Dozens of people engaged in a peaceful march through Letterkenny on Friday morning, calling on government politicians to save Community Employment Schemes.
More than 60 people, carrying placards reading, “Save our CE schemes”, marched from Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (Siptu) offices on the Port Road in Letterkenny, arriving first at the Castle Street office of Labour Sen. Jimmy Harte, and then continuing to the Lower Main Street office of Joe McHugh, Fine Gael TD. There were similar protests at the Donegal Town and Gaoth Dobhair offices of Dinny McGinley, TD, minister of state for the Gaeltacht. Organisers estimated hundreds of people were involved in the different protests.
Neither Sen. Harte nor Deputy McHugh was in their office at the time, but marchers presented office staff with a letter stating their concerns and copies of a petition in support of CE schemes that has been circulated on line, gathering up to 5,000 signatures.
Campaigners said Budget 2012 cuts in the materials and training allowances grant from E1,500 to E500 per participant will cause CE schemes to close. They said the restriction on “top-up” welfare payments for single parents and people with disabilities will limit work and training opportunities by making participation in CE schemes no longer economically viable.
Friday’s protest was organised by Siptu and the Congress Resource Centre in Letterkenny, after a meeting organisers held last Wednesday in Ballybofey. They will follow Friday’s march with a public meeting at 11am tomorrow, Monday December 20, at Jackson’s Hotel in Ballybofey. Organisers have invited all of Donegal’s Oireachtas members to attend.
Fidelma Carron, Siptu assistant organiser, said the point of tomorrow’s meeting is to let elected representatives hear firsthand how CE schemes serve communities across the county, and to hear how the politicians plan to support the campaign to save the schemes.
“This affects the whole county,” Fidelma said.
CE schemes are a gateway to employment for unemployed people and provide education and training opportunities as well as assistance to people with disabilities, older people, Travellers and childcare centres. People on CE schemes are also involved with community groups and such varied initiatives as Tidy Towns projects, The Society of St Vincent de Paul, Donegal youth services and Meals on Wheels.
Many of Friday’s marchers were involved in CE schemes. Aidan Guthrie of Drumkeen said he left school at age 15 and worked for 30 years in the building trade until he had to stop for health reasons. Some months later he was taken on a CE scheme at the Congress centre, where in a year he earned the qualifications needed to become an IT instructor. He has taught some of the men who had worked beside him on building sites.
“There is so much help there,” Aidan said of the centre. “It would be a shame for it to close.”
Letterkenny Mayor, Sinn Féin Clr Gerry McMonagle, a voluntary director of the Letterkenny Community Development Project, and Sinn Féin Clr. Jack Murray also took part in the march. Mayor McMonagle said he has seen CE participants “doing great work in their own communities”.
Passing motorists beeped car horns and waved as the protest made its way down the Main Street footpath. “There is support there,” Mayor McMonagle said.
John McSwiggan, a supervisor on a CE scheme who attended the protest in Donegal Town, said, “I am concerned about the impact that any reduction in numbers in community employment will have in rural areas where unemployment is so high, and opportunities for people to find work are negligible.
“The self-esteem that participants gain on the schemes is too often forgotten,” he said.
Those sentiments were echoed by CE scheme participants in Letterkenny.
“You get so much training that it really does boost your confidence,” said Rosemary Luttick of Letterkenny, who began at the Congress centre as a receptionist and is now a qualified IT tutor.
Margo Baxter began in housekeeping at the centre and after taking a number of courses will start her own business in the new year, teaching dressmaking. “It was the best thing I had ever done,” she said.
Marie Slevin of the Congress centre said the training Ms. Baxter received built on dressmaking skills she already had. She said CE schemes work often with men and women “who wouldn’t realise their potential.”