Derry & Strabane Councillors formerly incarcerated at Long Kesh and other prisons have thanked the Quakers for their dedication to providing services for visiting relatives.
The move came after representatives from The Quaker Service made a presentation before the Council’s Governance and Strategic Planning Committee at the Guildhall this week detailing their past and current projects.
Janette McKnight from the Quakers related how all through the Troubles and beyond they had provided impartial service to people, starting up in Belfast in 1969.
In 1972 they were approached by a group of families whose fathers and husbands were interned at Long Kesh.
“We ended up with a mobile cabin in the grounds of the prison. We had 22 volunteers from right across the community,” she said.
The service at various prisons developed to include childcare and later one-to-one emotional support.
Independent Colr. Warren Robinson said: “As someone who used them at Long Kesh and Maghaberry, I want to thank this organisation for the dedication and service they have provided to many, many families who always received a warm welcome and a cup of tea.
“The organisation carried out its work in extremely difficult circumstances and without fear or favour.”
Independent Colr. Gary Donnelly said he had visited some of the prisons and ended up in some of them himself.
“People saw the genuineness of what you were doing,” he said. “People could go and have a friendly chat. You provided an immense service.
“There are a number of ex-prisoners on this committee and I would like to thank you for having that service when I was in prison for my family.”
DUP Colr. Thomas Kerrigan said he was 12 years on the boards of Magilligan and other prisons and testified to the good service run by the Quakers.
Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher said that he had had four family members incarcerated in the past and a “mother who visited Long Kesh for over 20 years”. “I’m well aware of the service you provided. My mother had to hitchhike on many occasions and arrived at Long Kesh with very little money and she got hot tea and something to eat. That service she got over many, many years was an invaluable service.”
Sinn Fein Colr. Brian McMahon said that as a former prisoner he too would like to thank the Quakers “for what you did for myself and my family”. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart”, he said.
SDLP Colr. John Boyle said: “I think we can be assured there are many, many thousands of people in the north who will have the same gratitude because of that particular piece of work the Quaker Service conducted.”
The Quakers lost their contract to provide visitor and family services at prisons in December 2015.
“We went from 43 staff to 14 staff overnight. It was quite a shock to us,” Janette McKnight said. However she said the Quakers decided”to look at ourselves in a different way”.
Today, the organisation runs Quaker Cottage in Belfast with a family day care service for women and children going through difficult times, and also run a teenager project with up to 100 teenagers a year who have been traumatised or are deemed ‘at risk’.
They run an ‘Emotional Journeys’ project with women in prison or on probation, as well as being involved in Restorative Justice practices.
“Our values are nonviolence, human dignity, equality, justice, human rights and integrity.
“We have a key belief that there is some good in everyone,” Janette said.