't see themselves as 'ordinary decent criminals', but as political prisoners.

"Many of these people would have been running their own enterprises if it had not been for the conflict. Some of them definitely have leadership skills. They can be important role models for building the peace."

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