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people before profit forum
national | anti-capitalism | feature Wednesday January 25, 2006 12:08 by Cathy Swift - People before Profit Catherine.Swift at nuim dot ie 086-0679708
new alliance of left wing community activists
From the newswire: The following represents a report on a public meeting held in Dublin 13th/14th January.
The first public workshop of the People before Profit Alliance / Davitt League Alliance was held in Cassidy’s Hotel (on the evening of Friday 13th January) and the Teachers Club (Saturday 14th). Chairing the Friday night session, Dr Michael Punch of TCD announced the aim of the group — which is to provide support through collaboration for individual grassroots movements and to increase political space for the views of community activists.
The speakers on Friday night provided insights and experiences from two campaigns: Rita Fagan on regeneration in St Michael’s Estate, Inchicore; and Vincent McGrath as one of the Rossport Five (jailed for their refusal to guarantee that they would not protest against Shell plans in Mayo).
McGrath argued that while safety had been the original focus of local dissent, the information that has since been unearthed has changed the debate entirely. It is now known that, beginning with a deal made by Ray Burke against civil service advice, Ireland has given away control over its gas fields to private oil companies and has retained no state interest in this sector. There is no guarantee of secure supply into the future - an issue that has been in the news as a result of Russian threats to cut off supplies to the Ukraine. Irish gas will be sold to Irish citizens at the full market rate with Norwegian citizens, through their state company Statoil, reaping the profits. The Rossport campaign is now devoted to repudiating this give-away of Ireland’s natural resources and, following the example of recent change in the United Kingdom and Venezuela, renegotiating a deal with the oil companies to ensure a degree of State interest and some security of future supply.
In speaking of the St Michael’s Estate campaign, Rita Fagan placed it in the context of ongoing efforts in Dublin to transfer land (currently occupied by public housing) into the hands of private developers through the use of PPPs (Public Private Partnerships) and the destruction of old established communities which this entails. In particular, she drew attention to the huge amount of detailed local work which had been put into a collaborative community plan for St Michael’s Estate over two years. This ended abruptly in September 2004 with a letter from the Department of the Environment (then headed by Martin Cullen), tearing up the previous arrangements and insisting that PPP development was the only kind that the government was now prepared to endorse. Through the collection of 3000 signatures and extensive lobbying by the community over the last eighteen months, what is now under negotiation is a proposal that the new developments at St Michael’s will retain 150 local authority houses and 70 for first time buyers. However, many other PPP development of Dublin public housing estates are currently in the pipeline and without support and campaigning, it is not clear what percentage of public housing stock will be contained in these.
Eamonn McCann stressed that all campaigns represented a fight against the abuse of power and that “we’re all fighting for one another”. He illustrated this inter-relationship with the story of Bishop Berkeley, an eighteenth-century Derryman whose interest in education and free speech led to his name being used for the foundation of Berkeley College in California. The reputation of the college for liberal thinking and left wing values led in turn to it becoming the centre for beatnik culture celebrated by Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl”. Subsequently, during the Free University movement of the sixties, Berkeley College students erected a sign: “You are now entering Free Berkeley”. It was this sign which provided the inspiration for the famous placard in the Bogside: “You are now entering Free Derry”. McCann also drew attention to the lack of political support for the seventeen families whose houses are to be destroyed to make way for the new runway at Derry demanded by Ryanair, and to the fact that advisors to the British government on current plans to slash the numbers of civil servants in the North are drawn from the very companies who expect to benefit from such privatisation.
Speaking from the floor Richard Boyd Barrett drew attention to the victories which various campaigns had won over the last year: the reversal of the repatriation of their fellow-pupil Kunle by the Palmerston Community College; pay for the Gama workers; the freeing of the Rossport Five; the Save Our Seafront campaign in Dun Laoghaire; and the Irish Ferries marches. This sparked a debate about the nature of victory and to what extent one should celebrate achievements which might fall short of original aims. It was agreed that arguments were won on the basis of the quality of information provided and that attempts to restrict the flow of public information (through restriction of the Freedom of Information Act and the recent attack on the Centre for Public Inquiry) should be resisted.
Saturday morning saw further discussion of social housing issues. Andrew MacLaran of TCD provided an analysis of changes in urban governance over the last twenty years. This could be summed up as the adoption of a business ethos replacing older notions of community welfare and privatisation of public assets through fiscal incentives and joint ventures. This resulted in situations where planners, paid for by the public purse, were in effect acting to facilitate private companies. Investment was largely geared to ‘selling the city’ to such companies through chasing high-profile events, such as the Olympics and by way of “tarting up” public spaces – as in the replacement of the original trees on O’Connell Street by “controlled cubed lollipop sticks’.
Little or no public debate takes place about the sell-off of public land and amenities which can be involved: it is not clear that any valuation of the land at Fatima Mansions was undertaken before the PPP arrangements were entered into, while estimates for the value of St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore varied between 80 million and 130 million euros. (In this instance, it was initially proposed that 80 units of social housing would be built on land valued at 80 million.). This lack of transparency is further illustrated by the fact that whereas there are precise figures available for expenditure on Social Welfare, the State has no record or even estimate of the cost to the public purse of the various tax incentives for inner city development in recent years.
