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Column: We can make a new Ireland, but everyone has to help

Change is in our power – and a truly better Ireland will only come if we all get stuck in, writes Yvonne McKenna.

Yvonne McKenna

WHAT DOES IT mean to be Irish in 2011?

Following the visits of the Queen and Obama to these shores earlier this year, we all began to wonder if Guinness really was good for us. During those visits a very explicit association between Irishness and alcohol was made, and many wondered if this was the correct message to be sending, not only abroad, but at home too.

Ireland has changed, but has our national identity? Has our national identity become entwined with our troubled economy or are we beginning to carve out a new sense of Irishness? In a year that has seen a general election and a forthcoming Presidential election, it’s an opportune time to re-evaluate the type of country we all want to live in.

As a citizen, the challenge of redefining a country’s identity, along with the values and beliefs that underpin it, seems a daunting, if not impossible task. We tend to look to the ballot box for change. This year’s general election saw the public deliver a clear and profound message, a desire for change. The new government spoke about Ireland being a ‘fractured society’ and commitments were made to ‘forging a new Ireland’.

Yet, the task of redefining our country cannot be fulfilled solely by policy and governance. Democracy needn’t begin and end with the ballot box and change must always come from individuals and communities. Volunteering is one of the most profound expressions of democracy, of having your say, of activism. It’s a vital means by which people can take some control over what happens in their communities and make a positive, and often rapid impact on their own lives and the lives of others.

Whilst Ireland has been gripped with recession for the last number of years, thousands of people across the country have been choosing not to wait for a new government or economic recovery to see change. Since the recession began in autumn 2008, there has been a marked increase in the number of people seeking to volunteer in Ireland. In 2009, our network of 22 local Volunteer Centres experienced a 70 per cent increase in the number of people contacting them to enquire about volunteering opportunities. A significant number of these were newly unemployed or under-employed people.

Three years in, our experience is still that a common response to recession on a personal basis is to volunteer. Research undertaken by Volunteer Ireland last month found that among respondents who were either not working or working less as a result of the recession, almost 70 per cent (69.2) said that the change in their employment status had made them more likely to volunteer.

‘This is far from empty or banal’

On an individual level, it’s a positive response to a difficult situation. Volunteering is something we as a country should encourage and support because it is not only good for the recipients of volunteering, but for the society in which it occurs and the volunteers themselves. Volunteering is an opportunity to build social networks, the very measure of community, and can play a central role in staving off some of the negative impacts that come with recession: isolation, detachment and social discord.

In so doing, it can provide a means to redefine Ireland at a crucial moment. How we as a country respond to people’s desire to volunteer will inform our experience of recession and the kind of society that emerges from it. Recently, commentators from across the spectrum grappled to make sense of the London riots. The response by individuals and communities to claim back their high streets from the riots communicated an important message: that sometimes the most complicated and difficult issues at play in society can be tackled from the bottom up, not the top down – often more immediately and with longer lasting results.

We need innovative ways to address the recession and its impact. Can active citizenship and volunteering be the means by which people not only express and articulate the desire for change, but give meaning to it? Volunteering isn’t a sector, it’s a movement. We shouldn’t just applaud the number of people that get involved in their communities, we should recognise the impact they are having on those around them, and themselves.

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We all know that volunteering is ‘a good thing’. It is the engine that powers over 15,000 organisations whose very purpose is to contribute to the public good. Volunteering is an essential sign of a society that recognises people are interdependent. The value of being connected is impossible to put a price on. It’s the very purpose of our existence and the prime means of good health, mental and physical.

Talk of broken societies and starting national conversations about what it means to be Irish can seem platitudinous. What is actually happening, however, is far from empty or banal. Literally every minute of every day someone somewhere in Ireland is volunteering. These volunteers are actively seeking and creating a better society. Maybe that’s where we should be looking to source answers on what it means to be Irish or what it means to live in Ireland today. Why wait for change when you can make it happen? September 30 is the National Day of Volunteering. More than 8,000 people participated last year. This year, we’re hoping it’ll be an even bigger and better event.

Yvonne McKenna is Chief Executive Officer of Volunteer Ireland. For more information on Volunteer Ireland, or to find out how to get involved in the National Day of Volunteering, visit volunteer.ie.

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Yvonne McKenna

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