Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Well Done agus Comhghairdeas Conway Mill
Almost 30 years ago the late Tom Cahill came to me with an idea for a unique and innovative project for west Belfast.
Tom proposed that Conway Mill, which was then lying derelict, should be leased and turned into a community enterprise project providing education, self-help and local employment opportunities. Tom deserves great credit for his vision and foresight. A small businessman himself he could legitimately have developed the Mill in his own interests. I don’t think that even entered his head. Toms interest was in this community and its citizens.
A management committee was organised which included many well known local republican and community activists, including Frank Cahill, Fr. Des Wilson, Liam Burke, Alfie Hannaway, Jimmy Drumm, Jean McStravick, Sean O’ Neill, Tom Cahill & Colm Bradley.
The objective was to promote small indigenous economic enterprises. The committee was also keen to encourage adult education and establish an education programme that would supplement the work being done in Springhill House to catch those young people who were either being expelled from school or were dropping out.
All of this required a huge amount of work. Conway Mill was in a very bad state of disrepair. Making it habitable and usable took a great deal of effort.
To facilitate the provision of education one floor of one of the two main buildings was given over to education. It was run under the auspices of Springhill Community House. The floor was cleared, classrooms constructed, toilets installed and a theatre and stage built. Halla na Saoirse (Freedom Hall) was frequently used the staging of plays written by local people. It was also used for debates, conferences, and occasionally for press conferences by Sinn Féin. Some of the most important press conferences during the early days of the peace process were held there.
A crèche was established and staffed by ACE (Action for Community Employment) workers and teachers and tutors were provided by the Workers Educational Association (W.E.A.) and the Ulster Peoples College.
Local businesses and artists took space on other floors and although the facilities were at times very Spartan there was a great sense of community and camaraderie among those who lived and worked there.
Regrettably Conway Mill also became a target for the British state. Under British Secretary of State Douglas Hurd a policy of political vetting against community groups which it alleged were republican was introduced. This policy was supported by the SDLP.
After Conway Mill hosted a community led public enquiry into the killing of a young man, Sean Downes, by a plastic bullet fired by the RUC in August 1984 the Mill was targeted for vetting and the crèche lost its funding. The attack on the crèche caused outrage. To its shame the SDLP supported the British position and supported the political vetting of Conway Mill.
The impact of the vetting ban had a knock on effect in making it more difficult to source funding from Europe and charities.
Businesses and community organisations were told that they would be refused funding if they moved into the Mill.
However the management refused to be coerced or intimidated and continued to fundraise and to develop the Mill. In this they were enormously helped by friends in the USA.
Some years ago the management committee produced an ambitious plan for refurbishment for the Mill.
Following Sinn Féin’s success in securing the creation of the West Belfast and Greater Shankill Task Force the Mill became one of a number of priority projects for west Belfast and it began to receive substantial funding. Years of hard work by the management committee, supported by Sinn Féin, succeeded in securing sufficient funding for the refurbishment work to go ahead. The final piece of the jigsaw was funding from the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister.
The official opening of the refurbished Conway Mill is a victory for the determination and vision and courage of that first Management Committee in the difficult years of the 1980’s and all of those who have taken up that task since then.
Conway Mill is evidence of the great sense of community and solidarity that exists in west Belfast. I wish this innovative and citizen centred project well for the future.