Belfast Telegraph

Stars back former Northern Ireland prisoner using sport to help keep kids out of trouble

By Leona O'Neill

A former republican prisoner who first took up football in jail is now a senior figure in an international charity that turns youngsters away from violence through sport.

Jim Donnelly has been appointed director of programmes for Active Communities Network, which is dedicated to youth development through sport.

ACN hosts schemes in areas of deprivation throughout the UK and Ireland, and has offices across the UK as well as a South African base in Cape Town.

Ballymurphy-born Jim (50) served nine years of a 22-year sentence for the attempted murder of an RUC officer in 1990. He said he now dedicates his time to helping young people at home and abroad to "avoid similar experiences".

"We use sport to engage with young people in areas of high deprivation - it's youth work, sport and education all rolled into one," he said.

"Our programmes bring young people together using sport for development. Our Belfast programme works right across the city in all sections of our community.

"Our work transcends borders and barriers. I have seen young people go from being at the very edge of life, being threatened by armed groups and having suicidal thoughts, to getting involved in our programmes, engaging and turning their lives around completely."

Jim has been managing the ACN project in Belfast for five years.

The work has been supported by international sports stars including former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick, former Ireland rugby captain Brian O'Driscoll, ex-Manchester United captain Rio Ferdinand and Irish rugby's Tommy Bowe, now an ambassador for ACN Belfast.

Jim, who was jailed aged 22, says his Belfast childhood fuelled his desire to make things better for today's young people.

He bore witness to the Springhill shooting in 1972, when Fr Noel Fitzpatrick died after being carried injured into Jim's parents' home. And as a 14-year-old he was shot by a plastic bullet.

He said: "I got involved in this work so many years later so that my kids and others did not experience things like I experienced. I thought using sport would have a positive impact on young people and the wider community."

However, ACN is not about peace-building.

"We are not a conflict resolution organisation. What we try to do is develop resilience, stability and cohesion within communities and young people.

"We use sport for development to open up the chances and opportunities for 13 to 18-year-olds. We're not looking for the next Carl Frampton or even to improve health - we believe that sport, when used properly, can help young people make the right choices in life."

Jim has also worked alongside the ACN's chairman, legendary All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick.

"When I first met Sean, it was in the aftermath of a young member of our group in Belfast taking his own life," he said.

"I showed Sean a 'contract' I had given to our young people after the tragedy. It stated, 'I promise I will not take my own life'.

"That first encounter obviously had an impact on him."

Belfast Telegraph

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