Geoff Meagher, National President, Society of St Vincent de Paul

In the time allotted to me I plan to cover four areas;

The first sets out some statistics to indicate how many of our citizens are struggling, based on the experience of our 10,500 volunteer members across the country and publically available data.

The second is the similarities existing today with the era in which the Society of St Vincent de Paul was founded.

The third is a summary of the work we in St Vincent de Paul are providing in Ireland today.

And finally,  a number of proposals around what we, the Irish people, need to do as we approach the centenary of the birth of the Republic.

First, some statistics about Ireland today.


  • 22% of all households in Ireland are now jobless
  • 324,000 fewer people are in employment now compared with 2007.


  • Almost a quarter of all households in Ireland are in arrears with at least one bill or loan repayment ,
  • 25% of people in Ireland report running out of money to pay ordinary bills or buy food in the past 12 months
  • In 38% of households in Ireland expenditure, exceeds disposable income, sometimes resulting in people going into debt or arrears.


  • One quarter of the population is going without basic necessities like nutritious food, adequate heating and warm clothing.
  • Over 730,000 people in Ireland are living in poverty
  • One in five (almost 104,000) of those in poverty have a job , many of these are self-employed
  • 232,000 children live in poverty.
  • More than one in five people living in poverty had to go without adequate heating in their home last year because they could not afford it.


  • Over 100,000 households are waiting for local authority housing.

SVP calls for assistance

  • The numbers of those requesting help from the Society has increased by over 100% since 2009.
  • The range of requests have become more complex including high and, in many instances, multiple debt issues.

The list could go on but it is sufficient to answer the question that has been posed, How stands the Republic when it comes to justice and equality?

The answer clearly is not good.  Worse still, in the past number of years we have gone backwards.  We in SVP know the impact on people as we are in the unique position of our 10,500 volunteers visiting those in need in their own homes every week of the year, listening to their problems and trying to respond as best we can.  On average, our Members are making around 8,000 home visits per week.  There is no other group that has the same insights as our membership, which qualifies us to speak from first hand experience.  It is also apparent to us that the challenges facing people have spread from those dependent on social welfare payment to those in low paid employment and those traditionally regarded as ‘ middle class’ – people who pay for everything and get nothing.

The second area I will now speak a bit about is the origins of the Society of St Vincent De Paul as so much of it is relevant to the world of today.

The Society of St Vincent de Paul was not in fact founded by St Vincent de Paul, but by a 20-year old university student, Frederic Ozanam, who, in 1833, along with six friends, founded what they called the first ‘Conference of Charity’ to work among the poor in Paris. Frederic and his friends took St Vincent de Paul as their patron because as Frederic said, ‘Even the revolutionaries admired St Vincent and forgave him the crime of having loved God’.

Sadly after a short, but eventful life, Frederic died on September 8th 1853 in Marseilles in France at the age of 40. Yet, despite his short life, Frederic left the members of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, indeed the world, with a powerful and lasting legacy of writings rich in inspiration and practical suggestions as to how we should live out our lives.

Such was the influence and vision of Frederic that the Society of St Vincent de Paul that started with just six young people in 1833 has grown so that today there are approximately one million members of the Society working in 150 countries on all five continents.

Significantly, the three core principles of that first Conference of Charity’Spirituality, Faith, Community and Service – are still the cornerstones of the work and ethos of the Society of St Vincent de Paul throughout the world today.  

And so attempting to realise Frederic’s vision and live out his challenge means that the possibilities for Vincentian action are almost limitless.

Because being poor is not just about being short of money and material things.  It can also mean having a physical or mental disability, being sick, or old, lonely or illiterate. And the poor also includes those who are made to feel alone and unwanted, for example, immigrants, asylum seekers, migrant workers who sometimes find themselves among others who are indifferent, even hostile. Being poor can also mean being a prisoner, an alcoholic or a drug addict.

And so Blessed Frederic knew that service to those in need must promote their human dignity.  And that’s why he told the early members of the Society that:

‘Yours must be a work of love, of kindness; you must give your time, your talents, yourself, because each poor person is a unique person of God’s fashioning with an inalienable right to respect’.

In effect, he was telling the members of the Society of St Vincent de Paul to look for, and find, the face of God in all those who seek our assistance. But Frederic was also very strong in his belief that the Society of St Vincent De Paul must not only be concerned with relieving immediate need, it must also address the social structures within society that causes that need and so he told SVP volunteers that:

‘You must not be content with simply tiding the poor over a poverty crisis: but rather you must study their condition and the injustices which brought about such poverty with the aim of a long term improvement’.

So, Frederic was telling the early SVP volunteers that, ‘Charity and Justice must go together,’ and that Christian Solidarity requires active engagement with our neighbours, particularly the poor and the deprived, no matter how difficult or challenging that might prove for each of us.

As we approach 2016, has a lot changed from the type of society Frederic was challenging 170 years ago?  Sadly I don’t think so.

Last year here in Ireland, the SVP received more than 100,000 calls for assistance and spent over €70m  responding to these calls from people in nearly every parish in Ireland-in other words responding to calls for help from our friends, our neighbours and their children.

That 70m euro + expenditure was divided between spending on services for people in need and direct support to families and individuals.  For example, last year we spent over 30m euro on services such as:

  • 1000 social housing units – mainly for older people
  • 14 hostels, providing accommodation for over 350 homeless people each night.
  • Over 150 Charity Shops
  • 11 Holiday Centres, providing holidays for families, older people and children.
  • 15 Family Resource and Day Centres, including pre-schools and crèche facilities
  • School Activities such as Breakfast Clubs before children start classes and Homework Clubs when they finish school.
  • Special works – including visiting prisoners, patients in hospitals and older people in Nursing Homes.

