Robert Allen interviews Laurence Cox about the Grassroots Gatherings

When Ireland's commentators, journalists, spin doctors, economists, politicians, bureaucrats and business people speak of their homeland they see a reality that to them represents economic growth, wealth and prosperity. Their Ireland is a rich one, of economy and technology and modernity and growth - a thing they began to call the 'Celtic Tiger' during the boom years of the 1990s. It is epitomised by people like Michael O'Leary, chief executive of the low-fare airline Ryanair, who received ir�17 million for his shares after the company went public. Others who have benefited from the success include Smurfit chief executive Ray Curran, who was awarded $2.48 million in 1999 and public transport chief executive Michael McDonnell, whose salary was increased 80 percent from ir�100,000 to ir�181,952 in 2000 - even though the Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness agreed between the state and trade unions to control wages only allowed workers a five percent increase.
According to Ray MacSharry, a politician who is credited with creating the policies that led to the economic boom when he was finance minister in the late 1980s, and Padraic White, managing director of the Industrial Development Authority of Ireland during the 1980s when the IDA was fending off criticism of its methods, the Celtic Tiger economy has transformed Ireland and benefited all its people. "Sustained high growth," they wrote, "has produced virtual full employment with low inflation, a sharply declining debt burden and large budget surpluses, all helping to complete this virtuous circle."
Capitalism flourished throughout the late 1990s making landlords and speculators and developers and business executives and politicians rich beyond their dreams. Since the early 1990s Ireland has become a building site. A crane towers over every church and scaffolding seems to climb like ivy over every other building. Pubs do a roaring trade, especially at weekends even in places where people and money are not constant companions, cornershops are being refitted as small supermarkets and the buses and trains are always full. There is no shortage of jobs in Dublin and its hinterlands. The place is truly booming, it appears to the casual traveller. At the turn of the millennium it was possible to look at Ireland's cities, towns and villages and believe that the economic boom euphemistically called the Celtic Tiger was actually improving the quality of peoples' lives.
MacSharry and White saw Ireland's economic regeneration as a consequence of the change from a predominately agricultural rural economy to an industrial urban society. "In 1922," - when partial independence was gained from Britain - they stated in 2000, "over half the labour force was engaged in agriculture and two-thirds of the population lived in rural areas. Today, just one in ten work on the land, while two-thirds live in towns. And there are encouraging signs that the Irish Diaspora, which had left Ireland with perhaps the highest rate of emigration of any European country in the past two centuries, is finally being reversed. Labour shortages in Ireland oblige the state agency FAS to use employment roadshows in Germany and other European Union member states to try and recruit workers for unfilled vacancies in financial-services and electronics firms at home. Just over a decade ago, that would have seemed an impossible dream, just like the Celtic Tiger economy."
This gives a false impression. It tells only part of the story and crucially it leaves out the stories of people who see a different Ireland, people like Laurence Cox and those who can see Ireland from a totally different perspective. Despite its position in the first world Ireland is a third world country. All of the factors inherent in third world politics exist in Ireland. Once an agricultural economy with the potential to self-sufficiency, Ireland is now a politically partitioned island with an industrial economy completely dependent on the success of globalization, on the unimpeded flow of capital and the exploitation of its labour and its environment. It is ruled by bureaucrats and politicians in Dublin and Westminster, and controlled by the CEO's of the corporate world - the people who dictate the rules and practices of globalization.
For much of the last decade of the 20th century the process of controlling the domestic budget by suspending wage increases and public spending while encouraging consumerism contributed to the success of the 'Celtic Tiger' economy. Immigration replaced emigration with net increases to the population bringing the total number of people to almost six million. No one has been able to successfully identify the specific factors that have led to this economic success, why Ireland's economy has fared better than anyone else's in Europe and why, in third world terms, it has become a model for other underdeveloped countries. Perhaps the reason is not so complicated. Those who are given the task of explaining advanced capitalism in an economy like Ireland's are unable to do so because they actually do not understand how the free market really works. Ask a Marxist and you'll get a baffling economic treatise. But ask a low paid worker and you'll be given the answer. It won't be an economic analysis either.
