From Socialist Voice, January 2011

The future of the community sector

The writer of this article was for ten years a community development worker in north-east inner-city Dublin, but his comments on the sector aim to go beyond those confines. Socialist Voice welcomes comments and criticism. The age-old conflict between capital and labour is fought not alone in the work-place but in the streets and living environments of working people. There is a world of difference, if only a few miles’ distance, between life on Millionaire Row and in the housing estates and inner-city flats. Just as the County Dublin coastline from Howth to Dalkey was preserved for the bourgeoisie, the location of social housing was also predetermined. Everywhere in the world of capital there is the same social stratification, although with horrifying extremes.
     In most countries of western Europe the defeat of fascism in 1945 and the resulting militancy of its peoples ushered in massive welfare-state reforms. The nationalising of essential resources and the creation of social housing and free health services were the main achievements.
     Ireland was not part of that surge and remained an inward-looking, deeply conservative and hostile place. It took a whole generation before the application of Victorian Poor Law philosophy and practice were challenged. But, despite the evolution of social and cultural changes, won by struggle, class stratification remained in most essential areas.
     Housing was such an area. Although the right to adequate housing is enshrined in international legal instruments to which Ireland is a party, inadequate social housing remained a constant scandal. Successive Governments have ignored such rights; and the permanent waiting list for social housing and the many substandard estates and flats complexes, from Moyross to St Michael’s, are proof of this.
     While there has been widespread criticism of the lack of housing planning by local and national authorities, it was the standard policy to avoid social mixing. The ghettoisation of housing saw the families of Dublin’s infamous tenements rehoused in dense inner-city flats complexes; later the plebs were dispersed further to estates in the suburbs, and further still to the heights of Ballymun.
     In the inner city the flats became pockets of intergenerational poverty, which undermined neighbourhood resilience, while in the new estates the disruption of family ties was increased by the lack of facilities and services.
     In recent times the commercial attraction of Dublin’s centre drove property values sky-high. Sheriff Street flats were bulldozed to make way for the International Financial Services Centre. Ireland had come of age.
     The interests of private property, finance and capital were the order of the day, and the banks, developers, builders, state agencies, accountants, establishment politicians and the media all scrambled for their share.
     Meanwhile the working people in the high-density flats and estates still experienced high unemployment and all that it entailed: the wrong address, on the wrong side of the tracks. Black-spot marginalisation was added to by insufficient state supports and services. Typical was the lack of child-care facilities for the growing number of lone-parent families.
     Gradually from the 1970s there began a fight back, with demands for action on single issues leading to consideration of the wider problems of neglect. Some of the older people had been involved in or would have known of the unemployed movement of the 1950s and the Housing Action Committees of the 60s, while many younger people were influenced by the prevailing radicalism of the times. While it was localised and uneven, it ushered in a thinking that refused to depend on clientelist politicians’ promises or the hostile bureaucracy of the authorities but rather looked to community self-help, strength and cohesion.
     As with all social movement in action, no matter how small, challenging power is a self-educational process. Local people, particularly women, set up projects with such diverse functions as child care, after-school clubs, youth clubs, community training workshops, older citizens’ clubs and rest care, adult learning, counselling, and women’s centres; and later, sadly, came drugs support and rehabilitation.