Also vital to discussion of these regeneration schemes is the displacement of the inner city communities involved. A feature of the proposed new PPP arrangements is that social housing will be limited to a maximum of 50% of any estate and it is not at all clear where future council tenants may expect to be housed.
These latter points were reinforced by speakers from the floor citing parallel developments in the Poppintree estate in Ballymun, in Clanbrassil Street and in Rathgar. The rebuilding of public swimming pools with private apartments (rather than social housing) above them; the replacement of such public amenities by private fitness clubs with restricted access for locals; the knock-on effect for small businesses which find it more profitable to sell their inner city shops for development and relocate to industrial suburbs on the outskirts of Dublin were all alluded to. In addition, the replacement of family homes by one and two bedroom apartments makes many inner city schools unviable in the long term. Attention was drawn to the fact that these issues are not being articulated by any of the Irish political parties in the Dáil; that there is little attempt to evaluate the efficiency or the value of PPP arrangements in the media and that, increasingly, Dublin City Council are refusing to provide information which would enable others to fill this void. Moreover, the real debate on social housing is being disguised by the government’s use of the new term: “affordable housing” which is never defined and the cost of which to the individual purchaser is only rarely specified. It was noted that while the improverished Irish State of the 1950s was able to afford public housing amounting to 50% of all new housing stock, that figure had fallen to 7% in the Celtic Ireland of 2004.
John Bissett of Rialto drew attention to the umbrella organisation Tenants First which seeks to disseminate the experiences of individual council estates undergoing regeneration. He stressed the need for all participants in community partnerships to clearly identify the grounds on which meetings were held and the extent to which such groups are empowered to make binding agreements. He drew attention to the fact that Dublin City Council and their officials are frequently merely a buffer between communities and the real decision-makers. Groups which had engaged in good faith in consultative processes have, on occasion, had their many hours of work disregarded on the basis that outside bodies, such as the Department of Finance, would not endorse the agreed arrangements. It was important that local groups evaluated their experiences and the extent to which their voice was heard in the final shake-out so that others could appreciate the value of co-operation in such endeavours.
Attention then turned to the value or otherwise of community activists getting involved in electoral politics. Des Bonass of ATGWU drew attention to the lack of public control over their politicians. The forces causing politicians to act were the concerns (in no particular order) of big business, multi-nationals, the media and the civil service. Despite the ubiquity of the statement “We have a mandate from the people”, politicians such as Michael McDowell and Mary Harney had the power to produce sweeping changes on the basis of a mere 2% in public support. In contrast, the widespread popular support for grassroots movements such as the Anti-War campaign or the anti-Nice vote were frequently ignored. A system in which politicians are largely drawn from a small caste of celebrities, sportsmen and the extended families of existing TDs means that electoral politics is limited to the pursuit of power rather than to policy debates.
Community activists should concentrate in the first instance on spreading their message in left-wing movements and must avoid compromises which ignore the aims of their associates working in street politics and on the ground.
Richard Boyd Barrett of Save Our Seafront took a more historical perspective, arguing that the mass movements of the 1960s had encountered a neo-authoritarian backlash in the 1980s and 90s. More importantly, such social movements had often faltered at the point of their maximum popularity because they lacked political answers and politicians to articulate their demands. Comparisons could be drawn with present-day movements such as the Anti-War rallies which, despite massive popular support in Britain and the United States, failed to find support in mainstream politics. Even the Liberal Democrats of Britain, who had taken an anti-invasion line on the Iraq war, are now refusing to call for British troops to return home. The need for such popular movements to find political expression is beginning to be recognised in countries such as Germany with the formation of the Links Partei, in Italy with the Rifondazione Communista, with the Left Block in Portugal and with Respect in Britain.
The lesson to be drawn is that broad movements should never be collapsed into political parties but that links can and should be drawn with political parties who are willing to support their aims.
Dave Lordan from the floor pointed out that the experience of SWP candidates standing in the local elections in 2002 had proved valuable in enhancing the credibility of a radical programme of action in his local area. Journalists and others recognised the names of the people involved while other local politicians were conscious of the possibility of losing future votes. It was agreed that if community activists were to be elected, they should follow the example of Joe Higgins in agreeing to take only the average industrial wage, that measures should be taken to ensure that representatives would report back on a regular basis and that mass public meetings should be held in local areas to facilitate the expression of new issues and concerns.
Summing up, it was agreed that the weekend had proved both enjoyable and productive and that similar meetings would be organised by the People before Profit Alliance on other topics such as Health, Waste/Incineration, Transport and Migrant Workers in the near future. The question of electoral activity would also be revisited. In the meantime, efforts would continue to establish contact with as many campaign groups as possible. The website email@example.com is due to go live shortly and will include information on the various topics covered as well as a list of TDs addresses and emails. Lobbying, attending events where prominent politicians are speaking, disseminating information through street stalls and supermarkets, petitions, rallies, press releases and letters to both politicians and the media have all proved successful tools for individual campaign groups up till now and it is hoped that all these methods can be successfully deployed into the future.