Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sean Gallagher - the 'Changing Ireland' interview - on youth work, criticisms and experience

Today is election day and Presidential candidate Sean Gallagher has replied (late and with apologies) to the questions we posed about his views on youth and community work and his level of involvement. We also asked for his reaction to community worker Rita Fagan's criticisms of his record as a community worker when she spoke on TV3. Mr. Gallagher deflected the criticism saying, "I would never pass judgement on the work of others or their commitment to the sector."
The full interview is published here verbatim:
'CHANGING IRELAND': Why did you originally get involved in youth and community development?
SEAN GALLAGHER: It started when I got involved in arranging a trip to Galway for the youth mass during the Pope’s visit and I realised the potential of – and value of - working as part of a team. I felt like I belonged to something and it was with that that the Ballyhaise Foróige Club was born. I have always said that what I learned and how I learned, the friends I made, and what I learned from my peers, as a member first and then as a leader with Foróige, set the foundation for my later work and voluntary life. I have a resolute belief in the power of our communities in the encouragement and inspiration of others – in leading by example. I believe we all have a personal duty to contribute to society – this has absolutely stemmed from experiencing these things as I was growing up and the experience of unemployment.

What is the great power a youth worker has to effect change in any given week?
The greatest power that a youth worker has in effecting change is through the guidance, help and inspiration they can provide to young people. Young people bring about all sorts of change, both in their own live and the lives of others. The key is that they need to believe that this is possible. A youth worker can help in bring about this belief and that is one of the greatest abilities or powers they may possess.
 
How important is it for youth development to nurture a belief in the power of collective action?
Collective action or working together is paramount to achieving success in practically everything we do and all aspects of our lives. We see this across many aspect of life in Ireland. For example, we can see how effective collective action or working as a team is when we witness the success of football or hurling teams such as Kerry or Kilkenny. On a local level, by instilling the belief in young people of collective action, they can development an inter-reliance on each other and an understanding of the importance of teamwork. It is this inter-reliance that ties together local communities and forms collective bonds.


How has youth and community work changed since your early days of involvement?
It has grown and developed and become more professionalised. There are some similar difficulties now though as in the 1980s when Government cutbacks put services under pressure.

What do you think the President can do to promote a community-minded and socially inclusive country?
The President will be the voice and the face of Ireland, representing not just who we are, but more importantly our ambition for what we want Ireland to become. I want to champion and celebrate and share with people what I already see happening around the county, from the efforts of communities to work together in issues of mental health support, supported employment initiatives, addiction, cancer support, education resources – examples of people all working toward creating a fair and open society where all people have equality of opportunity and participation.

How important is it to educate the public about the principles that underlie Community Development work?
I believe we all have part and a role to play in our society and this begins with education.  A group of classmates in a school can be those first steps in nurturing that belief of collective action in a person. Education is integral not only in facilitating the transfer of information and ideas but creates a communal space of interaction and provides an environment where people can feel comfortable and test and learn the skills of communication that will be crucial to encouraging them to put themselves forward and into the heart of the community. To me, the principle of inspiring people to come together and to work in unison to effect change for the betterment of their community starts with empowering young people through education. Schools and youth groups are the building block for bigger community development centres as the give a sense of belonging to a person and foster a shared identity and feeling of communal pride. Bonding together with a common goal in mind is seen across the board from mental health support networks to tidy towns efforts, there are many schools who already encourage these macro projects at micro level.


What lecturer did you learn the greatest lessons from in NUI Maynooth?
I try to learn lessons from everyone, regardless of whether they are teachers or not. I believe that we can all teach each other.

Experience of Unemployment and Disability
What were the best and worst parts about your experience of being unemployed?
When I became unemployed I experienced a lack of confidence like most people and I tried to find a new way of looking at my situation. The best thing to come out of it was that it propelled me into active community work, into passionately working to change not only my situation but to change others too.

What would you say to any employers who are reluctant to make use of the IASE scheme?
As someone with a disability I know that those with disabilities are no different from anyone else. They find the same dignity and the same desire to contribute in the workplace the very same as people who don’t have a disability. Having a disability should not be allowed to hold a person back nor an employer back from hiring a person with a disability, but it requires the confidence of the individual and the support of the wider community and the various agencies. As someone with a disability and a former employer, I know that I can credibly speak on behalf of those in a similar situation.  We need to create awareness among the public and employers about the potential that people with disabilities have. Just because people have disabilities doesn’t mean that they don’t have lots of abilities. I feel that there is an onus on me to be a role model those with disabilities. I was born with congenital cataracts but I have never let it limit my goals, I have always focused on what I can do rather than what I cannot. That sense of self-confidence is vital, particularly for those with a disability.  


Which term do you prefer people to use – disabled person or person with a disability?
Person with a disability.


What have you to say in response to Rita Fagan's criticisms *, in particular that she'd never seen you protesting against closures of community projects and national programmes? 
I have spent my whole professional life working in and with community, voluntary disability and advocacy groups. I would never pass judgement on the work of others or their commitment to the sector.


* Rita Fagan commented on Mr Gallagher on 'Tonight with Vincent Browne' on Oct 24th: "I think there are things that aren’t being asked of him? He’s out there talking about jobs, enterprise and the community. I’m 30 years in the community development field, and I’m not saying he wasn’t out there working, but I can’t tell you I ever heard his voice in the last number of years. When they closed the ‘Combat Poverty’ agency, I can’t say I heard him out shouting and screaming about that. I didn’t hear him on 31 January 2010, when 14 community development programmes were closed down on an email and 58 people were put on the dole queue. I didn’t hear him when they took 43 per cent of the Equal Authority budget, forcing the CEO to resign because doing their job was now impossible. He talks about youth development, when there is to be a 10% cut to youth projects. He says he’s independent, but there’s no independence in the roles he’s played. He has over 30 years experience in Fianna Fail, he was director of elections, he was an advisor to Minister for Health Rory O’Hanlon. I don’t understand the Irish people if he’s elected, I hope they see through him.”

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