The statement, issued by Scouting Ireland, following the recent exclusive interview on this website, was in some ways the perfect encapsulation of all that is wrong with national scouting presently.
It was anonymous. It featured little warmth, just mechanical platitudes. The condemnation of bullying came across as lukewarm. It almost seemed to be designed primarily to shift blame away from Scouting Ireland.
To be clear, it is hard to see ANYONE blaming Scouting Ireland the entity for the unpleasant events in April – it was the action of an individual (or individuals) who, whilst members of Scouting Ireland, certainly did not represent the association in their actions.
The new National Secretary Jimmy Cunningham, a man of integrity, intelligence and great personal warmth subsequently changed the document after publication by adding his name to it and in doing so took responsibility for its content, despite it being clear that much of it was written by or at the very least prepared by somebody else. This is a measure of the man, one of the few true leaders at national level in scouting currently.
It’s an encouraging sign that accountability and ‘stepping up’ could be returning as a feature of national scouting, especially if our most senior leaders follow the approach set by the national secretary and ‘lead by example’.
Scouting Ireland’s mechanisms to deal with instances of bullying or disputes generally are largely unfit for purpose. Thankfully, bullying among youth members is rare and is generally managed locally, where volunteer leaders do so with sensitivity and common sense.
Disputes between adults (again, not everyday but far more common than disputes between youth members) rely on a system that usually results in unfair outcomes, presided over by people who often lack the diplomatic and mediation skills or emotional intelligence to find the right solution. The entity always seems to come first, not the people involved.
In this context, a hand wringing press release about bullying sounds rather hollow, like a box being ticked, rather than a genuine desire to DO anything positive.
To give the National Secretary his due, he is barely in office four months at this stage and has one of the biggest and most difficult jobs in Scouting Ireland. On top of that, he is shouldering a significant additional weight of responsibility, given no Chief Scout was elected in April. If there is a better way to resolve disputes, Jimmy Cunningham is likely to find it, but even he cannot do everything overnight.
Our inaction on developing an effective and fair disputes system is however just one example of Scouting Ireland’s inability to move with the times.
We remain hopelessly behind societal trends in several areas. For example, our failure for too long to do or say anything meaningful on the tragedy of youth suicide. Our reluctance to challenge homophobic commentary even when uttered from the lectern at National Council. Our inability to connect with teenagers and the consequent contraction of this age range’s membership in Scouting. No desire to facilitate young people aged 18+ who study away from home (we refuse to operate Rover Scouts in universities, and in doing so utilize a different model to that which we employ for most other programme sections, because we lack the vision and imagination to do anything ‘outside the box’).
Our clunky attempts at PR are frequently hi-jacked by ‘gentlemen of a certain age’ who fall over themselves to grandstand for the good news stories, yet when an opportunity to take a positive stand against something like bullying presents itself, the grand standers are curiously nowhere to be seen.
Some leadership strategy!
This approach needs to change. Leaders of calibre in Scouting Ireland (and there are several, including the National Secretary) need to usher in a new era of transparency, honesty and humility. Place the bureaucrats on the sidelines. These cautious types are not interested in members, only in the organization as an entity. There is a limited role for this line of thinking, but on matters of judgement, we need a scout making the decision, not a pen pusher.
Advisors are helpful, but if they substitute for leaders, we end up with the dull, rudderless leadership vacuum that Scouting Ireland at national level has been for several years.
Surely we all, including our elected leaders, deserve more than that?