An Taisce: The New Blood

Mary Raftery reports on the internal feuds over the leadership and direction of An Taisce.


During the past year, An Taisce, Ireland's primary conservationist and environmental organisation, has suffered bitter internal divisions. At the centre of the controversy was Consuelo O'Connor, the chairwoman and driving force behind An Taisce since 1980. After a hard-fought struggle, she was replaced as chairwoman last month by Gordon Ackland, who had run against and been defeated by O'Connor on two previous occasions. There had been a gradual growth of opposition to O'Connor's leadership for the past few years. It came mainly from the four largest urban associations of An Taisce: Dublin, Cork, Galway and Waterford. They felt that the organisation had become too conservative, that not enough emphasis was being placed on planning and urban development, that too much energy was expended on fund-raising and not enough on deciding how the money should be spent. They point, for instance, to the £10,000 a year rent for the offices in Dublin 4, the highest rent zone in the city. They also feel that the several thousand pounds a year spent on the employment of a PR consultant is unnecessary, that publicity should be generated solely by the various campaigns mounted by the organisation.  The primary reason, however, behind the strength of opposition to O'Connor in the months before last June's Annual General Meeting of An Taisce, was the likelihood of her appointment as a member of the reconstituted Planning Appeals Board. Her name at one stage actually appeared on a Department of the Environment short-list for one of the £18,000 a year jobs. A large section of the An Taisce membership did not want her to represent the organisation on the board, and they tried to convince her not to stand again for the position of chairwoman.  During the spring, the Organisation Committee of An Taisce changed the rules to state that no one could hold the position of chairman or woman for longer than three years. As previous chairmen of An Taisce had served for up to five years, this alteration to the regulations was widely perceived as an attempt to prevent O'Connor from standing again for election. She and her supporters, however, argued that such a rule could not apply retrospectively.  Members of the An Taisce executive and of the large urban associations began to apply considerable pressure on her to announce that she would not be a candidate for the position of chair. At the annual general meeting of the Dublin City Association, the largest in An Taisce, held in early June, no direct opposition to her leadership was expressed; but motions were passed which left her in no doubt as to the association's attitude. The Dublin members voted to support Phillip Mullaly, a Cork building contractor and long-standing opponent of O'Connor, for the presidency of An Taisce.  Phillip Mullaly had been chairman of An Taisce for five years, and president since February 1981. In September of 1982 he tendered his resignation to the Council (a body of about 50 people elected by the AGM). He was unhappy with the direction of An Taisce, and felt that there should be more concentration on urban development, and that the organisation should take on real issues and have clear objectives rather than what he calls the use of "firebrigade tactics".  Although the position of presidency is essentially an honorific one with no real power, he wanted to have more influence on the direction of the organisation. His attempts to become involved at various levels of An Taisce, particularly in the Executive, were strongly opposed, mainly, he says, by O'Connor. He says he found his position no longer tenable, and so decided to resign. The Council, however, unanimously asked him to reconsider.  When he agreed, on the strong request of the Dublin and Galway associations, to stand again for the presidency, O'Connor sought legal opinion on his eligibility as a candidate. She was informed that under the rules of An Taisce, if the Council had accepted his resignation, he would not be able to stand again. There was, however, a dispute as to whether the Council had, in fact, accepted his resignation; he maintains that as they had only asked him to reconsider, he would still have been eligible to stand.  In the middle of this controversy, O'Connor approached Professor William Watts, the Provost of Trinity College and a member of An Taisce; she asked him to go forward for the presidency and he agreed. There was an immediate outcry from several of the associations, particularly in Dublin. At an oral hearing of an appeal taken by An Taisce against planning permission granted to Trinity College to demolish several of the buildings along Westland Row (including the birthplace of Oscar Wilde) Professor Watts made a forceful case that the TCD permission be upheld by An Bord Pleanala. It was strongly felt that because of his support for the demolition of the Westland Row buildings, he was a highly unsuitable person to assume the position of president of An Taisce. The Dublin City Association passed a motion last June asking him to withdraw, and a few days later he formally announced that he was no longer a candidate.  Aside from the Watts controversy, which received only a small amount of publicity, the divisions within An Taisce, which became more acute in the weeks preceding the AGM held on 17 July, were not public knowledge. But two days before the AGM, Frank McDonald, an Irish Times journalist and member of An Taisce, wrote an article detailing the conflict within the organisation, in which he quoted several remarks critical of O'Connor.  Following that article, officers from the Dublin and Cork associations met with O'Connor in a last minute attempt to convince her to announce that she would not stand for re-election. Even up to the day of the AGM, there was uncertainty as to what her final decision would be.  At the AGM, O'Connor announced that she would not be standing for re-election. And, to the surprise of many, Phillip Mullaly announced that he would not be standing for the presidency, and Professor Kevin B. Nowlan was elected president.  The chair is not elected by the AGM, but by the Council, which normally does not meet until September. Because of the fear that appointments might be made to the Planning Appeals Board during the summer, when O'Connor would still be chairwoman, the AGM decided that the first meeting of the new Council would be held in July, and a new chair elected. At that meeting, John O'Loughlin-Kennedy, who is identified with the more conservative elements within An Taisce, ran against Gordon Ackland, president of the Wicklow Association and a former President of the Cork Association. The latter, who sees the matter of a change of office premises as an urgent priority, won by a large majority.  One of the more concrete indications of change within An Taisce was the decision taken by the new Council to abandon the bi-monthly An Taisce Journal and replace it with a magazine that would be more hard-hitting, and would contain more news and investigative articles. The An Taisce Journal, which was edited by O'Connor, has been criticised by several of the more radical An Taisce members as being too tame and uncontroversial, and for the absence of a clear editorial policy. There was severe criticism, for instance, when it printed a full-page advertisement from the Gallagher Group, which stated that the Group was "building a better Ireland ... better."  O'Connor devoted an enormous amount of her time and energy to An Taisce over the last three years. Because the organisation does not employ any full-time research or campaign organising staff, the job of chairman or woman is an onerous one. It is also, for the same reason, a powerful one. But O'Connor found herself in 1983 leading an organisation very different to that she had taken over in 1980. With the growth of branches in suburban areas, in Tallaght, Finglas, Blanchardstown, Coolock, Raheny and Killester, the social base of the organisation has been shifting, albeit gradually, from the predominantly professional upper middle classes. A large group of young members who had joined at the time of the Wood Quay battle were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the organisation's almost determinedly non-controversial approach.