Noel retires after 23 years with LEADER

‘People never had to dig as deep…they’ve had to find their survival kit’

At the beginning of our conversation, we chat about soccer stars of the 1970s whose names evoke fond memories for both of us. At the end of the conversation, we’ve moved on to the prospects for the Roscommon senior football team in 2021. In between, Noel Connolly reflects on almost a quarter of a century spent calmly and modestly helping to oil the wheels of local industry.

We meet in the splendid boardroom of Roscommon LEADER Partnership, located at the juncture of Circular Road and Golf Links Road in Roscommon town. The kettle is on. Through the huge windows, I can see the ebb and flow of daily life in our county town in December 2020. Almost certainly, some of those people passing in vehicles or on foot on this chilly Friday morning have benefitted from decisions made in this boardroom.

Seeing Noel Connolly doing what he does, it’s obvious how suited he is to his work; he is notably unruffled, calm, courteous, logical, compassionate. These are qualities that have served him well in his career, in life itself.

A native of Castlerea, he will retire next week after 23 years’ working with LEADER. He is looking forward to retirement, but readily admits that he will miss his work colleagues, miss the interaction with the public. That said, the otherwise hostile pandemic of 2020 has perhaps made the final parting easier.

During lockdown, Noel and his colleagues worked from their homes. He found remote working challenging at first, especially as he had to manage staff. Over time, he got more used to it, and now believes that blended working will be transformative in our society in the near future. Before looking to the future – and the kettle has boiled – we begin the interview by chatting about his career with LEADER.

“I started here 23 years ago. In 2008, Mid South Roscommon & Arigna Leader Companies and Roscommon Partnership Company amalgamated, and Roscommon LEADER Partnership was formed. I was initially involved in community development…as time went by I took an interest in the enterprise side, and now my role is as a Self-Employment Specialist”.

He estimates that he has worked with over one thousand companies over the years. His role in recent years, which he has found very rewarding, has involved engaging with small start-ups, mostly through a Back to Work Enterprise Allowance Scheme. Typically, he will help people develop their business models, work on business plans, assist on mentoring, grant-aid, etc.

There are, Noel states, about 4,000 small enterprises in County Roscommon. It’s a remarkable statistic. A great many of these have engaged with Roscommon LEADER and other agencies locally. It’s clear that Noel is deeply impressed with the spirit of entrepreneurship in our county. He believes there are great opportunities for self-employed people in rural counties like Roscommon, where the traditional industrial base is not as strong as elsewhere.

“It’s been very satisfying to see the progress people have made. There’s great diversity…we deal with people setting up cafes, landscape gardening services, childcare facilities, digital media marketing…any amount of enterprises. Often, these people have little or no resources, but the self-employed are a unique breed! They have such singlemindedness and courage. They are willing to make great sacrifices, work long hours. Yes, they are cushioned by supports (from LEADER and other agencies) but they are taking a gamble. There is a great spirit of entrepreneurship here”.

Unsurprisingly, Noel’s engagement with so many people has led to lasting friendships. “You travel a lot around the county, get to know a lot of people…it’s been a great experience. I’ve enjoyed working with the migrant community too…I think I’ve worked with 21 different nationalities. They bring their own work ethic, their culture, their spirit of entrepreneurship. Many migrants have set up business in areas such as IT services, food industry, construction, etc.” Noel says.

2020 crudely delivered its unique variety of challenges. Again, he was deeply impressed with how local SMEs responded. “At first it was hard to witness the trauma, the effect of Covid on businesses. Yes, the Pandemic Unemployment Payments were a help, but employers had to look at new business models…to very quickly adapt to Click & Collect and online options, to an almost cashless approach too. Existing models became obsolete”.

On a personal level, he found the almost instantaneous transitioning challenging, but once he mastered the technology, he adapted successfully! “I was remote working…and trying to manage staff. It’s definitely a game-changer”.

He cites surveys which indicate that a majority of workers want to embrace remote working, to at least develop a more flexible work-life balance. He says there are challenges with remote working, but believes they are surmountable, and that a “blended approach” is the way forward. Digital hubs will help.

Noel Connolly talks a lot about sustainable communities (he did a Masters in Rural Development in UCG many years ago), and it’s clear that – retirement or not – the fate of rural Ireland is very close to his heart. He makes the case for people concentrating their online shopping with local businesses, pointing out that goods produced here are invariably of better quality than goods produced “by cheap labour and exploitation”.

It’s not in his nature to criticise, certainly not to offer glib soundbites to a journalist, but he expresses veiled disquiet at the lack of IDA-inspired jobs in Roscommon, and diplomatically notes that “there’s a role for politicians” on that front.

“Castlerea is a model of success on foreign direct investment…it shows that rural towns can absorb and integrate a multinational company. Regional imbalance needs to be addressed. We have the infrastructure here in Roscommon. There’s no reason why we can’t do more”.

He fears that Brexit will result in a significant rise in the cost of living here (“low income households will suffer most”), remains wary of the challenges posed by Covid, but is still optimistic about the future for rural Ireland. The key is to have private enterprise, community development leaders, and substantial government funding. “That’s the model that will work”.

Covid has toughened us, he asserts. “Covid has made communities more agile, more resilient. In Roscommon, we’re dealing with Covid with flying colours. We are ready for future shocks. People never had to dig as deep – personally – they had to find their survival kit. We did that. People had to dig into their personal resources. People valued their communities more”. He expects, once a vaccine has been successfully rolled out, that there will be a greater emphasis than ever on supporting local SMEs, on holidaying in Ireland too.

Next week, Noel Connolly calls it a day…after 23 years. LEADER, he says, has been a great company to work for, and he will miss his “friends and colleagues”.

“I’ve come to admire the diversity of the programmes offered here, the broad range of services. It’s been a fabulous experience working with the Department and Government agencies. I’ve worked with terrific public servants. Two ministers who stood out for me over the years (in terms of their commitment to rural Ireland) were Éamon Ó Cuív and Michael Ring”.

Popular and highly respected, he will retire with the very good wishes of his colleagues, friends and the wider community.

“The time is right. I will miss it, I enjoyed it, but I am really looking forward to retirement, to more family time”.

Asked what’s been the most rewarding part of his job as a Self-Employment Specialist, he brings it back to people, and their sense of wellbeing.

“I think what I’ve found most rewarding is observing the dignity of work and how it is linked to a person’s self-esteem and self-worth. It’s been very satisfying to see people grow, to see so many people that I might have helped a bit, progress into the workforce”.