An Interview with Ursula O’Farrell

Chairperson of the Irish Association for Counselling

Ten or eleven years ago, the idea of having an Irish Association as opposed to a British 
Association came from Odette Thompson who contacted everybody that she could find 
who was a member of the BAC and ask if they would be interested in forming an IAC.
 She rustled together maybe ten or twelve people and at that stage, she invited over a 
member of the BAC to share what ideas they had. Out of that grew the IAC and it remained busy and small for quite a few years, consolidating I suppose you could call it.
 Its aims and objectives are quite simple but they do encompass a very large area: to raise 
the profile of counselling for the general public, to be a voice for counsellors and coun
selling in both the public and legislative eye; to raise the standards of counsellor training
 and to offer support to counsellors which I think is of vital importance. Interestingly 
enough, Odette Thompson called it an Association for Counselling rather than
 Counsellors, and I’ve always felt that this was indicative of the whole notion of the
 Association – it’s not just for the people who are its members, it is for the profession as
 well. It’s a kind of dual thing. So I suppose that is really the way it began and started to 
move forward, with different categories of membership. The latest one is the category
 of Accredited Membership, which is directly in line with the idea of raising standards of
 counselling in Ireland. It only started five years ago, which means that those who we re
accredited five years ago are just coming up for renewal – you are not accredited for life.
 The IAC is prepared to stand over the work of the people it accredits and we have built 
in a complaints procedure in case members of the public wish to make a complaint to
 the IAC about any of its accredited members.

In business they say that if you can hold on for three years then you will make a go
of it, you will survive, and we have kept this in mind over the years, saying at times, well 
here we are, four or five years old and therefore we are surviving and surviving well. But 
it is interesting that the real growth appears to have taken place in the last two years, and
 in a way, it was not that the IAC suddenly started to do things differently, it actually
 seems to have come from the nature of counselling itself in Ireland. The demand in
creased and grew, the demand for classes and courses grew phenomenally, and the supply
 obviously started to increase to meet that demand. Out of that, we became aware that 
there were a lot of people doing bitty courses, people were attending courses that maybe
 did not have much validity that we could see, perhaps they were very short, or maybe
 more of a series of workshops than a course, and from that people were beginning to 
feel that they were ready to work as counsellors. This was terrifying to watch, I think,
 but at the same time it was hard to condemn it out of hand. The demand was there and 
people who were not qualified were going to feel, out of the goodness of their hearts
 maybe, “Well, these people need help, they have nobody else to help them, so I will do
 what I can.” We felt that people who wanted to train as counsellors had no guidelines.

So we found a very simple formula and I think it worked like a dream. We sent out
 notices and invitations to everybody we could think of who was connected with running 
a course and we invited them to a conference, an open day, the theme of which would 
be standards of counsellor training in Ireland. We were very impressed by the way people
 rowed in and spent a day talking about this. They spent a whole day thrashing out the 
idea of accrediting courses – what was needed for the basic minimum – and again we had 
someone over from the BAC (because they had been through that procedure two years
 earlier) who gave us a very clear picture as to how they had operated, where they had
 made mistakes and where things had gone well for them. So out of that whole day, there 
grew a working party. I really mean that it grew – people volunteered to be on it and 
worked enormously hard. They met once a month for eighteen months and they examined every single aspect of the area and they produced a document which I think is
 marvellous. It is really very thorough. I have heard people answer questions about setting up courses, and the number of answers that can be produced out of that simple little
 document impressed me greatly.

Out of that working party has grown the Accreditation Committee. We are just now 
beginning to send out notices to people who are running courses to say we are offering 
this accreditation scheme if they are interested in applying. It will not follow automatically that somebody who does one of these courses will become an Accredited Member
 of the IAC. The accredited courses will satisfy our criteria for the academic input, the 
training if you like, but we will need to satisfy ourselves on the personal self-awareness 
work that the person is doing and is committed to doing, that they are going to uphold
 the ethical standards of the IAC and about their practical, supervised experience. I think 
it is important that people know that accreditation is not automatic. Interestingly
 enough, this Committee comprises people from most of the courses who were on the
 working party and who have moved on to become an actual Accrediting Committee of
the IAC. This does mean that those who were interested in the first place are still interested enough to keep on doing the work voluntarily, and to me that is a very good 
sign of the type of work that they have already done, because they think it worthwhile 
to continue.

I see the Directory as something quite separate, but another way of meeting much
 the same demand. I think the notion came to me first about five years ago when I saw
 the Northern Ireland Association for Counselling Directory. The idea stayed with me.
 The second thing that seemed to underline the need was that people were coming to me
 from the country, from Kerry, from the west of Ireland, travelling all the way to Dublin
 for an hour or an hour and a half with a counsellor and going home again. This suggested that their desperation was sufficient to make it worthwhile, but it seemed to me
 a terrible waste of their time and energy, if there were somebody nearer, and I felt sure 
that there must be. So between these two, it seemed to me that the need for information was there. The accreditation scheme was a way of making sure that the supply was 
there, and this was a way to put the supply in touch with that demand. So in some vague 
fashion, I think I had the idea that you would just get a list of names and publish it, but 
that was naive. The first thing that we needed was a research assistant to put it togeth
er, and the second thing was obviously some money to pay for the assistant. We were
 very lucky and got grants from People in Need and a smaller one from the Department
 of Health Information Unit. We were just as lucky to get Irene Feighan as our research 
assistant because she seemed to have much the same vision as I had but much more comprehensive and practical. She was able to build up questionnaires that are reflected in the
 Directory entries where you can see peoples’ training, whether medical assistance is
 available, and what type of work they are doing etc. I’m sure that we have left people out 
but I suppose that is inevitable, although we contacted everybody we could think of. The 
Directory has approximately 500 entries, many of whom of course are not members of
 IAC. So we managed to get our Directory out at last, with Wolfhound publishing it for
us, and I must say I feel it looks well and it is not expensive.

I think our next enormous job (and once I say it out loud maybe we are committed 
to it) is along the lines of Europe and 1992, looking at the different bodies working in
 Ireland: the psychologists, the psychotherapists and the counsellors etc. I think everybody would agree that there is overlap – (the extent of the overlap and definitions is
 another area on which you might never get agreement) but I think that it would be to
 our benefit if we could find a way to combine, to present our case to our own govern
ment first, and then to a European Association for Counselling (which is being discussed
 in England) and to Brussels under some kind of statutory directive. It would mean we
 had a much greater impact or influence if we could combine. It seems to me that if we
 could all meet and talk about this topic, some co-operation might happen, a co-opera
tive if you like, whereby distinctions were visible but at the same time the common areas 
gave us strength. I’d love to see that happen. We are hoping to have a meeting with a 
very wide agenda, a discussion day, just to see what would happen, and we may succeed
 in getting somebody to come along who has looked into this whole European idea more 
thoroughly than we have, perhaps in March or April. This is very vague still, but I do 
think that if the three groupings try to remain individual and distinct, we will know what
 we are talking about but people outside won’t!

So there is the next piece of work for us.