Country Idealist Profiles

History of the Community and Voluntary Sector in Ireland

Posted in Ireland, Ireland - Basics, Ireland - The Third Sector by hynesbrid on August 14, 2008

The Community and Voluntary Sector in Ireland is sometimes seen as comprising two discrete subsections – a Community Sector and a Voluntary Sector.  This reflects the historical development of the sector. 

The roots of the Voluntary Sector can be traced back to the charitable organisations, many church based, of the 18th century. This sector is the larger of the two with a focus often on service delivery and a greater reliance on charitable donations and fundraising.  Many voluntary sector organisations are major service providers, particularly in the fields of health, disability and services for the elderly.

The Community Sector groups tend on the other hand to be smaller in scale and focus on responses to issues within a given community (geographical or interest based) and often with a social inclusion ethos.
In practice, the two are opposite ends of a continuum and many organisations combine features of both.  Just as many large voluntary sector service providers have a strong advocacy role, so many community groups deliver practical services (e.g. childcare) in their local areas.
In Ireland the Voluntary Sector not only complements and supplements State provision but it is the dominant provider in particular areas.  Minimum statutory provision for social welfare and social services was provided under the Poor Laws in the 1830s.  Voluntary activity, especially by religious orders and their concern with charity and the poor, played a major role in providing supplementary welfare provision. The Church based education system, at both primary and secondary level and voluntary hospitals predate the foundation of the State.  The primary role of church‑based voluntary organisations and services provided by religious orders in meeting education and social welfare needs continued after the foundation of the State. Many services have been initiated and run by religious organisations, for example services for people with a mental and physical disability, youth services, the elderly, residential child care services and services for the homeless (their role is now changing which has created gaps that are increasingly being filled by the statutory sector and other voluntary organisations).  The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is one of the largest voluntary organisations with its roots in Catholic social teaching has 1000 branches nationwide with 10,000 members, active not only in welfare services but also enabling people to become self sufficient and raising the structural inequalities in society.   In the 1950s, the State gradually began to play a wider role in funding voluntary social welfare provision and voluntary activity.   The Health Act 1953 introduced Section 65 grants for funding of voluntary organisations providing services ‘ancillary’ to those provided by Health Services themselves. This enabling provision is still an important source of funding for voluntary social service providers, although it is currently being replaced on a phased basis by a new legal framework. 
Community development also has historical roots, as typified by the co‑operative movement which was designed to counteract the exploitation of the poor and to give voice and autonomy to the people.  Muintir na Tíre, founded in the 1930s, also stresses the importance of self-reliance and local initiative.  The 1970s saw the development of community empowerment and involvement with self-help initiatives aimed at disadvantaged groups.  EU funded anti‑poverty programmes were instrumental in this regard, emphasising empowerment, participation and social inclusion.  The tradition of self‑help as typified by the co‑operative movement, evolved into a focus on disadvantage with increased citizen involvement and community activism cumulating into a growing number of organisations representing sectoral and geographical communities, as well as sporting, youth, arts, heritage and cultural interests.  Community development is described as an interactive process of knowledge and action designed to change conditions which marginalise communities and groups and is underpinned by a vision of self-help and community self-reliance.  A strong infrastructure of community and local development has been built up in Ireland both at central and local level.  For example, the Community Development Programme funded by the Department of Social and Family Affairs was established in 1990 in recognition of the role of community development in enhancing the capacity of local communities to work together to tackle poverty and exclusion.  Since then the number of community development projects funded through the Programme has increased steadily and there is now a strong network of approximately 100 projects all over the country.  The aim of the Programme is to develop a network of supported community development resource centres and projects in areas and for groups affected by high unemployment, poverty and disadvantage.  Many community groups are issue-based, rather than area-based.  Examples are lone parents groups, groups concerned with responses to homelessness or drugs and equality issues.  Many issue‑based organisations have succeeded in getting issues adopted at Local Development Partnership level for incorporation into local development plans.   In Ireland, anti‑poverty networks and other national level Community and Voluntary sector organisations have had a significant input into national social partnership agreements.  At EU level, their equivalent NGO networks have been active in influencing the development of EU social policy. 
The Community & Voluntary Sector has changed considerably in the past two decades.  It has changed in terms of size, methods of operation and organisation employed, development of linkages and networks, diversity of outlook and perspective, numbers employed, etc.  These changes have happened at national, regional and local level and have also involved development of transnational linkages and a greater interest in debates and issues at EU Level.  At this point the Community and Voluntary sector is active in

  • delivery of essential services
  • advocacy and provision of information
  • contributing to policy‑making
  • national and local partnership arenas
  • undertaking research
  • creation of opportunities for members and participants to access education, training, income and employment opportunities

Recent decades have also seen the growth in voluntary social service organisations such as voluntary housing associations, social services councils, childcare services, services for people with disabilities, day care services, care of the aged committees etc.  There has also been a growth in the number of independent information-giving organisations that play a key role in creating a more inclusive and participative society.  These include the national network of Citizen’s Information Centres (85), Money Advice and Budgeting Services (50), Congress Centres for the Unemployed (38), and Youth Information Centres (27).
According to the Government White Paper a key challenge for the future for these groups is to harness their collective energy in order to maximise their impact, both at policy development level (e.g. in relation to welfare/health issues), and at the level of their individual client base.,2200,en.doc


One Response

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  1. Sheelah Watson said, on August 15, 2008 at 8:34 am

    Voluntary organisations have been the backbone of many services that should be provided and governed centrally and from central funds. The ad-hoc delivery of health supports and education services in the disability sector leaves people with disabilities and their parents open to domination, oppression and without a voice in a system that continues to be serviced within a charitable framework and unequal power relations. The continuing provision of segregated early intervention and education services allows mainstream society to ignore the physical, intellectual emotional and social needs of segregated communities. It continues to treat people with disabilities and their families as a problem instead of part of the continuum of humanity with the same desires and needs for inclusion in mainstream as all persons. Mainstream teachers with a B.Ed. are not universally trained to meet the needs of children with learning difficulties and intellectual or pervasive developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorders in their classrooms and yet Ireland purports to have an inclusive policy and mainstream educational environments accessible to all children, except in extreme circumstances where it would not be in the best interest of the child or their peers. The voluntary sector can ‘cherry pick’ the children they cater for due to individual autonomy of service providers and shortage of placements overall leaving parents and children vulnerable to exclusion and having to ‘beg’ for a places in an unjust system, in spite of legislation. It’s time the government provided the basic health and education services to all persons as a right and meet the guidelines of the Human Rights Approaches signed in to at EU and WHO levels. Reliance on the voluntary sector for basic services is no longer acceptable. Contemporary society should do better by their differently able citizens.

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