Leaders and resources

Two ingredients were necessary to sustain this work: local volunteers had to become leaders and acquire expertise; and they had to search for resources and funding.
     Similar experiences were taking place in the slums of all industrially developed countries, from Glasgow to Boston, and the term “community development” was assigned to it.
     Universities soon had sociology departments devoted to its study and were churning out “professionals for the new industry.” Local activists had to learn such new terms as social exclusion, empowerment, gatekeepers, stakeholders, ring-fencing, pilot scheme, templates, and frameworks. Needless to say, many bright young graduates served their time with community projects and were impressed by their self-help philosophy. Similarity, many state employees seconded to community work “went native” and served the interests of the projects rather than the agency.
     In the beginning funding came from the European Union, as part of the Social Fund schemes, channelled through the exchequer and then through the establishment of Area Development Management (ADM)—now Pobal—and Combat Poverty. This funding was for specific purposes and generally had to have employment potential. For example, in Dublin’s north inner city an Alliance for Work Forum was set up, which ran computer training courses, issued a local newspaper, and established a folklore project. However, the need for sustained employment to tackle the permanence of educational disadvantage and poor health was stressed, and demanded. Massive state investment was needed.
     Some initiatives came from pressure on the Government, encouraged somewhat by social-democratic influences in the EU, the need for a liberal face on “social partnership,” and organisations like the ICTU’s Centres of the Unemployed and the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed.
     These initiatives brought some full-time jobs to projects; but the main staffing of work in the community was to be based on schemes. The most important of these were the Community Employment (CE) scheme and the Job Initiative (JI) scheme. CE was a two to three-year programme for a half-week’s work, with retention of many social welfare entitlements, and was attractive particularly to women. It had an emphasis on job progression and further training. JI was full-time and geared to slightly older people, but there were fewer places than in CE. All had to work for non-profit organisations and were thus utilised to staff community projects throughout the country.
     Apart from these projects, many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and groups such as Citizens’ Advice Bureaus availed of them.
     The primary argument of community activists was that the work of community development was to make up for state deficiencies and therefore should be funded and resourced. It was not a “poverty industry” or “charity industry.”

Then there’s politics

But there was another side to this community awareness that worried the political elite. Community activism could endanger their clientelist support at the local level. The warning shot came in the election of Tony Gregory in north inner-city Dublin as a community councillor in 1979 and as a TD in 1982. Gregory was a socialist republican and was active in every struggle in the area. The team who worked for the seat were, and remain, mainly community activists.
     Worse still, the area then in 1980 elected Dublin’s first Sinn Féin councillor, Christy Burke (God, were these plebs never grateful?)—this in the constituency that was to give Bertie Aherne one of the largest vote-catching machines in the country.
     After Charlie (“we have to tighten our belts”) Haughey departed, and with a modest growth in the economy (relative and temporary), successive Governments, with great fanfares, announced plans to end “social exclusion” with the National Poverty Strategy, the National Development Plan, and RAPID. Not all of them sank as dramatically as the latter, but illusions were spread among some who thought that the promises of social partnership were holy writ.

The scourge of drugs

The community faced, and still faces, two great threats. The first is the continuing ravages of drugs. The problem is now intergenerational, as whole families are shattered, and the drug environment has instilled fear in people’s lives.
     When the epidemic first struck, in the 1970s, the immediate reaction in neighbourhoods was to take action against the visible enemy: the drug-pushers. “No-go” drug-free areas were created, with people patrolling the streets to keep pushers and users out. Popular marches and mass meetings were held, leading to concerned parents building local organisations and then extending them throughout the city. The establishment and the bought media screamed “vigilantes!” and warned of IRA involvement.
     But remedies were difficult to find. Marching on homes was often divisive, the Gardaí were indifferent or even hostile, and the state didn’t want to know. The realisation that drugs were here to stay led to the majority of activists, after intense discussions, deciding to politicise the issue by demanding state intervention, with a joint strategy of education, prevention, and rehabilitation.
     Under public pressure, the state began to slowly deliver measures such as methadone clinics. Some of these were Health Board and some joint ventures with the community. A National Drugs Strategy was evolved with a task team and a minister of state with access to the Government. Believing it was a society problem, drug activists promoted inter-agency co-operation, which eventually saw local Drugs Task Forces being set up in the areas worst affected.
     At first the health authorities saw it only as a medical problem, relying on methadone (itself addictive) and a few detox facilities (their number remaining few to this day).
     Community organisations, knowing the social origin and the consequences of drugs, pioneered rehabilitation programmes to help drug-users to readjust and rebuild their lives. They were dealing with the most fragile, shattered, and poor, unlike the middle class and the celebrities with their recreational drugs.
     The criminal drug-dealers and barons are not selective in what they offer and to whom: it depends on the market. Many health professionals came to understand what are called the social determinants of health inequality and were, and are, strongly supportive of the community contribution.
     Drug use is a permanent feature of Irish and western society and will remain so as long as the industry—like pornography, the arms trade, and human trafficking—is profitable, i.e. a part of the mechanism of the capitalist economy. The heroin on Irish streets, like 90 per cent of the world’s supply, comes from a country occupied by the United States and NATO: Afghanistan. The money is laundered in respectable banks in respectable countries, while anti-drug activists seem to be battling against the tide.
     (The second part of this article will deal with the offensive against this sector, not alone with cut-backs but in dismantling the infrastructure built up, as described above, over a generation.)

