How you can help fix Ireland

Five social entrepreneurs – people who apply business acumen to social problems – give their views on ways to make Ireland a better place

Society people: Colman Farrell of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, John Evoy of Irish Men’s Sheds, John FitzSimons of Camara Education, Lucy Masterson of Hireland (seated) and Michelle O Donnell Keating of Women for Election. Photograph: David Sleator

Society people: Colman Farrell of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, John Evoy of Irish Men’s Sheds, John FitzSimons of Camara Education, Lucy Masterson of Hireland (seated) and Michelle O Donnell Keating of Women for Election. Photograph: David Sleator

Sat, Mar 15, 2014, 01:00

In a meeting room in the offices of The Irish Times five social entrepreneurs affiliated to Social Entrepreneurs Ireland tweet their location, joke about having Bono’s phone number (none of them actually has Bono’s phone number) and chat about their experiences. Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, which has existed for a decade, has championed and helped to fund the work of 169 social entrepreneurs.

The five here today are Colman Farrell, former chief executive of Suas, an inspirational educational organisation, and cofounder of the School for Social Entrepreneurs; John Evoy, the man behind the Irish Men’s Sheds movement, which aims to bolster the health and wellbeing of isolated men; Michelle O’Donnell Keating, whose Women for Election movement inspires and prepares women for political candidacy; Lucy Masterson, who with Hireland encourages small businesses to create employment; and John FitzSimons of Camara, which uses technology to improve education in disadvantaged communities.

The term “social entrepreneur”, which became popular in the 1990s, describes people who tackle social issues with the innovatory zeal more typically associated with start-ups. With former welfare-state certainties eroding, the boundary between public and private getting increasingly grey, and traditional NGOs coming under increased scrutiny, this could be their era.

So over coffee and buns they tell me how to make Ireland better. They praise the work of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, take no pleasure in the recent travails of traditional charities and frequently refer to initiatives in other countries. As a group they come across as internationally focused optimists, disinclined to bicker and complain, but happy to talk about self-confidence, community and the State’s changing role.

Can individuals change society for the better ? What stop s people?
Evoy: For some reason people have developed a block on believing that they can do things for themselves. I find that a lot, actually. I spend a lot of my time travelling to different towns and villages, and I get huge resistance when I tell people they can do something for themselves. They say, “No, you do it for us.” They feel it’s not their job.
O’Donnell Keating: One of the problems we find with women is that they’re always waiting to be asked to do something: to run for an election or get involved with a campaign. Why not just do it? I think it’s about not recognising their value. There’s this thing people say: “Women don’t vote for women candidates.” They’ve done big studies in the US, in Europe and in Ireland that completely discount that, but that one little sentence can still deflate everyone.
FitzSimons: There’s a huge fear of failure here in Ireland. In the US you can go and start up something and fail five times and no one ever looks at you differently. You fail once here and you’re banished forever.
Farrell: One of the most positive things about working with Suas is working with young people . . . Instead of thinking it’s grand, or blaming someone else, they take on huge personal responsibility. Our summary of what happened in the Celtic Tiger is often “It wasn’t me, it was someone else.” I think we mix up responsibility and blame.

What are Ireland’s biggest problems?
FitzSimons: I believe technology has broken education. The world has changed. You could ask me a Leaving Cert physics question, and without studying for six months I could take out my phone and find the answer in 30 seconds. So you can access knowledge now with an iPhone, but do you know where to go to get it, or how to assess [its validity]? Education needs to change.
Masterson: I believe there’s a lack of entrepreneurship in the country. It’s still left to the elite and those with university degrees . . . Forty per cent of our under-45s in Europe operate in a part-time capacity. If the job for life is gone, how do people create a job for themselves? Kids need to be taught how to run a business and how to take risks.
O’Donnell Keating: There are too many of the same types of people contributing to the decision making . . . It leads to in-thinking. There aren’t enough women running the show. From a political point of view there are mechanisms, politically established through culture or candidate selection, that prevent women taking leadership roles. How does society overcome challenges if those in power have a very a small perspective and outlook?
Farrell: I think everything is changing. If you look at western institutions, healthcare will change; education needs to change; even government is changing. The world changed at the start of the industrial revolution, and I think we’re at another historic juncture where a lot of things will change over a relatively short period.

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