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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: -1°C
/Photocall Ireland Youth volunteers from charity Headstrong 2016.

'The kid who's helping others, is not the kid who's terrorising their neighbour'

Should it be compulsory for young people to volunteer for a year? There are pros and cons.

WHAT IF EVERY young person in Ireland had to complete one year of compulsory volunteer service for a few hours each week?

A State-run, State-funded programme that would see young people give back to their communities – could such an idea work?

Compulsory national service is not something new. Countries such as Austria, Finland and Taiwan still require young people to complete a year or so of service once they turn 18.

Most of this service is military in nature. Those who conscientiously object, or do so because of health or political reasons, can often opt to perform their compulsory duties in an alternative civilian service programme that is usually based in civic departments.

Recently, politicians like French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Tory MP Rory Stewart have called for a return of a type of compulsory national service which, in their words, would build confidence in young people and foster social cohesion and engagement. 

Would this idea be popular in Ireland? Fergus Finlay, former CEO of children’s charity Barnardos, believes a conversation about the topic needs to take place, but that individual choice must be catered for. 

“Compulsory? No. State-run? No. State-funded? Yes,” Finlay told the latest episode of Ireland 2029. 

I’d be totally in favour of a national programme that said to young people, ‘Here’s a range of really useful things that we think that you’d have fun doing, that we think would work for you, and that would certainly work for the community.’

Finlay said it would also be worth exploring potentially adding points to a person’s Leaving Certificate result, noting: “That’s the kind of incentive that I think young people would go for.”

‘Not terrorising neighbours’ 

Finlay has worked with many children who, because of the circumstances they grew up in, were “almost certain to have their first brush with the law in their early teens”.

Noting that he spent years “pitching to the State for extra money … for good work that would make a difference”, he said he was always asked ‘How much is it going to cost?’
Of course, this is a factor but he believes it shouldn’t be the only thing taken into consideration when deciding which projects to fund.

If I put it this way: the kid who’s helping another group of kids to learn to swim, is not the kid who’s terrorising his neighbour. He’s not the kid who’s hanging around on street corners, he’s not the kid who’s setting fire and doing damage and terrorising old people and so on.

“The kid who’s involved in his community is the kid who’s going to grow up as a major contributor to his community. And you know the hard cash value of that.”

National Service 2.0

The UK previously had compulsory national service up until the 1960s due to the after-effects of World War II. 

MP Rory Stewart’s idea is aimed at 16-year-olds – rather than those aged 18, which was the traditional age for national military service – and includes all citizens.

Instead of a year, it would begin with two weeks in an educational setting where participants would learn certain skills and then spend a further two weeks giving back to a community project.

This type of initiative is something the UK currently has – without the compulsory element. 

Launched by the David Cameron government in 2011, the National Citizen Service involves those aged 15 to 17 voluntarily committing to three weeks in the summer of activities like camping, team-building exercises and lessons that range from how to manage personal finances to documentary filmmaking.

Then in September, participants spend four weeks campaigning and volunteering for a particular community cause or project.

State-run and State-funded, it’s three main aims are social cohesion, social mobility and social engagement. The service cost the government £634 million (about €708 million) between 2014/15 and 2017/18.

photo5830164465482576397 Michelle Hennessy / Participants at the Youth Work Changes Lives Showcase in Dublin where we asked young people about compulsory volunteering. Michelle Hennessy / /

French President Emmanuel Macron’s government is currently trialling a compulsory volunteering service for 16-year-olds which will see them serve a few weeks engaging in skill-building classes like map-reading and first aid, before doing volunteer work for charities or local governments.

France’s previous military service, which was exclusive to school-leaving men of 18, was abolished in 1997.

A YouGov poll carried out in March 2018 showed that 60% of the French population were in favour of Macron’s plan – what his government calls a ‘Universal National Service’ – which initially included a couple of weeks of volunteering in defence and security governmental roles before the French army decided against it.

However, that figure drops to just below half when younger people – those who actually have to take part in the programme – were asked for their views.

Irish alternative 

During the 2018 Irish presidential election, candidate Gavin Duffy pitched the idea of the Irish International Youth Corps.

The proposal would have seen young Irish people aged 18 to 25 engage in a one-year paid programme where they would help communities in the Global South, and undergo training in leadership and personal development. 

Duffy, obviously, did not become president and so the idea did not come into being. However, there are already Irish programmes for young people who tap into the spirit of giving back.

In episode three of Ireland 2029, hears from Avril Ryan, Operations Manager for Gaisce, the President’s Award, a self-development programme for young people where they can get involved with voluntary organisations and develop new skills.

There are three Gaisce awards – bronze, silver and gold – and people aged between 15 and 25 can take part. 

Explaining how the programme works, Ryan told us: “[Participants] have a personal skill challenge, they have a physical recreation challenge, [and] community involvement – which is the volunteering side.” 

She said everything about the Gaisce award incorporates the young person’s choice – including what voluntary organisation or charity they work with as part of the programme.

“People find their passion, their joy, in terms of giving back and paying it forward,” she said. “And young people are humongously brilliant at that.”

Ryan said it’s estimated that young people in Ireland will take part in about 200,000 of community involvement in 2019. She think this is hugely important as it makes young people part of a wider societal conversation.

We often go back and look for people after they’ve finished awards … and they’ll tell you they’re still doing [community service].

Ryan said the idea of having a mandatory volunteering service goes against the very idea of volunteering.

Volunteering is a choice – it’s who you want to volunteer with, when and why you want to volunteer. And it’s often something that you match up with your own values or passions.

She believes that instead of making volunteering mandatory, young people who volunteer should be rewarded somehow – like extra CAO points or a potential payment to cover travel costs if there was a wider national volunteering scheme.

‘You become a better person’

So what do young people themselves think? recently attended the Youth Work Changes Lives Showcase in the Mansion House in Dublin, where more than 300 young people from across the country gathered to meet TDs and Senators to discuss the work they’re doing in their communities. 

photo5830164465482576402 Michelle Hennessy / Minister for Children Katherine Zappone at the Youth Work Changes Lives Showcase in Dublin in June. Michelle Hennessy / /

Chloe Lawlor (17) who volunteers for FamiliBase in Ballyfermot in Dublin, said that a national volunteering programme for young people when they finish school would be a good way of giving young people experience before they go to college.

But she thinks that making it compulsory simply wouldn’t work. 

You’d want to give them the option. You really do need to give them the option because if it is forced upon them, they’re not going to enjoy it.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone agrees with this, telling us she likes the idea of a State-run and State-supported volunteering programme for young people, but not the mandatory element.

“I really think that compulsory volunteering is … it’s an oxymoron. So I don’t think that it should be imposed, but I believe so much in how good [volunteering] is for the body, mind and spirit … and I want to find ways to support that.”

You can listen to the third episode of Ireland 2029: Shaping Our Future in full below:

Full list of providers here 

Ireland 2029 / SoundCloud


Is compulsory volunteering for young people a good idea?


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