Enniskillen has come a long way since the terrible attack at the war memorial in 1987 as people gathered for a Remembrance Sunday commemoration. The peace process has helped society to move on, to the extent that the Taoiseach Enda Kenny was able to paticipate in last year’s service on the 25th anniversary of the IRA bomb, in which 11 people were killed and over 60 were injured. Mr Kenny laid a green laurel wreath at the war memorial on behalf of the people of Ireland.
One of the outstanding memories after that horrific day on November 8th 1987 was the compassion and public expression of forgiveness to those who planted the bomb shown by Gordon Wilson. His daughter Marie was among the dead and he himself was injured in the blast. A local businessman, he went on to become a peace campaigner and served for a time as a member of Seanad Éreann.
Inspired by Gordon’s words and his great desire for reconciliation following the Poppy Day bomb, a Trust was established in 1989. Its aim was to encourage young people from Northern Ireland aged from 16 to 19 to travel outside the island and to use their experience to help build community bridges at home. The Spirit Of Enniskillen Trust worked to encourage young people from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds to come together and work towards a shared society and to learn from their experiences of visiting other areas of conflict. It supported a number of inter-linked projects working with young people in their schools, communities and other divided regions internationally. The Trust facilitated background leadership training, mentoring and resource support for school pupils, young volunteer facilitators, parents and teachers.
I remember attending the news conference when the Trust was launched and Wendy Austin was appointed as Chair. She proved to be an excellent mentor for the young ambassadors and any time I heard her speak, she always had words of encouragement for the teenage participants. She went on to become a life President of the group. When she launched the group’s millenium programme in 1998, she said its good work which had taken participants to countries such as Cyprus, Israel and the USA, was only just beginning. She said it was a very exciting time to be involved in this kind of work. At this stage in the peace process there is almost more need for it now than ever before, she added.
The Spirit of Enniskillen Trust supported groupings of young people from differing cultural traditions both locally and overseas into discussion of their own contentious and contemporary issues, finding areas of commonality and cooperation, as well as learning to ‘agree to disagree’. Alongside this process, it provided personal feedback, training and support to nurture the critical understanding, awareness and skills that enable positive dialogue. Most of the Trust’s learning projects and workshops were facilitated and run by young people who had themselves been trained through Trust programmes. During its 23 years, over 16,000 young people participated in the various programmes, such as Future Voices and Building Citizenship and Diversity, working in 100 destinations abroad and fifty schools.
Now all the achievements of the project have sadly been brought to an end. The news emerged in The Detail (Kathryn Torney) following a decision by the trustees a week ago. Financial problems caused by a fall in property values and a deficiency of £250,000 in the Trust’s pension commitments led to the closure, according to its solicitor. Even when the Trust’s only property in the Malone Road area of Belfast is sold, there will still be a deficit, but this is expected to be met by the Pensions Trust. It is not the only charity in Northern Ireland in this situation.
The umbrella body NICVA said it had engaged expert pensions advice and it does not face closure. Its deputy chief executive said the SoE situation should act as a wake-up call to other charities to pay sharp attention to their finances.
The Spirit of Enniskillen website containing details of all its activities has already been closed down. So one of the only places to find out more information about the work done by Chuck Richardson (director until May 2011) and the team of five is on the CredNI website. The ‘Spirit of Enniskillen Alumni’, a group of former participants in the scheme, has set up a facebook page, with over 320 likes so far and has published a statement endorsed by all:-
“At a time of limited prospects for young people, [the Trust] offered a rare opportunity for participants to lead change in their communities. It engaged the energy, idealism and commitment of young people to make a difference. The programmes provided a safe space for young people to address their own prejudices and confront sectarian attitudes, fears and misconceptions within our society…..The 375 individuals who endorse this statement wish to see Northern Ireland continue to progress. It is a tragedy that an organisation which was making a tangible contribution to this has not been saved. They wish to commemorate the legacy of the Trust and celebrate what it achieved. However as an organisation with much more to give, its premature and sudden closure is a great loss for Northern Ireland.”
Fourteen secondary school principals also expressed their concern at the closure of the Trust. To get some idea of just how successful the work of the charity was, this article last October by Brian Donaldson in the Impartial Reporter gives a good idea. As the 25th anniversary of the Enniskillen bomb approached, the widow of Gordon Wilson said she was thrilled that the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust was still flourishing. Joan Wilson, who attended a special presentation by young people who had been on the international exchange programme last summer, said Gordon would have been delighted at how the Trust had developed over the years.
Four young people from Fermanagh were among the forty who took part in last year’s Explore programme for international exchange and leadership: Michael Richmond and Jillian Ellis, who travelled to Berlin, Ashley Robinson, who travelled to the South of France and Donnchadh Tierney, who was in Sweden. Now the curtain has come down on these opportunities for young people to travel and broaden their horizons.