And in direct financial support to households the Society spent over €40million, for example:

  • €15m in cash assistance, general bills; rent mortgages; medical and funeral expenses,
  • €10m on Food
  • €7m on energy bills
  • €5m on education from pre –school to university

It is a chilling fact that nearly 80% of the 100,000 calls for assistance to the Society come from people relying on some form of social welfare payment and nearly two-thirds of all calls come from households with children.

This indicates very graphically that, despite comments to the contrary by various politicians, economists and some sections of the media, welfare supports in Ireland are clearly inadequate.  Indeed over Christmas 2012 we estimate that we responded to calls for help from over 175,000 households.

So it’s our experience that the extent and the depth of poverty and need in Ireland is increasing daily.  This increase is due primarily to the effects of the current economic downturn.  In particular, the corrosive impact of rising unemployment; the continuous reduction in family income, welfare payments, health and education supports to the poorest households in the country resulting from the austerity measures introduced by the Government in recent budgets and accompanying this the increasing mental stress and sense of hopelessness now being experienced by so many adults and children.

That is why we have begun an online campaign on our website called “Make Your Voice Heard” where we are seeking public support to end austerity budgets: the people seeking our assistance played no part in causing the economic mess; they cannot carry any more of the burden of resolving it.

And so, the work of the Society of St Vincent de Paul must go on.  Indeed, it’s sobering to recall the words of Blessed Frederic Ozanam, first spoken in 1842, when he said:

‘I am asking the volunteers of the SVP to look after people who have too many needs and not enough rights, people who demand with reason a fuller share in public affairs, security in work and safeguards against poverty.’

Sadly those words are as relevant today in the Ireland of 2013 as they were back in 1842 – so everything changes – and yet nothing changes.

So finally, as we approach 2016, what are the lessons to be learned and what do we need to do?

Firstly, I believe during the Celtic Tiger years we lost a sense of our deeper values and that sense of looking after each other.  The pursuit of wealth, the second house, the overseas apartment became our values.  We hear regular comments that we will get back to where we were; there are many aspects of where we were that are best forgotten about.  As SVP, we have noticed since the difficult times the great sense of generosity from the Irish people–I think deep down people know that they have lost something and want to look after people.  Hopefully, we will recapture and retain that sense of values for the future.

Secondly, it is the failure of Governments to provide the leadership and management of the economy that is required to be addressed.  Our political system needs an overhaul. The expectations of the public and the various pressure groups mean that politicians can easily be persuaded to make promises that they really know they cannot deliver.  We then end up in the blame game.  It is time we looked at a system of elected representatives to manage local Councils and we need only four or five of them. Separately, we elect a much smaller number of politicians to manage the affairs of the country.  They can make decisions based on the reality of the overall economic situation and not be influenced by local short term issues.  If we do not change there is no doubt we will repeat the same mistakes and it is the citizens again that will carry the burden

Thirdly, the Eurozone needs to be more radically integrated or disbanded. In the past, every country had to manage its own affairs, if they made a mess of it they had to resort to interest rate changes or devaluations to get themselves sorted.  Those are no longer available.  Individual countries now have a raft of excuses when something goes wrong; it’s Europe, it’s the ECB, it’s other countries needing a bailout, the list goes on. This cannot continue – governments in individual countries must manage their affairs, not get elected on spurious promises and blame everyone else when it all goes wrong.  The tragic part of this is that it is the poor and vulnerable that will always suffer the most when the problems arise.  Europe is lurching from one crisis to another.  It is only a matter of time when one crisis brings too many hits and is too big for another temporary solution.  So let’s get it right or accept that it is not working and act accordingly.

Fourthly, we continue to export our youngest and best talent in the country.  We must find ways to stop this.  It will be a shame on all of us if in 2016 our young people are still forced to emigrate.  We need more radical approaches to job creation and stimulating growth. Government has to do more to create the environment for job creation.  Calculated risks will need to be taken – it is better to take those risks than continue with mass emigration and unemployment.

Fifth, the thousands of families we in the SVP visit cannot take anymore. These families now include people in low paid employment, the self employed, people in good employment with debts that they cannot handle, the profile of those seeking our assistance has radically changed.  More charges or tax increases simply will drive more and more people to poverty, again not something that we want to see as we approach 2016. Let’s stop austerity at this point for these people, give them a fighting chance and their dignity.  I accept the finances have to be balanced, look at other options, stimulate growth, get rid of the mountain of debt which has been unjustly landed at the door of ordinary people.

Finally, I could sum it all up in a call SVP made in February of this year where we asked for a national debate on social justice. I quote as follows from that public statement –

“Social Justice must be at the centre of a nation which cares for all of its people equally. That has been largely ignored while political and economic issues have been concentrated on. Now is the time to discuss what matters most to a nation – its people and the situation in which they live, work or, in too many cases, try to exist without work.  It is generally accepted we lost something as a nation during the Celtic Tiger years.

Now is the time to discuss the changes needed and to prepare for when, hopefully, the nation begins to emerge from this difficult period.  There are no easy answers, but that is no reason not to commence the debate.  We must learn the lessons from the economic disaster caused by an unequal society.”

Everyone should be involved in this debate – Government, politicians, employers, trade unions, NGOs, charities other social partners and individual citizens.  A by-product of the economic downturn we have suffered is that our lives are being controlled and managed by an increasingly smaller number of people. That cannot be good for democracy.

As we approach 2016 what better way to celebrate our 100 years as an independent nation than to commence that debate now?

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