Converting Popular Movements Into Action

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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.

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11 Responses

  1. Sinéad

    November 5, 2010 12:49 pm

    I was enjoying your article until you did what every media outlet in this country does paint my hometown in a negative light.
    I was not around in the 70s but I remember stories of my father in the eighties my father was arrested for sitting with the travellers against the proposed bypass or walking into a local ST Marks meeting and doing Sieg Hiel. It was in the eighties and not the 70s the bypass went ahead.
    Nobody in Tallaght expects politicians on the right to do anything for them, but the fact that the left behave exactly the Same is damning.

  2. Tom Dowling

    November 5, 2010 1:02 pm

    The Tallaght example a strange one to pull out of the hat, but a very telling one with regard to the prejudices of the author. There are multiple examples of middle class racism, government racism, garda racism, but the one that sticks out is Tallaght in the 1970s.

    I would guess that this is because for the ‘social justics’ vincent de paul crowd, middle class racism unfortunate, but the working class? Well, they’re just scary.

    It is very, very interesting that of all the examples of right-wing populism in this country,for you ‘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’.

    That is probably because that is all you think of as potentially ‘facist.’ The fact that the right-wing already set the economic and political policy in this country is not a concern of you, nor of this new non-politcal organisation you are a now a member of.

    We need to change more than attitudes in this country, but it would be a start if do-gooders like yourself changed your own attitudes first.

  3. Aiden Lloyd

    November 5, 2010 1:07 pm

    Sinead, yes, you are right it was the eighties. My mistake in recollecting. I also lived in Tallaght for 25 years and was a founder member of the Tallaght Traveller Support Group. I don’t really get your point in comparing my comments with the failure of politicans to do anything for Travellers.It’s quite erroneous and unfair to do so, actually.

  4. Sinéad

    November 5, 2010 2:05 pm

    I was not comparing your comments with the failure of politicians to do anything for travellers but the failure to do anything for the many peoples of Tallaght.

    I was criticizing the Tallaght Bashing.I’m sure there have been many racist events in this country but nothing sells like Tallaght bashing. The painting of my hometown in a badlight and given the impression nobody tried do to anything.

    My father and many others, maybe you did too,sat with the travellers on the proposed bypass and was arrested for doing so. The case was thrown out of court because many on the other side also sat on the bypass but none were arrested. Actually it was proven they did more than sit but the guards did not arrest.

    I just feel strongly I was researched example could have been used, I got to the Tallaght bashing and found it hard to finish the article.

    What I wanted to say is many organisations on the left pretend to work for the marginalised but treat them the same as the mainstream politics do.

  5. Brigid

    November 5, 2010 3:33 pm

    The central point of the article was how to convert the thoughts and ideas that arose from the event into tangible action for change. The event provided an oportunity for people to express their ideas and aspirations around a changing Ireland. It would be good if we could focus on actions that can or will lead to change. I myself have committed to bringing these policy choices forward to my local labour constituency in order to raise awareness of what people want.

  6. Roy H W Johnston

    November 5, 2010 4:18 pm

    The key issue relating to Claiming the Future is how to ensure that lobbying pressure on key issues is enhanced. It is up to the organisers to ensure that those who express interest in defined issues in their feedback become activised in some effective social environment. We will watch what develops with interest.

  7. Noreen Byrne

    November 7, 2010 1:34 pm

    One of the most important issues for Claiming Our Future at this moment is to ensure it is not bounced into putting organisational structures in place too early. The current Steering Group is working well, why change it for the short term future anyway. There are many examples in our history where when people got together to work for change, structures put in place became spaces for minority groups to get and hold on to power, ultimately leading to failure. As the African American Feminist Audre Lorde famously wrote.’The Master’s Tools will never dismantle the Master’s House’ Lets take the time to think through organisational structures that facilitate genuine democratic decision making. It will pay off in the end.

  8. Tomboktu

    November 10, 2010 11:04 pm

    Dear Noreen

    I am not so sure all who were at the event in the RDS would agree with that assessment. All of those I spoke to were unhappy to see that the structure herded people into ranking previously selected shortlists (and very short lists, at that), and that where a table chose to deviate from that by using the write-in options, there was no mechanism for sharing those.

    Some feel that if Claiming Our Future doesn’t become more genuinely partipatory in setting (as distinct from ranking) the agenda, then is simply replaces one master using the tools with a nicer master using the same tools.

  9. Noreen

    November 11, 2010 5:10 pm

    Hello tombukto,

    I didn’t write it for everyone who attended to agree with my views. I find using terms such as ‘some feel’ and ‘All of those I spoke to’ are unhelpful in the context of a debate. while you may have spoken to people on the day who were unhappy with the structure, surely unless you have their permission to represent here, in my view, you are using the ‘Master’s Tools’.

  10. Tombuktu

    November 15, 2010 9:43 pm

    Dear Noreen,

    You said “I find using terms such as ’some feel’ and ‘All of those I spoke to’ are unhelpful in the context of a debate.

    I’m sorry if you feel that, but I was trying to be accurate in the claims I make. However, I didn’t point out that this was a response to the approach of one of the organisers of CoF who wrote in the national media of the people at the event in the RDS “All were angry”. It was a friend of mine who told me about his disagreement with that, pointing out that he had not seen anger at his table, but rational discussion. Some at my table were angry, others weren’t.

    I didn’t write it for everyone who attended to agree with my views.

    And I do disagree with them.

    I think that a the development of an organisational structure is as important as other tasks. Without that being developed, I would feel I was simply a form of “lobby fodder” for something new — something better than what exists already (political parties, TASC, academics who challenge the cosy consensus that is so dominant in Ireland), something innovative, and something that might offer hope. However, if within our “own” space, participation means nothing more than it did at the RDS, then I think CoF is less than it could be and should be.

    What is a difficulty, though, is how to open that organisation up without a take-over.