First call was Cork where Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Agency, was holding a conference on Ireland in Uncertain Times. The event provided an excellent insight into the challenges of Ireland's rural communities. The economic briefings made it clear that the impact of global recession was happening harder and faster in Ireland than in the UK by every measure.
Teagasc director Gerry Boyle gave an inspirational and challenging speech. He spelt out the opportunities, but set the challenge as being the lack of organisational capital. Communities needed to be enabled. Farmers had to move from producers to retailers. "The worst deficit is that people are unable to contemplate change." This was followed up by Gerry Scully, Teagasc Programme Manager, who called on agencies to "co-create solutions with people."
My other Cork highlight was the inspiration of meeting Brian Phelan, who created Glenfinn Freerange Duckeggs, a wonderful example of what can be achieved in uncertain times.
Then it was on to Dublin for my first ever visit to the Plunkett House, the first ever home of the Plunkett Foundation and still home to the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society. Its Director General (and Plunkett fellow) John Tyrell gave me a marvellous tour of where it had all began.
Then it was on to meet Minister Killeen to share first impressions. Using Sir Horace's mantra of Better Farming, Better Business and Better Living, I said that I was hugely impressed by how much Teagasc was still providing research based knowledge to farmers in exactly the way that Horace had called for in Ireland over 100 years ago. The real opportunity seemed to me to be a strong desire to connect the economic challenges with Ireland's strong community base. However, I wasn't hearing any reference to community-owned models such as co-operatives and other social enterprises.
The scale of the challenges are such that, to quote Gerry Scully, "more of the same will not be good enough." What was striking was that the chance to do things differently was already waiting to be used from the approach used by Sir Horace and the incredible team of people who worked with him to tackle issues of equal weight in Ireland all those years ago.