The culling of community development and the silencing of a social class

After years working for Kilbarrack community in north Dublin, Cathleen O’Neill realises there is a wider
poltical agenda at play in the elite’s attack on the community sector.

Like most women of my class at the time, I was an early school leaver. I started work at 13 using a doctored birth cert. I returned to school 22 years later, nervously trying out a Basic English class, taking a small step towards finding the woman who got lost between the vows and rows of marriage and mothering five children alone.
I saw adult education and community development as the means of developing myself and my community. These early forays led to my need to understand the theory and constructs of equality and feminism. Three decades of vibrant community development saw many positive changes; in all these endeavours we carried the values of gender equality and social justice forward.
The economy is the excuse for the current attack on the community and voluntary sector, but we activists know that for more than eight years, there have been plans to close down the sector. It was getting too strong, too bolshie, too successful at educating the grassroots and empowering people to claim their rights.
The economic collapse has merely provided the opportunity to get rid of us. Be very clear about this: there is no room in Ireland for the dissenting or critical voice. There is no room for the community project that tries
to bring about change or inform people about the implications of cuts in social welfare or to lobby for equality and social justice.
Community development as we know it ceased to exist on December 14 2009 when the government closed 29 Community Development Projects (CDPs), claiming they were non-viable after an unequal and secretive review process. Two-thirds of these groups are Dublin-based. The remaining 150 DPs are being merged with Local Partnership Companies. Partnership Companies are about providing labour intervention and
training. They are not community development-led.
There are real fears that they will follow a labour market agenda only. No more possibility of meaningful engagement for social change, of building local capacity. We, as workers and activists, will be neutered and domesticated by local partnerships. The loss of CDPs, their ethos and principles, will have long-term consequences for marginalised communities.
For the last two years, through the National Community Development Forum, I have lobbied tirelessly about the impact of these cuts on vulnerable families and women, articulating the inherent dangers of taking away the independence of CDPs – to no avail. The state has been consistent in conducting a war on the poorest and the most vulnerable in society.
We are worn out articulating the dangers that communities face if they lose their CDPs. Telling and retelling what will happen to the elderly, to women, and women’s groups, men’s groups, children with special needs, communities with special needs! The government doesn’t seem to get the powerful role that a small two or three-worker project can play in community cohesion, in leveraging funding far in excess of the small grant it receives, in making community groups viable, in empowering communities to articulate their own needs, from the bottom up.
All this during an era when a little over 20 men – politicians, property developers and bankers – were playing a giant Monopoly game with our country and our people. A wink and a nod here, a tilt of the eyebrow there, a quiet phone call late in the evening, a sharing of information from all the important boards they sat on – as they bartered our futures and our children’s futures to buy and sell the most ‘valuable’ land in the world.
Or maybe they do get it. They certainly seemed to get the role played by the Equality Authority and Combat Poverty in reaching for equality and social justice – they closed them down too.
Do they realise the role played by CDPs in helping people to name their own worlds and identify their own
needs? Maybe they do! Hence the savage attack on the sector and on CDPs, and working-class communities. What justification can there be, for example, in purporting to ‘save’ an average of less than €95,000 per year by removing a project and support that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people depend upon? The fact that this will generate the need for significant increased service spending – addressing the effects of individual and community breakdown – demonstrates a reckless disregard for accountability in public expenditure. What if this is not incompetence? How is it possible that even our own particularly challenged and overpaid political leaders cannot grasp the damage and cost associated with their decision?
We think they do know. And that is why they decided more than eight years ago to close us down. The reality is that sustainable communities, based on equality of opportunity, are not on the Irish political
agenda. It is not so long, after all, since a certain Minister for ‘Equality’, ‘Justice’, and Law Reform reminded us all that equality is bad for the economy. Don’t confuse this madness with incompetence. Tell them that you know! Tell them you know that they are attacking the most vulnerable and it has to stop! Tell them that our communities, and community development, equality, and social justice are rights: Our rights that cannot be bartered nor sold to the highest bidder.

What are CDPs?
Community Development Projects (CDPs) provide services such as childcare, healthcare, drug counselling, youth clubs, managed and largely manned by people from local communities. CDPs creation began in the mid 1980s with the European Poverty 2 Programme. When the EU Programme ended in 1990, a state Community Development Programme began. Since then, the number of CDPs expanded to over 180, employing around
400 full-time workers.
In late 2009, the government announced ‘reforms’ that have resulted in CDPs’ management boards being disbanded and the organisations coming under the control of 38 partnership boards.
Partnerships’ governing boards consist of some locals, business people, appointed trade unionists and councillors. Many believe the real aim of the ‘reforms’ is the staged closing of the CDPs. In recent months, ten CDPs in the Dublin area and one in Tipperary have seen their funding ended.