Northern Ireland's Irvinestown: Bouncing back from oblivion

When Northern Ireland's Irvinestown (population 2,200) lost its major industry, unemployment hit 90 per cent. Now social enterprise is helping the town to prosper again
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The Independent Online

What do you do if you live in a small town and the major employers close down their factories? One answer - if you are a group of "social entrepreneurs" - is to set-up a range of businesses and charities that put the life back into the community by creating new jobs and services.

This was the response chosen by the Irvinestown Trustee Enterprise Company (ITEC), when their rural Northern Ireland town was hit first by the loss of 120 jobs when the Daintyfit factory closed in 1999 and then by more than 100 more redundancies when Desmond's factory closed in 2003. Both closures were symptomatic of a general transfer of textile manufacturing away from Northern Ireland to the Far East and Africa and they left parts of Irvinestown - population just 2,200 - with an unemployment rate of more than 90 per cent.

ITEC already existed as a community business - a business trading to achieve social objectives, investing profits back into the local community - formed in 1994 by the town's "fairs and markets trustees". The trustees themselves were a progressive group of people even back in 1908 when appointed. They were split 50/50 between Catholics and Protestants, who committed themselves to cross-community harmony.

Today, ITEC is the town's major industrial and commercial landlord, letting 55,000 square feet of workspace. Its group of businesses and charities has 47 staff, with a further 250 people employed by tenant businesses. A former tenant even moved out to take over the former Desmond's factory, while the old Daintyfit factory is now the Tullynagarn business park, run by ITEC. As a result of ITEC's activities, the sense of desolation that was present in the County Fermanagh town after the factory closures has been replaced by a feeling of prosperity.

ITEC represents part of a new wave of social enterprises, which operate successful businesses to make their communities better places. In the case of ITEC, commercial activities include two business centres with 22 commercial tenants; Active Allsorts, a social enterprise providing childcare; and Fast, a rural community transport scheme.

Several charities are connected to ITEC, including the lottery-funded ARC Healthy Living Centre, which works with (mostly poorer) people to improve their lifestyles, health, wellbeing and life expectancy. Other related groups are SureStart, a government-backed scheme to help provide a start in life for young children by supporting their families; Chit-Chat, which checks on the welfare of older residents; a training programme for the unemployed; and projects that help people with alc ohol and drug dependencies. Further ideas are being evaluated, including the possible establishment of an agency to increase the supply of care workers locally.

Irvinestown's residents are strong supporters of ITEC - with 16 successful local business leaders sitting on ITEC's board. Jenny Irvine - chief executive of both ITEC and the ARC Healthy Living Centre - says there is no contradiction in running a business which is not for personal profit, while seeking the support of local business people. "When you apply a business model to the social economy - which you should - it doesn't mean you should not be efficient and relevant to the people of the area," she says. "Involving other people doesn't compromise your integrity as a charity, at all."

Through her ability to bring business people onto the ITEC board and working with them to make the group one of the biggest social enterprise successes in Northern Ireland, Jenny Irvine won the 2004 Business in the Community award as the person who best achieved collaboration with businesses to improve their community.

Irvine says that gaining the support of people from different backgrounds to commit themselves to working together for the benefit of the town has been central to ITEC's success. "Confidence is a big issue for an area," says Irvine. "If people think progress is impossible, it probably is impossible. We had visionaries who wanted things done and done quickly. There were people with a finance background, who asked how are we going to pay for it? And we had people who pulled everyone together. So it was a mix of skills, but all shared a common vision."

With increasingly impressive results from ITEC and other social enterprises across the UK, Irvine believes the sector deserves more of an input into government policy. "We can't work in isolation," she says. "Government needs to look at the results in this sector and see that those results are very positive. Irvinestown would be a very different place if people had not accepted responsibility for their community."

Asked where her inspiration as a social entrepreneur comes from, the former nurse does not hesitate. She was working in Erne Hospital in nearby Enniskillen in 1998 when it received victims of the Omagh town centre bomb blast, the worst incident of the Troubles. "It went through my mind, 'someone should do something about this.' Then I thought maybe it's everybody's responsibility. That's when I decided to move careers.

"We have always had social enterprise [in Irvinestown]," says Irvine. "It is a tradition which has elevated this community to the point where it is now a vibrant, thriving economy. Without social enterprise that would not be the case."

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