It’s been another hectic day for Cormac Wilson between rushing to the City Hotel in Derry for a joint Society of St Vincent de Paul/Salvation Army Christmas toy appeal to getting back to the society’s shop to do more work and organise more visits to those in need.
Each week in Northern Ireland the Society of St Vincent de Paul’s volunteers visit 2,000 homes providing food, fuel, clothing and household goods.
The society also runs breakfast clubs, creches, after-school clubs and 29 shops across the North.
“In Northern Ireland we have more than 2,000 volunteers and they are working flat out,” he says.
The society has a very good relationship with the Salvation Army, adds Mr Wilson who is senior vice president of the charity in Northern Ireland.
The society “will never deny its Catholic ethos”, he says, but “orange or green” or neither doesn’t feature in terms of helping the needy. Equally, generous support comes from outside the Catholic community, he says.
“There is a perception out there that we are a Catholic charity for a Catholic people. That is completely and totally misleading and absolutely false. Our only criterion is need. Poverty does not discriminate and we don’t discriminate.”
That message has penetrated Northern society because financial support and voluntary assistance comes from both communities, he says. “The society is highly respected right across the community divide in the North of Ireland.”
Its work takes volunteers into loyalist and Catholic areas, and into all strata of society. He gives examples of couples who used to donate to the society when they were working but have had to get assistance from it since both were laid off.
Demand for support from the society has gone up significantly in the past four to five years in Northern Ireland with a £5 million (€6 million) budget required annually. “People are still incredibly generous and we appreciate that,” he says.
Its headquarters in Dublin said this week that donations to its annual Christmas appeal were down on average by between 20 and 25 per cent. The Central Remedial Clinic (CRC) payments controversy probably had a bearing on this drop in support, said its national president Geoff Meagher, with reduced income and other pressures also contributing.
Mr Wilson, a 61-year-old retired owner of a driving school in Derry who has been with the society for more than 30 years, says there is no sign of such a significant reduction in donations in Northern Ireland.
In the previous three years the Christmas appeal has raised an average of £115,000 each year in the Derry city area, he says.
Recent Catholic Church appeals for Syria and the Philippines have put extra pressure on donors and, while the money from this December’s appeal has not yet been fully counted, Mr Wilson says he would be very surprised if there were any major fall-off in funding.
He offers a couple of reasons why contributions have been so steady. “We never had the luxury of the Celtic tiger years. When the bubble burst it was particularly felt in the society in the South, but we did not have that experience. I think we are more durable here. What you never had you never miss.”
Moreover, he adds, Catholic Sunday Mass attendances are holding up much better in Northern Ireland than in the South with the result that weekly contributions to church gate collections have been fairly consistent.
About one in four or five church-goers put money in the society’s boxes every week, he reckons.
But while support may not have shrunk, the demands have grown.
This year the regional headquarters of the society in Belfast received more than 10,000 calls from people seeking assistance.
He half chuckles at the notion of any of the more than 2,000 society workers in Northern Ireland being concerned about top-up fees or other forms of exorbitant pay for senior executives.
It has a “minimal” number of paid staff and it’s clear that no one in its Northern operation is taking home salaries approaching £100,000 or even a decent fraction of that figure.
“I can state quite categorically that from the regional president right down to the conference member we are volunteer- led,” says Mr Wilson.