Shock therapy

The second-greatest threat to community development is in the savage cut-backs and withdrawal of funding. These are not only part of the austerity offensive, like the threats against wages, pensions, and entitlements, but part of a deliberate strategy to dismember community infrastructures built up over generations.
     While the agents of the state were often passive in supporting community efforts, they were unhappy about the same organisations commenting on or criticising policy matters. In many instances community activism had gone even further and demanded, and sometimes got, equal representation and power-sharing around the table. The public servants and statutory representatives resented this as being a step too far but gritted their teeth to appease their political masters. For the latter it was often good optics of popular liberalism in the voting market.
     The time to strike back came when the economic crisis loomed and the power elite had many believing that there was no alternative: we had to “share the pain.”
     The strategy of such attacks is well documented in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: use any crisis, whether human-made or natural, to undo social gains achieved by mass social action over decades.
     The extremes of any counter-offensive succeed only when people are confused, disillusioned, or defeated. It is a model of the “neo-conservative” ideology of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, put into practice by them after Pinochet’s fascist coup in Chile, the destruction of socialism in the Soviet Union, and, nearer to their home, in New Orleans.
     The power elite in Ireland need not be totally conversant with the doctrines of the Chicago School, but their gut class reactions led them down the road to the same slash-and-burn model.
     The road our ruling elite took in gutting the community sector was gradual and is well documented to disprove any accusation of a conspiracy theory. Opening gambits were the withdrawal of funding from the national Community Workers’ Co-op for its independent research and evaluations and from Pavee Point for its poster campaign for equal citizenship for Travellers. Then Pavee Point was publicly threatened for its perceived support for a homeless sit-in by Roma at a motorway in Dublin.
     Support for these organisations was vocal but ineffective. These decisions should have been seen as warning shots. As the financial crisis deepened, the antics were stepped up.
     The community drug representatives on the National Drugs Strategy Team were finding that their contribution, based on their knowledgeable inputs to policy and recommendations, were being ignored. They resigned publicly and were vindicated when that semi-independent multi-agency was embedded in the department. Power was restored, and the civil servants and the state authorities could now rule uninterrupted.

The power elite strike back

Another element in community infrastructure was the Community Development Programmes (CDPs), funded under a separate scheme. They are diverse in their objectives but are catalysts for development and support in their localities. Roughly 140 in number, they are scattered in the most marginalised areas around the country.
     They received a letter from their funder, the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, not only warning them not to be associated with political organisations but also bluntly telling them they were funded “to implement Government Policy.” While many CDPs would have the common sense not to be involved in partisan politics, the wording was ominous.
     A year later more than thirty of them were told that funds were being withdrawn. After a dubious appeal, the crunch came for many of them. A disproportionate number of closures were in Dublin’s inner city. Two of these were managed by Seánie Lambe and Mick Rafferty, two nationally known community leaders for more than thirty years. Both had been active supporters of Tony Gregory from the beginning.
     Is the writer over-reacting? Are the statutory organisations and politicians not bound by standards of fairness and impartiality? Were they not just interested in value for public money? My arse! as Brendan Behan would say.
     Neutral and impartial? In the 2009 budget an overhaul of some semi-independent organs of Government was announced. Combat Poverty and the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism were wound up and their functions submerged in their departments. The budgets of the Equality Authority and the Irish Commission on Human Rights were axed, making them almost unworkable.
     All had stretched their independence by being critical of various aspects of the Government’s failure to deliver on its own policies and recommendations.
     Equality, rights and opposition to racism were no longer part of the elite’s “liberal” agenda. The slash and burn was spelt out in the neo-liberal dogma that is the McCarthy Report, and to follow will be the selling off of the national assets of the ESB, An Bord Gáis, etc.—the application of the shock doctrine.
     But the plebs don’t always lie down. Some two years ago SIPTU and IMPACT started a massive drive to increase union density in the community sector. With bottom-up support from projects, more than thirty thousand people were enrolled, including CE and JI workers. Last June they organised more than fifteen thousand people in a national demonstration to the Department of Finance against the community cuts. Then, predictably, the projects received letters from their funders telling them to deduct from CE and JI workers the time taken off for attending the demo. The ungrateful were not alone joining trade unions but were shouting outside the windows; and the petty bureaucrats were having their revenge.
     While the nation’s wealth was being used to bail out the toxic banks and their wealthy shareholders, people in condemned flats complexes in Dublin and Limerick who had been promised reconstruction and regeneration were again to be kicked in the teeth. The regeneration was to be achieved by a collaboration of the local authority and private builders, known as “public-private partnerships.”
     The history of the organisation, energy and dedication of a local community in engaging with planning, design and the implementation process has been well documented in John Bissett’s book Regeneration, describing St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore, Dublin. After a twelve-year struggle, from discussion and negotiation to pickets, the PPP is now dead. The builder, McNamara, walked, and the present proposals—if achieved—are a shadow of their former self.
     John Bissett states: “The experience of regeneration in St. Michael’s Estate would suggest that the actions of the state have done more to maintain and consolidate inequalities of power than they did to change them.”
     Yet in spite of all they had been through, at the community demonstration “Spectacle of Hope” in December the St Michael’s contingent was one of the largest and most colourful.
     However, the planned strategy of slash and burn is now sanctified by the McCarthy Report and continues along its socio-political course. Who was to be targeted, and where would the blow fall?
     Among the thirty-eight or so partnership companies spread across the country the one most tuned to local community needs was the Dublin Inner City Partnership. It mainly sought to carry out its remit regarding employment, enterprise and education by devolving its operational delivery on local projects. DICP has now been closed down by Pobal, in spite of objections by SIPTU and community protests. Is it a coincidence that the manager of DICP is the chairperson of the Community Branch of SIPTU, and led the march of fifteen thousand people to the Department of Finance? As Brendan Behan would say . . .

