Viewed as a small but growing part of the enterprise base, there is widespread acceptance of the contribution of social enterprise to national social and economic development. Rooted in a rich social economy tradition, the term ‘social enterprise’ first came to prominence in Irish policy discourse in the 1990s and was typically viewed as a response to community service provision and work integration.
The most recent national operational definition of a social enterprise defines it as ‘an enterprise that trades for a social/societal purpose, where at least part of its income is earned from its trading activity, is separate from government, and where the surplus is primarily re-invested in the social objective’. Four main types of (non-mutually exclusive) social enterprise have been identified: those with commercial opportunities that are established to create a social return; those creating employment opportunities for marginalised groups; economic and community development organisations; and those that deliver services.
The eco-system for Irish social enterprises has been enriched in the last decade through the emergence of national support networks, advocacy groups for the sector and increased access to social and micro-financial support mechanisms as a result of national, EU and philanthropic support. New opportunities for social enterprises are presented in the recent transposition of two EU Directives into Irish law in 2016. The two Regulations cover public procurement in the public service and the utilities sector, and include provisions allowing for discretion to divide public contracts into lots and for particular contracts to be reserved for social enterprises under certain conditions.