Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

The ex-offenders who built their own path to a better life

"It was challenging, but I lapped it up, I enjoyed it."

Not exactly the words you would expect from an ex-offender tasked to carry out hours of back-breaking community service on the top of a mountain in the middle of winter.

But Sean McNulty (33), from Andersonstown, could hardly say a bad word about his experience helping to build the newly opened boardwalk, which leads walkers across Divis to the summit of the Black Mountain and the spectacular views across Belfast.

"Challenging" was as critical as he got - and that was said with a laugh - about the 240 hours he spent carrying planks of wood by hand up more than 1,000ft, cutting them, fitting them into the boggy landscape and nailing them in place.

Three months of which was in the depths of the harsh, freezing winter which swept across Northern Ireland last year.

"I loved it," the recovering gambler said. "I sucked it in, I absorbed it.

"I knew I was achieving something at the end of it, and to see what I've done is unreal, and to hear people talking about it in Belfast, when they say: 'Did you see that new boardwalk on Divis?' And I can say: 'I built that, I saw that from start to finish'.

"When I started I didn't feel I was anything; doing this has given me a great sense of achievement and a great sense of self-worth. I feel like I've given something back."

The new boardwalk was constructed entirely by offenders carrying out community service - with the aid of a few National Trust workers to teach them the skills needed.

Officially opened yesterday, the boardwalk was getting good wear as walkers embraced the rare glimpse of sunshine to take in the spectacular views from the top.

On a clear day a stunning vista greets the weary-legged, as views across Belfast, the Mournes and Sperrins can all be seen, as well as the coasts of England, Scotland and the Isle of Man.

"It's beautiful," said Sean. "People go all the way to the Mournes when you can just go up here. The views are unreal."

And the ex-offender - who now works as a laminator for an industrial tank company and hasn't gambled for a year and four months - admitted he misses working on the mountain.

He spent every Friday and Saturday from August 2009 until January 2010 working on the boardwalk.

"I do miss it, I actually do," he laughed.

"It's funny to say, but I do miss it and I miss the different people, all the different characters you met."

He credits the community service order - handed to him after he stole money to feed his gambling habit - with putting his life back on the straight and narrow, quitting gambling, getting help for his addiction and sorting his life out.

"The Probation Board and community service have brought me a long way from where I was," he said.

"I was way down low and they brought me through it, step-by-step. This is an achievement for me, and it wasn't just coming up here and doing it, it was a learning experience for me.

"It gave me new goals to set for myself and to not dwell on the past, but to look to the future and build your future."

Since 2008 the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI) has worked in partnership with the National Trust on the Divis and Black Mountain site to provide work for offenders on community service orders.

They carry out general maintenance across the site, including grass cutting, litter picking and hedge trimming, as well as bigger projects like designing and building stone benches.

The new boardwalk is the largest project undertaken by the offenders, taking just over a year to complete.

Dermot McCann, Divis warden and the man who oversaw the project, said many of the participants had to be taught how to carry out the work.

"The guys who constructed it didn't have the skills so they had to learn on the job," he said.

"But once they got the hang of it, it was quite easy."

He said it had improved the experience for visitors.

"Initially it was just people walking across the muck. We did put plastic down but the plastic was destroyed by the cows.

"The boardwalk makes it very easy for everybody that visits to go on to the top of the Black Mountain.

"You can push a wheelchair or pushchair right up to the summit and overlook all of the city of Belfast."

The PBNI said such partnerships are key to successful community service orders, with this type of punishment having the lowest reoffending rate.

Three out of four people who complete community service do not reoffend within two years, the PBNI added.

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