It has been said by many commentators on Ireland that Irish society had no desire to be modern, that it delighted in its pleasant green land image, its people trapped in nostalgic narcissism and somnolence, clinging to antiquated beliefs and traditions - until everyone woke up the 1980s.
Ireland, significantly the west of Ireland, has been caricatured by anthropologists, sociologists, politicians, churchmen, the media and other commentators as a place out of step with the modern world in every era. Anthropologists have been among the worst culprits, portraying Ireland and its rustic communities, according to Adrian Peace, "as a dying society, a culture in demise, a social system characterised by pathogenic tendencies." Ireland has suffered particularly at the hands of foreign anthropologists, "the yank in the corner," as Michael Viney once put it in a scathing attack on their ethics. Peace said that the "ambitious generalisation from the particular case study has been a marked feature of the anthropology of Ireland in the past." These studies, in particular Hugh Brody's Inishkillane: Change and Decline in the West of Ireland, published by Penguin in 1974, described rural Ireland as one distinctive place peopled by saints, scholars and schizophrenics (the title of Nancy Scheper-Hughes' study of mental illness in rural Ireland) rather than "a richly diverse and heterogeneous economic and political landscape, a multiplicity of spaces and places in which the proliferation of cultural difference is the order of the day." It was, they said, a society rooted in 17th, 18th and 19th century value systems, a point made by Senator Joe Lee when he said that the "value system of a society" was at stake in Irish communities. "Experts, and particularly economists, have no authority whatsoever to impose their value system on anybody else."
There is also an argument that Ireland did not become a fully paid up member of the 20th century until some of its people agreed to join the European Economic Community (latterly the European Union) - a decision that delighted those who saw capriciousness, competition and selfish desire as ideal human characteristics, and much to the horror of those who abhorred apathy, cynicism and ignorance. Irish society was in transition, it appeared. Its image as an agricultural backwater was being gradually changed. Economically, politically and socially Ireland was being transformed into a postmodern state. Sociologists like the Maynooth-based Frenchman Michel Peillon observed "not so much transition as a profound mutation, and it is this that makes difficult the task of describing and giving an overall picture of Irish society." Peillon also noted, paradoxically perhaps, that the ideological attachment we show towards rural Ireland "has prevented Irish society from seeing itself as it really is."
That may have been true when Peillon expressed this opinion in the 1980s; 20 years later, as his younger Maynooth colleague Laurence Cox will tell him, Irish society has grown up and it now knows what it looks like. One of the reasons for this has been the work of Cox, who returned home in 1991 after several years involved with activists in Norway, France, Germany and Italy and decided to try to understand his country's social movements. Those with ideological attachments towards celtic Ireland might have described Cox as a "warrior-poet" because he had set out to blend academia with activism, even if his inspiration was the global social movements of the 1970s and 1980s rather than the nationalistic politics that divide Irish people.
Cox returned to an Ireland that was caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock was the state and the hard place was the people themselves who struggled to embrace the kind of radical grassroots political action that was changing continental Europe and would soon spread around the globe. Cox, like many frustrated Irish eco-social activists, could not understand why Ireland's radicals were unable to develop from the street politics of 1968 into a cohesive social movement, and more significantly why the only opposition to state policy and globalization was coming from communities. The fragmentation of the anarchist, socialist and environmental factions after Carnsore - where the state was forced to abandon its plans for nuclear power - underlined what many believed was an entrenched Irish attitude. People seeking to change society simply could not work together because of their ideological differences.
Cox gradually came to an "understanding" of this fragmentation, particularly "why the Dublin Left didn't look like the [European] scene", which was enough for him "to know that we didn't have to be all in our separate boxes - by which I don't just mean the business of trying for isolated reforms, but also the kind of Left sectarianism which isn't interested in working (or working honestly) with anyone who doesn't already agree with you."
