Looking back at Leader in S/W Mayo
Fifteen years after the South West Mayo Development Company – more commonly known simply as Leader – was first launched, the company took time to draw its breath and reflect a little when it held its annual meeting at Nevin’s in Tiernaur recently.
Originally based in Castlebar but now long located in Newport, itself a move very much in keeping with the whole ethos of rural development, the Leader Company has proved to be one of the success stories of the application of national and European funding to local communities.
The company operates under the guidance of a voluntary board – the current chairman is Seamus McCormack – while the implementation of policy is carried out by the management staff, headed by CEO, Gerry O’Neill.
The guest speaker at the annual meeting was Seán Staunton, former Editor of The Mayo News, and a man closely involved in community development all his life. It was an excellent choice in that he was able to match his own personal involvement in the company as a former Board member with the sort of objective, detached overview which comes with a long career as a journalist. As he looked back over that 15 years, his listeners were reminded of just how much has evolved since that first, ground-breaking decision to empower local communities – and, more importantly, to provide them with the financial resources – to fund development projects in their own locality.
There was, as he recalled, considerable resistance early on for public representatives who felt that any funding being made available locally should be channelled through the local authorities and not – as they saw it – through well-intentioned but inexperienced novices.
Novices the new board members might have been, Seán Staunton reflected, but that didn’t stop the Department of Agriculture from keeping faith with the company and giving it the formidable task of implementing the EU-funder Leader programme across south west Mayo.
The wisdom of that decision has been borne out by events and it is a story which, as Seán Staunton says, deserves to be told. Many millions of euros in public spending has been invested in the region over those years. That investment has generated at least as much again locally, so that hundreds of jobs have been created, community energies harnessed and professional training given to countless individuals and groups. Community development in south west Mayo has been the better for the existence of the company, which serves a population of some 60,000. No matter what road you travel in the south west Mayo area, he said, you won’t travel very far until you come across an enterprise, individual or community project that has been supported by the company.
A lot of that success was due to the purposeful way in which, from the start, the members of the board applied themselves to the task, while the critics bemoaned the seeming multiplicity of agencies all trying to do the same thing. SWM simply got on with the implementation of its brief.
“And I am not speaking financially when I say that if ever an audit is done into the amount of professional and voluntary effort that has gone into this company, the results will be quite spectacular,” Seán Staunton commented.
The SWM has served Mayo well, not least because all of the pieces of the organisation have worked so well together. While voluntary input has been at the heart of its operations, the relationship with other statutory bodies, with Government and, crucially, with its own paid staff has made all the difference. The excellent working relationship with FÁS – lauded by Seán Staunton as one of the main bodies to keep the flames of hope burning in rural communities – has been significant too.
The balance between volunteerism (and SWM gives the lie to the general perception that volunteerism is all but dead in Ireland) and the company’s professional staff has also done much to promote the image of the company in the community.
Said Seán Staunton: “I have always felt that the company was extremely fortunate in the quality of its staff. Because of the company’s specific role, people who approach it are invariably looking for something and most people in that position are quite vulnerable. Just think of the first time you went cap in hand looking for a bank loan or mortgage. Your whole experience can be coloured by the first people you make contact with and I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that, without exception, the members of the staff of SWM are well endowed with people skills.”
As the South West Mayo Development Company faces into the next decade, it must face new challenges. The growth of multi-culturalism will bring its own changes; adult and continuing education will need to be developed; support for enterprise and for the training of individuals and communities must be continued.
Overall, as Seán Staunton commented, it is a question of improving quality of life for our people. The Taoiseach has, in recent times, been stressing the need for a strengthening of community values in Irish society, for a greater sense of community leadership and togetherness as we face the future.
There could hardly be a better model for that progress than the South West Mayo Development Company.
TIME TO REFLECT Current board members of South West Mayo Development Company at the company’s 14th AGM In Nevin’s, Tiernaur recently. Back row, from left: Alan Nolan, Pat Stanton, Frank Chambers, Seamus McCormack, Chairperson; Michael O’Donnell; John Ryan and Seamus Brannick. Front row, from left: Mary Wrafter, Margaret McNeela, Sr Maureen Lally, Mary Jo Cannon, Company Secretary, and Breda Hyland. Pic: Frank Dolan