Thursday 27 April 2017

Six 'ex-prisoner' groups get almost €1m annually

Combat Poverty channels EU funds as 'non-government mechanism'

Jim Cusack

Jim Cusack

Just under a million euro a year has passed through the books of Combat Poverty and another non-government organisation to six Sinn Fein-affiliated "ex-prisoner" groups along the Border over the past eight years.

Combat Poverty made it clear yesterday that none of the funding came from its own funds, but that it was approached and had agreed to act as a "non-government mechanism" to channel European Union funds to the ex-prisoner offices in Letterkenny, Sligo, Clones, Dundalk, Monaghan and Ballinamore in Co Leitrim.

The offices concerned also contained other Sinn Fein-affiliated organisations and politicians from other parties in the Border counties have complained that they were used as Sinn Fein election offices in the past.

Despite receiving such financial largesse from the EU, staff in these offices, including prominent Sinn Fein representatives, would have played a role in the party's No campaign in the Lisbon referendum.

In its annual report for 2007, Combat Poverty records that nine ex-prisoner groups received a total of €786,749, more than a third of the total grant expenditure of €2.05m paid out by the agency.

Among the ex-prisoner groups funded through Combat Poverty is the group Iar Cimi Liatroma Teo. Company records show that the directors of this group, based in a Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, office, include the former Sinn Fein MP Owen Carron. He has been living in Leitrim since failing to answer bail on a charge of possessing an AK47 rifle in Fermanagh in 1986. He is still wanted in the North, but an attempt by the British Government to have him extradited back to face trial in the late 1980s was thrown out by the Supreme Court.

Carron, now headmaster of the local primary school, is listed as director and company secretary of Iar Cimi Liatroma Teoranta.

Although little is known of the activities of Iar Cimi, the office in Main Street, Ballinamore, is also home to another fund-receiving group called La Nua. This described itself as a project to employ ex-prisoners in a house building project and received a grant of €691,181 in 2002 from the European Union Peace Fund for the North and Border counties of the Republic. To date, it appears that La Nua has refurbished only one house.

Iar Cimi received €165,909 from Combat Poverty last year.

Accounts for Iar Cimi for the year ending April 2007 record it as having assets of €29,604, but did not record a cashflow, taking advantage of an exemption allowed to small companies with low turnover.

Another "ex-prisoner" group in receipt of funding is Abhaile Aris in Letterkenny whose only known activities are heavily linked to Sinn Fein. Previous investigation by the Sunday Independent showed that this group receives about €0.25m a year through Combat Poverty.

Last year was no exception, when it received €244,073. Accounts for Abhaile Aris record that it received grants totalling €236,873 in 2006. Although its total staff is recorded as one co-ordinator, two "outworkers" and one administrator, its administrative expenses for 2006 are put at €233,951 and it claimed an operating profit of €15,091.

Abhaile Aris is also known to have received around €600,000 in 2002-2003 from the EU fund set up to support the "peace process" in the North. It has also received funding from other British and Irish agencies though how much is not known. A woman who answered the phone at Abhaile Aris said the Sunday Independent should direct any inquiries "to our funders".

Among those listed as Abhaile Aris employees in recent years were Sinn Fein's two unsuccessful Dail candidates Padraig MacLochlainn and Senator Pearse Doherty from Donegal. In its accounts it lists as its principal activity: "to enhance the welfare, development and social integration of ex-republican prisoners, displaced people and their families in the Donegal area".

However, it shows very little evidence of such activity on its website.

Figures supplied to Stormont last December from the EU show that "ex-prisoners" groups -- many of which double as Sinn Fein centres -- raked in more than €20m from the European Union Peace Fund alone between 2002 and last year and are clearly continuing to receive other funding from both the British and Irish Governments even though the last IRA prisoner was released in 2000.

The second biggest "ex-prisoner" grant through Combat Poverty last year went to Failte Abhaile in Dundalk. This is run by an ex-prisoner from Belfast, Kevin Mulgrew, who was named in court as the commanding officer of the north Belfast IRA.

Despite repeated arrests and a lengthy period on remand he was never convicted of serious offences. Failte Abhaile received €227,073 via Combat Poverty.

It received its grant, like the others, under the heading of the "Pathway to Inclusion, Integration & Reconciliation and Reconciliation of Victims" programme. Tus Nua Sligeach, whose directors are father and son Sinn Fein councillors Sean and Chris McManus, received some €90,849 from Combat Poverty last year. Tuas Nua has an address in John Street in Sligo where Sinn Fein also has an office. Although its annual report contains no detail of the activities engaged in by the ex-prisoner groups, Combat Poverty insists that all projects in receipt of funding are "closely audited" and "carefully monitored".

Combat Poverty describes its funding to these groups as being to "support local and regional responses to poverty including Border areas affected by the Northern Ireland crisis". Annual reports for Combat Poverty since 2000 show a total of €7.15m going to the ex-prisoner offices, the largest annual amount being €2.62m in 2002 followed by €1.27m in 2003.

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