Claiming Our Future – the task now is to convert an aspiration for equality and sustainability into tangible social change
Aiden Lloyd is coordinator with the European Anti-Poverty Network Ireland and a member of Is Feidir Linn
The Claiming Our Future event held last Saturday in the RDS in Dublin, which brought over 1,000 people together, gave expression to the deep frustration within civil society about the almost total exclusion of community and non-governmental organisations from decision-making processes that will determine the conditions and life chances of ordinary citizens for at least the next decade. This frustration has been building for some time, not specifically because of the immediate impacts of the economic crisis – job losses, indebtedness and a general insecurity about health, home and children – but because of the deliberate sidelining of citizens from decisions that will decide their destiny. Speculative banks and bond holders, so called risk takers, have been indemnified by the state; developers have been provided with a bolt-hole through NAMA, and government has prioritised the needs of institutions and elites over ordinary people. We are now in a position where the disconnect between government and governed is almost total. In this situation the development of a social movement was almost inevitable.
Defining something as spontaneous as a social movement is difficult. At heart it could be described as a convergence of thought or ambition that gives expression to a desire for change. Social movements usually arise out of despair. They were widespread in the United States during the depression that followed the Great Crash in 1929, and they were prolific during the early years of the post-independent Irish state, when political institutions were incapable of driving the modernisation process. While difficult to quantify, or even to definitively map, there is no doubt that social movements can convert into action and gain momentum along the lines of the intended objectives. Roosevelt’s New Deal and social reforms within the Irish state on matters of housing, welfare and contraception are evidence of this. They can also dissipate, and we have only to remember the heady marches against violence in Northern Ireland and the invasion of Iraq, or popular campaigns for tax reform in the 1980s to illustrate this. And there can be a dark side too. Because emotion is part of the dynamic for change this can be channelled or manipulated into forms of regressive organisation – fascism is an extreme example but we have only to think of the widespread anti-Traveller activity that arose from genuine concerns about the lack of road infrastructure in Tallaght in the 1970s.
Returning to Claiming Our Future and the need to channel this energy into tangible change, perhaps the starting point is to outline how, organisationally, this came about. While there is a certain spontaneity to their development, social movements do not just spring up from nowhere. In terms of Claiming Our Future, its origins were in a loose network of national community development organisations that came together out of frustration at the failure to convert economic growth into measures to address poverty and reduce long-standing inequalities in Irish society. The catalyst for this meeting lay in deliberate actions by government to restructure the community sector as a delivery arm of the state and to restrict their advocacy role through an aggressive application of funding conditions. This resulted in a North-South conference in April of 2008, entitled Funding and the Strings Attached, aimed at identifying ways that community organisations could challenge these imposed constraints. What emerged from that conference was a consensus that the adverse funding situation was only one part of a deeper malaise whereby communities were separated from decision-making processes, while governments proceeded to prioritise the interests of elites. The conference called for a set of concrete actions to address this democratic anomaly and this in turn resulted in the formation of Is Feidir Linn as a sort of social think-tank charged with coming up with an alternative vision for Ireland. Over time, Is Feidir Linn duly developed a ‘Vision for a New Ireland’ based on principles of equality, solidarity and sustainable development. This vision was presented to a hugely attended conference in June of 2009 where it was endorsed, together with a recommendation that alliances capable of developing a critical mass for social change be created. This brings us up to the event last Saturday in the RDS.
One of the strengths of social movements is their capacity to assemble diverse sections of society to pursue a common cause. A more difficult task is the challenge implicit in devising concrete proposals out of heartfelt ambitions. In that respect, the long lead-up and the preliminary work undertaken by Is Feidir Linn has been central to the development of clear guiding principles and a set of tangible policy priorities. The parallel work of the economic think tank, TASC, in developing comprehensive economic options, was also crucial in devising the economic package presented on Saturday. One of the most pleasing aspects of Claiming Our Future was the willingness of organisations, especially the trade unions, to take a considerable leap of faith – and some risk in terms of social partnership – in developing a bond with community and civil society organisations.
So, how might this set of policy priorities be advanced? Clearly the euphoria generated at the RDS event cannot be sustained unless it results in some tangible advances. The economic options have an immediate relevance and should be inserted into the manifestos of sympathetic political parties, in particular the Labour party where policy making has yet to do justice to its core objectives. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has a particular role to play in this.
However, by far the greatest challenge is in laying down a new democratic order by building a space for the participation of civil society. This is a longer term project that needs to be driven at national and local levels. If Claiming Our Future was the culmination of the quest for a forum whereby a more equal and all-embracing society can be both imagined and sketched then why not create that space on a permanent basis at both local and national level? Creating a national secretariat to organise an annual social forum would sustain energies and create a space to accommodate the synergies so painstakingly built over the past two years. That clarity already exists at local level. The lucidity of ordinary participants emerging from the RDS and their assuredness about converting aspiration into action was inspiring. They are intent on developing local assemblies and action groups and are clear in seeing existing community platforms and networks as the catalyst.
Times of crisis are also times of opportunity and change. Organisation and intent is all that separates us from a more equal and enduring society.