Searching for solutions

Is this offensive stoppable? At a practical level, are there other ways of displacing the dependence on state funding? Is the community sector too parochial and too local to effect political change? Are there forces on the left that can encompass its interests without threatening its autonomy and not just adding it on to point X on its long list of alternative demands?
     There is a growing number of independent councillors, not just with single-issue concerns, some indeed class-based; should they be encouraged? If so, how does the left relate to them: as competitors or as allies? How does the trade union movement relate to the community sector? Surely not just with the paternalism of the ICTU but rather by expanding the networks that SIPTU, Impact and Unite have begun to establish.
     So many questions, not enough debate, never mind answers! But what must frame the debate, both on immediate practicalities and on strategic goals, is understanding that this offensive is driven by a state and a political elite that have endorsed the ideology of Milton Friedman, the Chicago School, Maggie Thatcher, and Colm McCarthy.
     To take take one question: is there an alternative to state funding? Alternative independent sources, like Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies, are rare and are very specific about what they fund. The argument persists that because community projects do the state’s work in matching its own deficiencies they should be funded and resourced by the state. It does this more effectively and more efficiently and with better value for money.
     But the problem at present is to whom and how the money is delivered; and it is obvious that the mechanisms and the channels have to be changed. An alternative method used in other countries is to devolve the resources and power on some form of local authorities, where a budget can be more democratically allocated and overseen by councillors and a panel of, among others, community and voluntary sector representatives and trade unionists. In Ireland this method would need a radical change in local administration; it would require systematic change in power relations and culture. But it is a vision worth pursuing, as there seems to be an appetite for a “new politics” that would limit suffocating bureaucracy and expand democratic and popular accountability.
     The other questions require debate, and we will return to them in Socialist Voice (and we encourage readers’ contributions). In the meantime the struggle to resist and reverse cut-backs has to continue. Small victories are possible, are encouraging, and can be learnt from. Last year Dublin City Council in its wisdom tried to close three public swimming pools in the densely working-class areas of Crumlin, Seán MacDermott Street, and Coolock, arguing that they were losing money. (Were libraries to be next?) The decision was immediately opposed by local campaigners and supported by left-wing councillors. All-party support defeated the proposals over the usual managerial obstructions.
     In building the people’s resistance, alliances have to be made with such diverse elements as students, older citizens, people looking for answers, like many who attended the Claiming the Future conference, and the community sector. The left and the trade union movement have a vital role to play in being the motivators of this process, seeing that the three main political parties share a consensus of back-to-normal politics.
     The left, while correctly aiming to increase its influence on the political stage, must broaden its social objectives with the wider issues of democracy, equality, and rights.

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