Defiance and Hope

As the snow brought Dublin to a standstill last winter and the outgoing Fianna Fáil government drew up a savage budget, one demonstration stood out. The Spectacle of Defiance and Hope lit up the city with a carnival atmosphere, youthful vibrancy and imagination. Protest organiser and community activist John Bissett gives us an inside account.


I work as a community worker in an area of Dublin which is known as the 'Canal Communities' and which includes the areas of Bluebell, Rialto and Inchicore. The three of these are old working class communities that have experienced multiple inequalities. They have fought for and developed some of the best community based infrastructure in the country. The first community project, a community youth project, was set up here in Rialto in 1981. Since that time a community based infrastructure has slowly been established across a diverse range of fields and disciplines. Community Youth Projects, Community Development Projects, Family Resource Centres, Family Projects, Community Based Drugs Services, Educational Projects, Health Projects, Community Employment Schemes. The establishment of these projects and services was an explicit recognition of the nature and extent of inequalities in these areas. I worked as a youth worker here for many years and have seen all too well how working class kids end up in working class jobs over and over again. The technical term for this in sociology is reproduction. This means that there may be some variations in how our society is organised but by and large the structures of inequality remain intact and, as we know only too well, are going to get much worse in the months and years ahead.

Community Projects have played a key role in supporting, educating, and in no small way politicising communities to such facts over the years. I am a product of this grassroots process myself. I first came in touch with Rialto Youth Project in the late 1980s and the project acted as a key resource and support to me when I wasn't sure whether I could hack it in university. Such support was critical in me going to study in Maynooth in the early 1990s and afterwards to UCD for a number of years. It has done this for countless others since then as have many other projects in this area. Projects do this sort of work all the time for people but by and large it goes unnoticed and unacknowledged. Some of this political education undoubtedly played a role in the swing in working class communities in last week's election. But perhaps the important point is that it takes many years to 'grow' an infrastructure and projects such as these which have an ergonomic relationship with local people. These embedded projects take local people where they are at, they work with them on their terms and try to respond to the needs they define themselves. Sticking with the grow analogy, what is happening now is really a 'logging' of community projects, leaving an environmental disaster for the communities in question. Given that it is much easier to cut something down than it is to build, it will take at least a generation before such an infrastructure can be replaced if at all. We need to do everything we can to stop this happening.

Over the past two years the Fianna Fáil/Green Party government began to systematically attack and dismantle this infrastructure all over the country. They tried to jusify such a programme in a variety of ways aided and abetted by many in the mainstream media. The strategy has been delivered in a number of ways: Closing projects altogether, consistently cutting the budgets of projects leading to loss of staff and services, embargoes on the employment of staff if someone leaves or die and destroying projects' independence and power by co-opting them into larger structures.

The McCarthy report, commissioned by the Fianna/Fáil Green government provided a rationale to do all of the above and made the statement 'that there is no evidence of positive outcomes' as far as community projects and services were concerned. Patently untrue and more a reflection of the utter detachment and life experiences of economists like McCarthy and the outgoing government from the lives of people who use such services. Such a statement only highlighted the priorities of the now defunct administration.

However, notwithstanding the substantial shift in the Irish political landscape in the general election the newly invigorated Fine Gael party have pledged in their manifesto document to broadly implement the McCarthy Report recommendations. As many people have pointed out, the role that the Labour party will play in the coming months may have more to do with amelioration and mollifying the Fine Gael programme than challenging it in any substantive sense. The simple problem remains however that those who had nothing to do with the crisis are being made to pay. This is unacceptable and has to stop. There has been much resistance to the austerity programme over the past two years. What we have learned is that we are going to have to be determined and we are also going to have to develop and use our creative capacities to turn things around. This is possible. The cliché is true: Another Way is Possible. But it is clear that the dominant approach that Fine Gael will adopt in the coming months will be broadly in line with what has happened. They may tinker with the broad parameters of the IMF ECB deal but they have no real interest or stomach for challenging it. The unwillingness to engage in serious debate on whether we should default or even partially default makes this very clear. The most forceful argument they will muster in their defence will be that the crisis was not of their making and that therefore they are only cleaning up the mess that has been left behind. Just as the Fianna Fáil/Green Party position was unacceptable, neither is this one.

Communities and community organisations have proved themselves resilient in recent times and have begun to rediscover skills that they had thought lost. The community sector has been gradually forging its own identity and trying to find a language with which to communicate with the general public the nature of the work in the sector. The trade union movement has, belatedly, begun to engage with community based organisations and resource them to develop effective campaigns. Communities have also begun to organise themselves in newly configured arrangements with the intention of responding to the onslaught. Before Christmas and right in the middle of the cold snap there was an event in Dublin which got a little bit lost in the waves of snow that were falling. It was entitled a Spectacle of Defiance and Hope and was an attempt to use creativity and the arts to make powerful and effective public statements about the corruptness of the austerity programme and the cuts. The Spectacle involved a broad range of community and youth organisations from all over Dublin and beyond. One of its strengths was the engaging of a multitude of different organisations representing everyone form young people to immigrants to those with disabilities to recovering drug users. This work is continuing as we speak with more and more community organisations are linking in through various entities and campaigns to articulate clear resistance and alternatives. We need to build on this and to light many more fires in the coming months. We need to say loud and clear; We won't pay.

[Image top via WSM on Facebook]