Community worker to retire after 15 years of progress and ‘peace’

Declan Magee

Reporter:

Declan Magee

“I think the kind of person that would engage in violence for a political cause will be as just as hard working at peace building - once they buy into the process they are totally committed to it and I don’t think their work is getting the recognition it deserves, even in their own communities.”

“I think the kind of person that would engage in violence for a political cause will be as just as hard working at peace building - once they buy into the process they are totally committed to it and I don’t think their work is getting the recognition it deserves, even in their own communities.”

Angela Holohan has worked at the Donegal Community Workers Co-op for 15 years and has become one of the most well-known figures in community development in the county.

She steps down as the projects co-ordinator at the end of February and is leaving confident that funding will be in place for it to run another two and a half years. She feels it is a good time to leave with the project now in a new office with a full compliment of staff and having just launched its ‘Community Work Approach to Peace Building’. “It is full of the lessons the group has learnt from the Peace Programme,” she said.

“A lot of the work that we have done in the last 15 years is documented as well as a lot of the approaches taken in the sector. So I feel it is a good time to go and someone else can bring new energy to the project.”

She describes the Community Workers Co-op as an organisation for community workers and organisations committed to social justice. Locally the project is funded by the European Union’s Peace III programme to use community work as a tool for peace building.

From Co. Roscommon, Angela has been living in Ballybofey for over 30 years. Having worked for a bank and after leaving work after marriage she ran a part-time secretarial service from home. She returned to the workforce 15 years ago as an administrator in the DCWC. What had been her hobby turned into her career as she had been an active member of the community sector having been a founding member of the Ballybofey Women’s Group, and was involved with Concern, various festival committees, and People in Need where she has been a board member for 20 years.

“Having been treasurer, secretary, chair of so many community groups in my life, I know what it takes to make a community organisation function. I think I can recognise in people the skills they have. I also know of the pitfalls, I have learnt through my mistakes.”

She says having a background in finance was a real help in running EU-finance programmes. “I think a lot of the problems with community and voluntary sector organisations is they don’t realise the amount of paperwork involved in delivering community and voluntary programmes. It is huge - especially in terms of EU funding.”

Her 15 years in the CWC has seen huge changes and indeed some upheaval. The CWC walked out of the national social partnership in 2004 because it felt there was not enough focus on social justice inclusion. Funding was restored three years ago but the cuts of recent years has seen the co-op lose its three national staff last year. A regret from the last few years is that the group did not stay out of national partnership. “I think we should have have stayed out. We did not have a lan B at that stage and we, the community sector, became totally reliant on exchequer funding. Now people are looking more to more social economy type intiatives but it would have been easier to do it a few years back. We have to focus now and be prepared to share resources and work together.”

Under the Peace programme the DCWC works with ex-prisoner groups and women’s groups and provides support to the groups. “We support management groups as they carry out their work. That is important at the moment when there are so many concerns about cash flow and how people can go on day to day operating their projects. There are huge headaches out there.”

Working with ex-prisoners groups has been one of the most interesting aspects of her work. She admits that she was sceptical about working with such groups initially but such thoughts were dispelled. “I found that most of the ex-prisoners are genuinely committed to peace. I think the kind of person that would engage in violence for a political cause will be just as hard working at peace building - once they buy into the process they are totally committed to it and I don’t think their work is getting the recognition it deserves, even in their own communities.”

Recent years have been very difficult for the community and voluntary sector with funding seriously reduced or totally cut in some cases. Such savage cuts to the sector is very short-sighted, she says. “At a time when the services that those sort of projects deliver are needed more, such as youth reorganisation, family support centres, Community Development Projects - they were never more needed when there are so many people and youth with no work. The threat to Community Employment schemes as well is huge”

As a member of the Labour Party, though not an active one she says, she feels the cuts to the community development are short-sighted. “It’s easy to say don’t cut, I don’t know where we can make the savings, but like everyone else I am angry about the bail out money.”

What she is proudest of in the last 15 years is that the project’s expertise in the area of community development has been acknowledged and that is evident in the peace building manual the project has produced.

What the presidential election showed, she says, is that the discussion around the peace process has to go southwards. “What we found surprising is that up here we would be in meetings where Martin McGuinness would be present and people have got over that - they have moved on from there in the border counties in terms of peace building and acknowledging and dealing with the past. Down south that conversation still has to be had and they are very reluctant to engage in it.”

The challenge now is that peace is maintained and it moves out of a ceasefire mode and into a more permanent basis. The decade of centenaries coming up that will strength from the Ulster Covenant up to the treaty is important for the peace process. “They have the potential to really unite or they can be really decisive.”

On a personal note she is looking forward to spending more time with her family and in particular her two grandchildren.

Of course she will continue her work with community groups and will continue working with People in Need and the Donegal Citizens Information Services Board. It’s work is important “when there is such a need out there for quality information and advocacy services during this time of economic crisis”. She will also be a more frequent visitor to the Balor Theatre and will enjoy her pastimes of swimming and running.

But she admits she will miss the buzz of work and the people she has met. The Co-op has also been a great organisation to work for. “You are actually encouraged to embark on any initiative or fulfil a vision, they certainly support you. None of the projects would work if they did not have committed people to steer them.”