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Ireland in Crisis: A possible way out. Colm Hughes

Ireland in Crisis
Question: Would the Catholic Church have an interest in a facilitating role in fostering participative community actions, in particular, in rural Ireland to re-invigorate and help sustain existing jobs, create additional jobs and try and stem the flow of emigration!
Background: General opinion would probably agree that Ireland has been badly managed for years. Through mis-management, the economy is in virtual ruins, with misery and desolation imbedded in many of our peoples’ daily lives – and things seem to be getting worse.
In the current climate, jobs are few and far between (e.g. IDA proudly announced a net 6,000 jobs created last year, yet nearly 500,000 people are still unemployed and emigration continues to drain Irish parishes).
The majority of people employed in Ireland work in SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises). Exact numbers of SMEs in Ireland are not available, though estimates in excess of 200,000 (or 98% of all businesses in Ireland) are accepted. SMEs do not have it easy, with many struggling to survive in today’s disastrous economic climate. SMEs need a new way of working to ensure continuity of trading and where a small amount of highly focused effort could produce a spectacular increase in wealth generation and new jobs, especially in rural Ireland.
SMEs have the volume and potential to create real additional wealth and jobs. Think of it as the ‘U2 Principle’, where to get rich, one must strive to take a small amount of money from a large number of people, rather than a large amount of money from a small number of people. Translate this principle to jobs and, the potential to create jobs must be far greater among the larger volume of small companies (i.e. SMEs). There seems a reluctance by Government to engage in bold initiatives targeted at SMEs. One possible reason is the volume of companies at this level and the potential cost of a National programme.
The lion’s share of Government-backed, job-focused initiatives and financial resources appears to be targeted at a small portion of high growth, high export potential businesses, which are a vital part of Ireland’s economy and the major State Agencies’ focus is on ensuring they receive a high level of excellent service. But it’s the indigenous SMEs that make up the trading heart and backbone of every Irish town and village and collectively employ more people than all the large companies and all state and semi state employees combined. Maybe a different starting point is needed where growth can be stimulated in local communities that will create a stream of new jobs in rural Ireland.
Why help SMEs: If SMEs could be guided through ways to dynamically consolidate, strengthen and grow and, if only a quarter of these companies employed one extra person, this would create +50,000 new jobs. There would be additional taxation benefits to the State, plus the opportunity cost of cessation of state interventions to +50,000 workplace entrants. There would be a continued stream of additional jobs as these same companies continue to strengthen and grow, with a proven blue-print for entrepreneurs to follow into the future.
If there was a possibility of achieving the above, then surely a demonstration project should be explored. Rather than a national programme, a demonstration project in one area could quickly prove what is possible. Such a project must be simple to establish, be manageable in resources (human and financial) and be run in at least one rural county. The county would need a good number of towns and a variety of SME owner-managed businesses. The demonstration project would guide participating SME owner managers to manage in different participative and co-operative ways with their employees. Employees would become more involved in the business and take responsibility for their jobs and their company’s future. In return, employees would be suitably rewarded for measurable efficiencies in the workplace. Positive outcomes would result in a win-win for the company, the owner and employees, for the county / town / village and the wider community.
A successfully run demonstration project will bring life and hope back into communities in a very real way. It will provide tangible necessities of life for Irish people (i.e. a rewarding job and an income). It will help regain a pride in the present and provide a satisfying future for families in local communities.
Could the Catholic Church take a leadership role – to initiate such a project to foster co-operative community actions! The Catholic Church used to play a very central role in the life of Irish people and their communities – a role and influence that has been substantially eroded over recent years. If the Catholic Church became proactively involved, could this help it to regain its own important place in society and from a very local level!
The Church has many positives that could facilitate and help accelerate the process. It has the influence and infrastructure to be involved in the above. It has a presence in every parish, village and town. It has the resources and contacts to make this project a reality and make a tangible difference to the lives of its parishioners. The Church has access to funding, premises, confidentiality, event management skills and many other essentials.
This project is about helping a few through a process that in turn will provide a road map for others to follow. It is about demonstrating to employers and employees the power of active participation in companies – to produce consolidation, new jobs and wealth, which in turn, will help the wider community.
Who in the Catholic Church might help: An influential cleric in the right place with the right contacts could facilitate this project into becoming a reality. The original co-operative model espouses looking after the individual and the wider community through the actions of the enterprise. This initiative is slightly different, but it does focus on inculcating employee participation models in SMEs. It’s about harnessing the very best from employees for the benefit of the business and the wider community.  This ethos dovetails nicely with Church encyclicals and Church teachings over the years.
Unfortunately, in Ireland, while there are many examples of successful uses of the co-operative structure (e.g. large food/agri cooperatives, Credit Unions, building cooperatives), cooperatives seem to have been tinged with negativity among the business community. This negative image has been hard to shake off. Ireland, unlike many of our European partners, gives very little time to cooperatives, to their promotion, formation and their inherent strength if used correctly. The Year 2012 has been deemed ‘The Year of the Co-operative’ by the ILO (International Labour Organisation) in Geneva. We are more than half way through the year – has anyone heard much about co-operatives?
This initiative outlined here will work with existing, going concern, businesses. It will guide them to consolidate and generate wealth with well paid jobs that will prove the power of participation and will act as exemplars of good practice.
The Government may have shied away from the SME, but the Catholic Church has an opportunity to step up and facilitate a process to assist what are, very personal, very local, mostly rural small businesses that play a vital role in the lives of parishioners in every local community today.
Note about the Author
Colm Hughes: A qualified accountant (FCPA), with a Masters Degree (MSc) from UCC gained through Action Research in developing participative model concepts for SMEs and large businesses in Ireland. He also has practical and firsthand knowledge gained from working in most sectors of Irish Industry, in family-owned businesses and in larger PLCs. He has been in fulltime employment since 1966, with over four decades of practical experience from working in most sectors of Irish Industry and in the semi-state sector. At 63, he has recently taken early retirement to pursue his ideas on participative models in the workplace and other areas of interest.

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