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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Manager

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Compliance Manager is require...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Financial Advisers and Paraplanners

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This extremely successful and well-established...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map