Which T.R.A.I.L to ‘connect’ to?


In less than a week, Scouting Ireland will make an historic vote and one that will set the course for the future of the association for some time to come.

Next weekend, Ireland will not notice a lot. Dublin will be bustling with shoppers as usual. Buses will take on and disgorge passengers at the RDS. Locals (and perhaps some delegates to National Council too) will imbibe pints at ‘Horse Show House’ across from the venue. Nonetheless for Scouting Ireland, Saturday, April 18th will be an important day. The association will choose a new symbolic leader. A new Chief Scout.

There are two candidates for the role of Chief Scout. Sean Farrell (currently the National Secretary and in that role since 2012) and Kiernan Gildea (a member of Aughrim Street Scout Group). Both have impeccable pedigree. Both have a track record a mile long. Both are seasoned scouters with many years experience in various roles locally and nationally. Both are well known and well respected.

However, it seems increasingly clear that both offer potentially very different visions of a future for Scouting in Ireland.

We all know the drill in Scouting when it comes to elections. Candidates write a letter, list off all the badges they have, awards they have earned, jobs they’ve undertaken. Members swap notes at national council and, where they don’t know the candidate, they choose a familiar name or ask their mate whom to vote for (we’ve all done it at least once…).

This time around, things have been different. All the candidates for the various roles, particularly the NMC positions (there are eleven NMC positions up for election, plus various other elected roles), have been active across various communication channels, not least on social media platforms to an extent never seen before in a national election campaign in Scouting Ireland.

In addition to the stock mug shot (in uniform if one needs to appeal to traditionalists or in hiking gear with mountains in the background to appeal to active scouters), candidates have been mapping out manifestos.

This is all great progress from the position not too long ago when many candidates just assumed that profile and number of badges on one’s shirt would be sufficient to ensure one’s ‘turn’ in key roles – these days, members actually want to know what a candidate is going to DO if they get the job. The days of gentlemen of a certain age being ushered in to do an underwhelming job in a key role because it’s ‘their turn’ thankfully look to have been confined to the dustbin of history.

The two Chief Scout candidates have both at this stage presented a manifesto. Sean Farrell’s ‘SI Connect’ document was circulated to Group Leaders (and via the campaign Facebook page) late last week, suggesting the contents were informed by some fairly strong feedback from around the association (that feedback in essence suggesting National Office and the NMC have both lost the plot over the past three years.)

SI Connect is a sort of management plan. It identifies the problem and tells us what is going to be done about it. We’ll get a say too. Lots of meetings held by people in positions of authority who can fix the problem, consultation (presumably REAL consultation this time – that word ‘consultation’ lost some of its meaning during the ‘Vision 2020’ debacle) and quote: “everything (yes, everything) will be on the table for discussion” according to the document.


Whether this will include discussion of (for example) the blurring of the lines between the roles of some staff and volunteers or some candid assessments of the performance of current volunteer office holders is not clear, but taking the document at its word, it presumably will.

The document is a little vague on exactly who will be consulted. The phrase ‘have a say’ appears four times within. There is mention made of the process being open to youth and adults (this is hopefully stating the obvious, but how many from each group is not clear). Buzzwords like ‘youth empowerment’ pepper the document but as the famous bureaucrat Sir Humphrey Appleby once remarked “if you have no intention of doing anything on a topic, make sure you talk about it a lot” – undoubtedly this will not be the case here.

But as any five year old knows, ‘having a say’ and ‘getting your way’ are entirely different propositions. This is clearly not merely another pretend strategy by some well-connected bureaucrats, designed to give the pesky membership an impression that their opinion counts when in fact it actually doesn’t. But to be honest, based on the format and tone, ‘SI Connect’ does sound very similar to the raft of ‘strategies’ that have come out of National Office in recent years – an unfortunate coincidence no doubt.

The Kiernan Gildea manifesto has been set out under the acronym ‘T.R.A.I.L.’ The document was launched over the course of a week or so a couple of months back and circulated via the campaign Facebook page. It sets out a vision for Scouting Ireland that happily coincides with the word TRAIL, namely Transparency, (taking) Responsibility, Accountability, Inclusivity and Leading (by example). This is less of a management document and more of a vision. Its light on specifics, but perhaps that is the point – is the Chief Scout a leader or a manager?