Cox's first move was to see if it was "possible that the Green Party could be a social movement party." This led to the formation of a radical, green magazine involving a "bunch of different people (not all from the party)." They called it An Caorthann (The Rowan Tree) and announced that it would be a quarterly magazine of discussion and information for the green and alternative movement. Their editorial perspective was radical for an Irish society that was still coming to terms with environmentalism. "We aim to encourage debate around relevant issues, and to develop networking within the movement. Themes covered: waste, refugees, gender, national identity, green economics, red-green coalitions, our relationship to the natural world and green spirituality."
The Rowan Tree was the beginning of a realisation among Irish people, particularly Irish greens, that social politics could embrace anarchism and ecology and still leave room for that ideological attachment to celtic Ireland. The first issue came out at L�nasa in 1994 and for a while, particularly when another collective published Catalyst and yet another published Pobal an Dulra, the mid-1990s in Ireland appeared to suggest that the blacks, reds and greens could work together, albeit as writers rather than as activists. But that was changing.
Cox was among a number of people who could see that Ireland was not isolated from the politics of globalization and that the opposition to globalization was simply being manifest in Ireland in many different forms and ways. "It's turned out that that was really just one strand among many, which were moving in the same direction," he says now. "So it's been a bit like coming out of the wilderness over the last few years."
But in that wilderness was the germ of an idea that is now transforming Irish politics and showing that the different ideologies can work as activists for social change and for ecological stability. That idea was Ireland From Below. Cox, by the mid-to-late 1990s, was well established in Waterford at the Centre for Research on Environment and Community where he was conducting and instigating research into social movements. This led to a call on the social movements email list for discussion in the form of workshops. Maeve O'Grady of ACCESS 2000 and Waterford Women's Resource Centre, Richard Moore of Citizens for a Democratic Renaissance and Cox of CREC got together to put out a call for people to attend the first Ireland from Below Gathering in Cavan in May 1999. At the time Cox said the point of the gathering "was to bring together people from as wide a range of different social movements within Ireland as possible to explore areas of common ground and differences around three questions:

  • What are the problems or challenges we are engaging with?
  • What are the strategies or solutions we are developing for working with those?
  • What visions do we have of the kind of world we would like to live in?

"The reason for asking those questions here and now (on my part at least) was the perception that the nature and situation of social movements in Ireland is changing rapidly, that we need to reflect on that, and specifically that the political context is now such that if there is to be any alternative to 'business as usual' it will come from us - social movements - or nobody."
Cox and his friends then did something unusual in Irish politics. They excluded no one. "To make this discussion possible, it seemed important not to start with any preconceived views as to which movements were or weren't compatible with one another, but to allow that to emerge from the process itself; to enable as wide a range as possible of different ways of interacting with one another - from formal talks through workshops to rituals to doing the cooking together; and to be definite that the Ireland From Below space was a communicative space for activists to reflect on the nature and context of their own practice, not an organisational event and not an event aimed at mobilising people who weren't already active."
Only 20 people turned up but this was a very good start and Cox was delighted. "Perhaps the most important thing about the event - and for me the best indication that we were asking important questions - is that with hardly any exceptions, all of the participants were deeply impressive individuals, with long histories of activism and pretty amazing life-stories."
He has since said that he came to two specific realisations as a result of the workshops. "One was a shared recognition of the existence of structures of power and exploitation, which we confront both in our activism and in our daily lives. The other was a particular kind of grounding in and attention to everyday life, running from discussion of the politics of shopping and looking after kids through issues of health to a more overtly spiritual (and perhaps also artistic) interest in working with emotions, our relations with others and the world. I think this is important not only for meeting each other as whole human beings and for inspiration and 'emotional fuel', but also as a means of opening up the range of questions we're asking as far as possible and bringing in areas of our lives which are not normally seen as 'public' or 'political'. Many participants mentioned the phrase 'the personal is political': the way in which we do the personal has power implications, and power relations happen in 'personal' as well as 'impersonal' areas of the world."
What was more significant was Cox's realisation that "a reasonably wide measure of common ground can be found between different movements from below in Ireland around potentially radical directions.
