Communitites are the heart of this country. We invented co-operatives and the meitheal — where local people help each other in a not-for-profit way.
But the truth is our communities have been radically changed by the Celtic Tiger, the crash, and austerity. During the 1990s and 2000s consumerism and individualism, along with the expansion of vast housing estates with little community infrastructure, put a serious dent in community spirit.
Many aspects of our lives — from our spare time to child minding and local community spaces — were commercialised into things that could be bought, sold, and profited from. Then the crash and austerity brought devastating emigration and unemployment.
For all the talk of the importance of community, the very projects and local services that have worked for decades supporting the most disadvantaged communities in cities and rural towns, villages, and the islands, have had their funding cut by a much greater proportion than other areas of public funding.
So, while overall current government spending was reduced in the period 2008 to 2014 by 7.1% from €53.4bn to €49.6bn, the funding for community and voluntary organisations was reduced on average by 35%; with local community development cut by 44%; drug prevention 37%; family support 31%; and youth services 20%.
The rural Leader programme was also cut, with local authorities forced to supplement funding.
What is going on is nothing short of the silent destruction of community development in Ireland.
Alongside the dramatic reduction in funding from €84.7m in 2008 to €48m in 2014, the Local Community Development Programme (LCDP) has been terminated and is now being privatised.
This programme, as acknowledged by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in 2007 “is about promoting positive social change in society in favour of those who benefit least from national and global social and economic developments… it seeks to challenge the causes of poverty and disadvantage and to offer new opportunities for those lacking choice, power and resources”.
Local not-for-profit community organisations have successfully delivered various education, self-development, community building, family support, youth diversion, and representation work on this for more than 20 years.
The Department of Environment, now responsible for the LCDP, outlines that it targets “children and families from disadvantaged areas; lone parents; members of new communities, including refugees and asylum seekers; people living in disadvantaged communities; people with disabilities; the Roma community; the unemployed, including those not on the Live Register; Travellers; and young unemployed people from disadvantaged areas”.
These local projects have been the frontline defenders of human rights for the marginalised in Ireland.
However, the funding cuts have resulted in local community projects being either closed or trying to survive by laying off community workers, reducing their pay or putting them on short time. By the end of this year, the community and voluntary sector will have suffered a 31% reduction in numbers employed (a loss of 17,000 jobs) — three times the rate of reduction in general public service numbers.
In 2010, the 114 local community development projects were transferred from the control of local communities to local authorities. Some were closed.
Then last year, the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government terminated the LCDP and put the services out to open competitive tender as part of a new funding programme.
This required existing local development companies to participate in competitive bidding, in some cases with each other, or with private or voluntary-sector providers. Five local partnerships including Ballymun, Fingal, Connemara, and Waterford lost their funding.
This process further removes community involvement and leaves open the possibility that private commercial companies will operate local community development initiatives in the future. It is very difficult to see the logic in this radical policy change. Not only does it mean a loss of decades of community experience; privatisation will mean private companies taking essential funding out of the services through profiteering.
We could see a drive downwards in services and standards. Or even, local disadvantaged communities having to pay a private company for the many local services — such as adult literacy classes, homework clubs, community childcare, employment activation and suicide prevention, summer youth work, and support for residents’ associations — currently provided by community projects.
I just don’t see the compatibility between community development and such commercial logic. The most puzzling aspect is that there has been no adequate explanation given, or evidence provided, to explain the disproportionate cuts and privatisation of local community work.
Were they targeted because the funding for these projects was on an annual basis and most community and youth workers are on various precarious contracts and, therefore, it was just easier to cut than other areas in the public service? Or was it because the work of empowering vulnerable groups is considered a political irritant for elected politicians and the civil servants in various departments and local authorities?
Was the work of community development too effective in highlighting the need for the State to listen to, and provide greater support for, communities left out during the Celtic Tiger and then suffering under austerity? Or is it the enthusiasm on the part of certain government departments for privatising public and community services?
In an unexpected twist under austerity, while community services have been cut. There has been a dichotomous reawakening of community spirit in not-for-profit activities, from gardens and allotments to clean-ups, local food markets, charity shops, transition towns, and men’s sheds.
There is also strong evidence that anti-austerity campaigns over issues from housing, forest privatisation, and local water protests have brought communities together.
The recent policy changes to community development, however, suggest the type of community envisioned by the State is not empowering, politically active, and giving voice to the vulnerable, but rather a passive and compliant vehicle for commercialising various private business interests.
Rory Hearne lectures in the department of geography, faculty of social sciences, Maynooth University