“I’ve seen so many examples of resilience in towns and villages the length and breadth of the country in recent months. Many of those were social enterprises.” – Humphreys speaking at today’s 3rd national social enterprise conference.

–  Humphrey’s pledges more support at 3rd national Social Enterprise conference

370 people tuned in this morning to take part in the 2021 National Social Enterprise Conference, hosted by Dunhill Eco-Park.

The first national social enterprise conference with full State support was held in Croke Park, in 2019. This year, it was held online, as in 2020, with much innovation apparent in the delivery.

It was opened by Dunhill’s Senan Cooke, known as “the Godfather of social enterprise in Ireland”, as Waterford neighbour, Tammy Darcy (CEO of Seri*) nicely termed it. Probably everyone would agree that the author, community development and social enterprise enthusiast is a born leader. He has campaigned for decades about the empowering potential within communities, if properly harnessed and supported.

In her keynote address, Heather Humphreys, Minister for Rural and Community Development, addressed what the Government was doing in that regard for the “growing sector”.

The conference theme was ‘The Future of Social Enterprise in a Changing Ireland’ and she praised social enterprises for their role to date in the midst of the “biggest pandemic in a century”.

Urging people to raise awareness about the value of social enterprises, she said next year was “a critical one” as a new national strategy for the Republic of Ireland would be developed. (Northern Ireland is some years ahead in terms of developing its social enterprise sector).

“The next 12 months are critically important for the social enterprise sector in Ireland. It is the year in which we much co-create a new social enterprise policy from 2023. We won’t rush it or dictate the priorities. It’s for all stakeholders to work with us. The conversation starts now,” she said.

Looking at how Ireland was changing, she welcomed the greater diversity and rising awareness “of the need to address  the climate and biodiversity crisis”.

“Our young people are seeking a brighter, greener and more sustainable future,” she said. “But if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that sense of resilience and community spirit that we have right across our society. As Minister for Rural and Community Development, I’ve seen so many examples of that sense of resilience in towns and villages the length and breadth of the country in recent months. Many of those were social enterprises. Keep doing what you do best – serving our communities and making a positive impact on our society and on our economy.”

She referenced various funds that provided or provide support to social enterprises, including the Stability Fund and the Innovate Together Fund.

“We also developed a new scheme for start up social enterprises in conjunction with Rethink Ireland. To raise awareness, the Arise scheme was also recently announced. The €600,000 scheme is the first of its kind,” she said.

She also highlighted, among others, the €1m capital investment scheme for social enterprises, being delivered through Local Community Development Committees.

“Behind the scenes my officials are also working with other relevant departments so that social enterprise can apply for mainstream business supports,” she added.

“Raising awareness of social enterprise continues to be an ongoing challenge. We all have a role to play. I want to challenge you – how can we all continue this effort to promote social enterprise? If you are a social enterprise, please be proud to identify as one.”

She added: “Next year, we’ll also be conducting our first census of social enterprise. This work will give us a better idea of the scale of the sector.”

• Senan Cooke takes a long view on social enterprise.

Among the conference speakers were: Ossian Smyth, Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Sarah Miller from Ballymun’s Rediscovery Centre, Una Lavelle, chairperson of the Community Reuse Network Ireland, Eoghan Ryan from Rethink Ireland, Clodagh O’Reilly of the Irish Social Enterprise Network, the PAUL Partnership’s Elaine McGrath, Fergus Finlay (representing SERI), the Wheel’s Ivan Cooper, and Pauline Gannon of Social Impact Ireland.

• Kevin McCarthy, Secretary General at the Dept. of Rural & Community Development speaking at the National Social Enterprise Conference 2021.

Kevin McCarthy, Secretary General, Dept. Rural & Community Development summed up the conference. There was, he noted, debate about whether social enterprise was a sector or a movement. He spoke about “the collective challenge of partnership and collaboration which will be very important in developing the new strategy”.

He too noted that the OECD work is to commence soon “to get an external perspective on where we are at”.

He said, regarding co-creating the new strategy, that the next 12 months are critical. “We are keen to take forward the conversation,” he said.

– Contributions from other speakers to follow in our print edition.

* Seri = Social Enterprise Republic of Ireland.