"To say this is obviously not to create the kind of communication and cooperation which can make that a living reality, but it is to say that for me at least the weekend amply demonstrated that it is well worth putting more energy into this kind of process and into feeding it back as far as possible into our own activism and our own movements." So Ireland from Below was important because it showed "that it was possible for people from a wide range of different social movements to connect effectively with each other, but the follow-up showed the limits of communication and cooperation. It was possible to outline a vision of where to go next, but in the end there was no clear sense of where to go next."
Cox now jokes that the next move, the Grassroots Gathering, worked precisely because it wasn't his idea, the initiative coming from various anarchists. "Which is a flip answer," he says, "but wisdom does have to do with spotting when you're just getting the kind of answer you're expecting, and recognising when the world is genuinely talking back to you and there is a real conversation happening. So the idea was coming out of existing discussions between anarchists and radical ecologists around the anti-globalization movement in the rest of the world. We were starting to feel some of those ripples in Ireland.
"At the same time the whole social partnership thing at home was starting to look rocky. Now this is crucial, because it's one of the main things that separates movements from each other. It keeps them in separate boxes, lobbying different departments and trying to distance themselves from each other - and within those boxes it has a tendency to set them competing with each other if they're not careful. So the increasing unease in the community sector, and the rumblings in the trade unions, were major things.
"We still haven't really got to a convergence between those two situations of the kind you can see in a country like Italy, but what's happening globally is pushing a lot of local activists out of our inherited boxes, at the same time as those boxes are becoming less sustainable places to be for the major social movements in Ireland. And that is very important."
The first Grassroots Gathering took place in a small club in Dublin on November 24, 2001. About 80 people turned up and immediately agreed that an anti-war demonstration at Shannon airport should be set up. "The first Gathering was a real shot in the dark - we just put out the letter and organised the gathering on the basis of a social forum style discussion process in the Teachers' Club, followed by a 'what next?' session the next day in Spacecraft. But we had maybe 100 people, and people came from a real variety of movements. Since then they've kept on happening - we're holding the fifth in Dublin on the weekend of June 27-29 ( - they've been to Belfast, Cork and Limerick - and even when they were held in a 'secret location' that was only announced the day before there were still 50 people at it.
"Probably the biggest thing that came out of them was the GNAW (Grassroots Network Against War), which organised the mass direct action at Shannon and seemingly shocked lots of people with the thought that it might be OK to break a law to prevent a greater harm. In the meantime that lesson has been learned, and some of the same people who were accusing the protest of being violent are now happily organising blockades of the Dail etc.
"There are still limits, particularly around the diversity of the Gathering, and we've taken that as the theme for this next one in Dublin. We're working really hard to reach out to movements, which are only tangentially involved - particularly community activism, anti-racist and solidarity groups - as well as trying to get beyond 'the usual suspects' in terms of individual participants.
"That's not for tokenistic reasons, but because once again the way to achieve real change is to bring all those different voices and struggles together. So it's about getting beyond the natural tendency of any group of people (including us) to define 'politics' (or whatever they call it) as being the kind of thing they do, define 'activists' (or whatever) as being the kind of people they know, and so ignore and fail to communicate with other people and struggles.
"Basically our strength, as people who want to change very fundamental aspects of this society, lies in each other. And so we constantly have to move beyond our own comfort zones, at the same time as hoping that other movements and individuals are doing the same kind of thing themselves. Which is one definition of a revolutionary period, incidentally."
Therefore, it is not surprising that Cox is optimistic about the future of radical politics in Ireland and once again he believes it is tied to what happens in the rest of the world. "The huge protest on February 15, 2003 wasn't quite the first time that ordinary Irish people got involved in the anti-globalization and anti-war activity that's been happening across the globe since Seattle and 911, but it was a real shift in gear. Before that these were pretty marginal movements in Irish life, and now they may not be.
"One of the real acid tests will be seeing what happens when the World Economic Forum comes to Dublin in October, which the Irish Social Forum and ourselves are preparing for. These set-piece events are important beyond the specific issues, because they give 'us' - people who are being hurt by the way things are - a chance to see each other and get a sense 'yes, we are powerful, we don't have to accept the official definition of what is possible and what isn't'.
