Helene McManus, The Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU), President. PHOTO: Conor McCabe

Helene is prepared for the ups and downs of life

Ballyconnell woman appointed president of ILCU

“I’m very much a Cavan woman - a Ballyconnell woman, from around the hills of Snugborough,” Helene McManus the new Irish League of Credit Union (ILCU) President says by way of establishing her Breffni credentials.

Helene, the second woman to hold the presidency in the CU’s history, will serve in the post for the next two years. It has been quite a journey for Helene from Ballyconnell to Kilcock where she got involved in the Kilcloon and District Credit Union.

There are still strong family links with the local organisation. “My sister is chair of Ballyconnell Credit Union. My husband is also from Cavan and his niece works in Cavan Credit Union. So there’s a strong family connection with the Credit Union,” she tells theCelt.

Her father’s role as the treasurer of Kildallan GAA, where her brothers played, hints as the voluntarism that brought her to the pinnacle of the CU’s structure: “Everyone from Cavan has a financial background from the minute you are born, we know how to mind money,” she joke at the cliché, good humour very much a part of her demeanour.

“I was always interested in that end of things,” Helene says outlining how she arrived in her current role. “I started working in the Housing Section of Dublin Corporation. They set up a credit union called Dubco, which is still on the road now. That was the start. I just helped out as a volunteer, that gave me my grounding under the guidance of a man named John Kelly.”

When Helene moved to Kilcock in Kildare she joined Kilcloon and District Credit Union.

“I got heavily involved there over two decades ago. I think I have held every position within the credit union - treasurer, secretary, chair - the lot.”

In 2005 Anne O’Byrne from Baltinglass in Wicklow became the first woman to hold the post of credit union president. No other female held it before her or in the intervening 15 years. Helene doesn’t feel this reflects any gender discrimination.

“The league is 61 years in existence. If you look at the history of the movement, there has always been a 50/50 split of volunteers in the credit union all down through the years. It’s just the way things are. Women are involved at all levels, as chairs, as secretaries and as CEOs. But women seem less inclined to push themselves forward, in many cases it’s because we have so many other things to do. It takes a lot of time and it’s voluntary, but it is a bug,” she says with the enthusiasm of someone very much bitten.

The new president embodies the social conscience that motivates many CU volunteers. People like Helene have built Irish society helping families across the country afford home extensions, holidays and transport they would otherwise do without.

“It’s a 32-county movement. That is something I am very proud of. We have a united front. There is a great community base. All of that co-operation feeds into the ethos of what the Credit Union is,” Helene says.

The last year has affected the CU as profoundly as every other business in the world. There has been a significant increase in members’ savings as a result of the pandemic.

That pandemic has transformed many aspects of the way society behaves - from shopping to working and everything in between. In the past 18 month banks have hit the headlines, some withdrawing from the market, others closing branches or reducing counter services at outlets.

Through this time the Credit Union has rolled with the same difficulties its members have experienced. Helene say the CU is adapting.

“In a movement as big as ours things happen slowly. We are extremely careful about how we do business. We have moved on to digital platforms, we have to be there. We are here to stay and to do so we must provide financial services to people in the towns and villages across the island.

“We won’t survive unless we provide the services our customers demand. We need to offer the same range of services banks do, and offer them in the way our customers access them, but still holding on to the values and social conscience of the Credit Union. We are a social organisation, but with a financial objective,” she explains.

Time for review

Helene feels it’s an apt time to review the regulations governing the CU: “We can only do what we are allowed to do. The government have to play a part. They need to lift the barriers preventing Credit unions from supporting their communities to the full extent,” she states.

Outlining details of the changes needed boils down to one simple statement: “We need to be treated fairly.”

Elaborating she explains: “All we need is the sanction to establish the platform. Once you have the platform, for example for credit and debit cards, it gives us opportunity to provide service on phones. I don’t use a debit card at the moment, I use my phone for most payments.”

The Credit Union President insists that she is not in the age profile that is constantly posting to Instagram and TikToc, but is conscious of the need to engage with that age group to be viable.

Helene is looking forward to her term: “Our AGMs are held in the last weekend in April. I took up the role as soon as the AGM ended. So I will be president until the end of the AGM in 2023.”

Even after two decades in Kildare, she says there is only one team she will be shouting for in forthcoming GAA championship: “I would never support any team against Cavan. I love being there for their victories. They did so well last year, but you have to have a good heart for it. You need to take the rough with the smooth, but we’re used to that in Cavan. We have loads of hills and mountains to prepare us for the ups and downs of life.”