A model way to do business that benefits all

Putting Hugh O'Flaherty's nomination on hold will undoubtedly please many

Putting Hugh O'Flaherty's nomination on hold will undoubtedly please many. But there might never have been a controversy if the criteria cited by Charlie McCreevy and Mary Harney for his appointment were genuine Government policy, rather than just cobbled-together public relations.

We were told this nomination was compensation for a harsh set of circumstances, based on awareness that unemployment with no prospects was debilitating and on a belief in giving people a second chance.

Were such an ethic in operation at every level of society instead of just at the top, we probably would have had less difficulty with the sudden rise to grace once more of the amiable judge.

Sadly, the possibility of such compassion extending to every citizen is slight. Not surprisingly, some of those most vociferous in their sympathy for the privileged when they fall on hard times are also the most adamant that there is no longer real poverty or social division in Ireland.


J.K. Galbraith writes perceptively about this kind of thinking in his book, The Good Society. "It is the nature of privileged position that it develops its own political justification and often the economic and social doctrine that serves it best. No one likes to believe that his or her personal well-being is in conflict with the greater public need.

"To invent a plausible or, if necessary, a moderately implausible ideology in defence of self-interest is thus a natural course. A corps of willing and talented craftsmen is available for the task. And such ideology gains greatly in force as those who are favoured increase in number."

Our Irish version of that "moderately implausible ideology" is that things have never been better, and it is only a matter of time before the benefits are felt by all. Of course, it is wonderful that employment rates have increased and wealth is sloshing around this little country. We do need to celebrate, but not by forgetting that some are suffering ever-deeper exclusion. Instead, we need to focus our ingenuity on creating a genuinely inclusive society.

Because there are job vacancies in shop windows, many believe those who cannot find work must be wasters. All the economic term "full employment" means is those who find it relatively easy to find work have done so. So those still out of work become an increasingly intractable problem.

Recent research by the Dublin Employment Pact shows there are many more out of work or in dead-end jobs than the official figures of 8,500 long-term unemployed in the capital. One effect of the Celtic Tiger is that younger teenagers are being enticed out of school into work without long-term prospects. Their lack of qualifications increases the possibility that they will swell the ranks of the long-term unemployed.

Much has been gained from our model of social partnership. But it has had two unfortunate side-effects. The first has been to domesticate voices of dissent and make them part of the establishment. The second is to allow employers to believe that, because the unemployed are represented at the partnership table, employers have fulfilled their social obligations.

Business people in this country are schooled in the idea that profit is the bottom line. They balk at the idea that social responsibility is part of their brief. That's government's job. Likewise, the culture of dependency created by subsistence social welfare means the unemployed are also looking to the State to solve the problem.

No government can solve unemployment on its own. Creative partnerships are needed between government, business and community groups. It is this combination which makes one project which has just completed its first year very interesting. Fast Track into Information Technology (FIT) was given £20 million last year by the Government.

The Ballymun Job Centre, major IT companies, Government Departments and training agencies came up with a plan to train 3,500 long-term unemployed for jobs in the IT sector over three years. FIT has already met its target of 900 people in jobs or training by the end of the first year.

It could be said that such a project is specific, as it responds to a chronic labour shortage in a burgeoning industry. But the methodology is very interesting, because it brought employers and unemployed into close negotiation to satisfy differing needs.

As Bertie Ahern declared at the start-up, everyone's a winner. The community gets meaningful work. Industry has an experience of collaborating positively with community initiatives while tapping a new stream of recruitment. The Government has the satisfaction of seeing a measure which tackles social exclusion put into action.

This project is underpinned by research, a very important factor. Mr Pat Nolan, who has been involved with the project from the start, is undertaking PhD research which will track the progress of FIT. The hope is that a model may emerge with potential domestic and international applications. As a successful businessman himself, Nolan knows business in Ireland tends to operate out of a hard-headed, pragmatic model. However, he believes that problem-solving approach can be harnessed to social responsibility.

He quotes Arie de Geus, who wrote a book about companies from the Fortune 500 which have survived to longevity. De Geus found an interesting attitude to profit in these successful companies. To them, assets and profits are like oxygen; necessary for life, but not the purpose of life.

We are a long way from such an attitude in Ireland. This week Denis O'Brien announced research by the National College of Ireland into corporate charity donations. He chided companies for the fact that only one-third of the companies surveyed had a formal policy on donations. So we don't do particularly well even on that level, much less in terms of strategies which demand long-term engagement with and commitment to the unemployed.

Our system views the unemployed as alien, not like us, not our problem. Yet in every unemployment blackspot there are community leaders of passion and vision. Linking these community leaders with business people, to harness the kind of energy associated with the start-up of a commercial enterprise, is both radical and daring.

Why should companies bother? One obvious bonus is a new stream of recruitment. Many of the long-term unemployed tend to be more committed and dedicated as employees. More importantly, linking the world of wealth creation with the world of deprivation offers a possibility of creating a more stable and cohesive society. There are ways within our grasp of making this country better for us all to live in. Our chances of achieving that improve every time we make corporate decisions which indicate that solidarity with and sympathy for those with difficulties is not reserved for the already privileged or the powerful.