This document seems less about highlighting a problem and telling us all what to do about it. Instead, the proponent is laying out some tenets, some desirable behaviors that he intends to follow if elected. It feels like the idea is to inspire, encourage and motivate, rather than take control and direct.

Both documents, if viewed as manifesto’s paint very different pictures of the approach likely to be taken by the two candidates.

Both recognize that there is a serious problem in Scouting Ireland. Both seem to acknowledge that this is down to how the association has been managed in recent years. The big issue on the ‘SI Connect’ initiative is that its proponent has been in a key national role for the past three years.

In the right hands, the role of National Secretary is in fact MORE influential and more powerful than the Chief Scout role. The rather awkward question that has been largely unasked of the well-liked Sean on the campaign trail is one that asks him to help members understand what his track record has been in this powerful and pivotal role over the past 36 months and what is his theory on why we have gotten to a point of near crisis in terms of confidence in our associations national leadership.

Vision 2020, a lesson in how not to communicate with the membership, was driven by others but in some ways perfectly encapsulates what could charitably be described as a ‘benevolent disinterest’ in the views of local scouters and a sort of ‘presumption’ about who gets to make key decisions.

The outgoing National Secretary is a gentleman and a decent scout. But can a central figure in the management of the association over the past three years avoid suffering a degree of credibility deficit when setting out an ‘all change here’ stall?

The ‘SI Connect’ initiative uses a lot of action-orientated phrases but
in actual fact, there is no firm commitment in the document, merely a plan to arrange some meetings. It’s all a bit unspecific on closer inspection. In reality it feels like something that would in all probability be far less groundbreaking or radical when it came to implementation.

The phrase “if we always do what we always did, we’ll always get what we always had” springs firmly to mind. That is fine if that is what we want, but the clear message coming from the membership seems to be resounding call for ‘change’.

By contrast, the TRAIL document from Kiernan Gildea sounds disarmingly simple (possibly because it is). It differs from the shiny but ultimately useless ‘Vision 2020’ document. It’s clearer than the ‘SI Connect’ proposal. A ten year old could read it and ‘get it’ first time. Importantly, it’s unambiguous. The candidate is focusing on values that he will need to not only live, but also be seen to live during his term.

If Scouting Ireland gets a leader who can actually lead and one who will face down those who do not endorse and follow scouting values, this will very quickly have far bigger and more sustainable impact than any amount of management reviews, meetings, strategies (all the usual stuff we are used to hearing – none of which works…)

There is a strong view in Scouting Ireland that the Chief Scout, above all else, needs to be the beacon of fairness, impartiality and leadership. That means members need a Chief Scout who will be prepared to take personal responsibility for his actions and not pass off key decisions to or allow himself to be managed or pushed around by unaccountable bureaucrats.

It could be argued that five key tenets around which to build a refreshed and reinvigorated association is perhaps a step too far towards simplicity. But is simplicity not what Scouting Ireland needs at this stage?

We’ve tried complexity and look where its got us… After over a half-decade of lack-luster growth (lack-luster given the huge potential), reams of extra paperwork generated by an ever-growing coterie of unelected, unaccountable administrators, the dilution of democracy (in favour of corporatization) and erosion of transparency, replaced by NMC gagging orders and censorship on the (admittedly irrelevant) chat forum, is the association not overdue an injection of integrity and some simplification of our national structures?

Perhaps a return to a few simple values and a focus on Scouting at local level is just what the association needs? We are an association of volunteers after all…

Both candidates for the role of Chief Scout are decent people. Both are good scouts. Both have the capacity to fill the role.

The question for the electorate however needs to be; who will give Scouting the shot in the arm that it needs, who will energize it and who will truly facilitate the change of course that the membership up and down the country is looking for?

Do we really want another management driven ‘consultation’ or does Scouting Ireland deserve some leadership at this stage?

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