"One thing I think will be fundamental is connecting up the large-scale social movements, which bring together large numbers of ordinary people struggling for change (starting with their own lives) and the smaller movements, which are maybe prepared to ask bigger questions, to push the boundaries of what we see as possible, and to take what happens elsewhere seriously. And those are maybe slightly polarised ways of putting it, but the point is to break down those polarisations.
"So on the one hand you have let's say a range of different groups on the non-hierarchical or non-dogmatic left who are taking the anti-globalization and anti-war movements around the world very seriously. There are different ecological, development, feminist, anti-racist etc. activists and groups who are also very much alive to the whole thing (along with the groups which are really running for cover because it's all getting too political for them in one way or another).
"And you have young counter-cultural people, not all of them from 'nice leafy suburbs' by any means, who maybe resonate more emotionally with the idea of really shaking up power relations between people.
"Now because of 'peripherality' it's often been the case that these groups have more real resonance, links etc. outside the country than they do on the ground at home, though there are honourable exceptions who have always tried to make that link in practice.
"On the other hand you have ... working-class community development or development based on 'communities of interest' - class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality etc. - and the radical potential within trade unions and industrial struggles more generally, basically the whole complex of working-class institutions, which does include the rural poor and marginalised to the extent that they are in a position to organise themselves.
"One of the important things, which is happening here is that the capacity of the system to offer anything significant to these groups is waning dramatically. This was very visible in the recent partnership negotiations, but if you talk to people on the ground that discontent has been building and building over the last few years.
"In effect what is happening is that as Ireland's involvement in global neo-liberalism sharpens, there is less and less room for the kind of corporatist partnership which has, by and large, helped the state to 'keep the rabble in line' over the last decade or so. And so that is a very interesting situation indeed - it's risky for the Berties [Bertie Ahern, prime minister of Ireland] of this world, who depend on being able to offer a little something to everyone.
"And there is the possibility there that those larger movements, and the smaller more radical ones, will be able to come together around shared issues like opposition to neo-liberalism, seeing the way partnership sets limits which we're not allowed to question (around the big decisions, macro-economic policy etc.), and tackling racism and war. But it won't happen by magic, it will happen through a lot of difficult conversations and learning to work together.
"But I think these are learning processes. And basically we learn through cooperating with each other around practical issues, like the war, or opposition to the World Economic Forum in October, and through talking to each other in things like the Gathering or the Irish Social Forum. And along the way people change, organisations change, and the whole process is reshaped."
This means that Irish society must think of itself again as a society where the meithel [the mutual aid the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin advocated in 1902] is the defining force in politics, and the individualist and nationalist politics that have defined Ireland since partition in 1922 become history. Easy said than done, as Cox admits. "Of course there are also a lot of gobshites, but the point is that these emotional responses are not the private property of a small group of activists surrounded by an uncaring mass. And that translates into the ability of many activists - not all, but many - to remain human, not to be traumatised by the pressures of the situation, to look after themselves emotionally and to support each other. And those are very important things - and the sense that things are changing, that we don't really know where we're going but the sense of possibility is becoming bigger, and the future is seeming more open. Which is absolutely wonderful, not simply to be playing a part in a script that's already written, but to be present in making our own history and feel that that's the case."
� Robert Allen- original headers follow

Ireland from Below: Grassroots Organizing
By Robert Allen
This article and interview originally appeared in Blue vol. II #86, June 15th, 2003. Robert Allen is one of Ireland's most experienced radical journalists, and author of "Guests of the Nation: People of Ireland versus the multinationals" (London: Earthscan, c. 1990).
"A change is slow in coming
My eyes can scarely see
The rays of hope come streaming
Through the smoke of apathy"
Loreena McKennitt
Dublin, June 27-29
What this fifth Gathering is for:

  • Create a bridge for non-hierarchical & direct action activism between the mobilisations against the war mobilisations against the World Economic Forum in the autumn;
  • Encourage networking between different movements, with workshops that encourage people to mix between different movements, rather than primarily issue based themes;
  • Develop diversity within the movement by inviting participants from different movements, particularly inviting variety of activists to give 5-minute intros to each individual workshop.