Movements of Community Development in Ireland

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Jackson & O Doherty (2012) state ‘community development is the process in which people join together to improve conditions and create change at the community level.’ Traditionally, Ireland has a long history of community development, beginning with the co-operative movement over a century ago. The ‘meitheal’ was also an important facet of Irish culture, where neighbours and communities supported one another in harvest time. In the past, the primary focus of community development did not involve tackling poverty, but strengthened communities and developed local enterprises and services. However, Ireland has changed rapidly and so too the concept of community development. In this paper, the evolving of community development in Ireland will be explored, while also looking at its principles and limitations in improving the lives of marginalised communities in Ireland. Three influential historical movements that were precursors to the emergence of community development in Ireland.

The Co-operative Movement (1880’s)

The Co-Operative movement in Ireland was founded by Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett in the late 1880s. The International Co-operative Alliance defines co-operatives as ‘autonomous association(s) of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise’.

Farming was at the heart of Ireland’s rural communities and highly important in economic terms where the pooling of resources were effective means of survival. A comprehensive system aiming to rejuvenate rural life was introduced through shared ownership and democratically-controlled enterprises. Key to this was the introduction of a scientific method to Irish agriculture, education and the use of commercial principles. In so doing, effective change was achieved in rural Ireland and pride, confidence and a sense of self-reliance returned to Irish country life and encapsulated the slogan Plunkett preached ‘Better farming, better business, better living’.

Muintir Na Tire

Muintir na Tire was set up in 1937 by Canon John Hayes and is associated with the emergence of community development in Ireland. Rural development through self-help and local action was a primary focus of the group. The idea which has expanded into a comprehensive movement was designed to raise the standard of living of people in all aspects of Irish rural life. The focus was on local improvement – social, economic, cultural and recreational – based on the participation of people themselves in the promotion of the welfare of their community.

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In the early 1960′s, the organisation adopted the United Nations definition of the Community Development process, which states that it is ‘a process designed to create conditions of economic and social progress for the whole community with the fullest possible reliance upon the communities own initiative’. Initially, parish guilds were set up and later, during the 1970’s, organised democratically into community councils. Rural electrification, group water schemes and the building of parish/community centres are among some of the many achievements of Muintir na Tíre. Self-help and self-reliance are among the core principles of Muintir na Tire. Hence community development has been promoted and supported by Muintir na Tire for decades.

Women’s Movement

Important influences on community development in Ireland were the Irish Women's Liberation Movement (IWLM) founded in 1970, and Irish Women United (IWU) founded in 1974. There were a number of key concerns for women, in particular, being defined as ‘dependent’ in relation to social welfare, equal pay and access to contraception.

During the 70’s structures in the state, church and industry influenced the lives of women in a predominantly negative manner. Many women were treated as cheap labour, barred from a range of jobs and, in the public sector, forced to resign if they married. Hence women became entirely dependent on their husbands, as divorce was forbidden. Single mothers, widows and deserted wives often faced extreme poverty. Through discussions and media coverage, women created awareness of the problems they encountered in their day-to-day lives and related these to the political and social structures in society as a whole. The women’s movement succeeded in raising consciousness and empowered women to begin to tackle the inequalities and discrimination they faced in society. Main principles and values of community development and how these may be applied in practice Community development involves an accepted set of values and principles. Six key principles of community development are collective action, empowerment, social justice, participation, equality and anti-discrimination. In this paper, participation and empowerment will be explored in more detail.


Community development is deeply concerned with giving a voice to the marginalised and sidelined in society. It provides a platform for the disadvantaged to become involved in the development of appropriate policies to bring about change. Furthermore, all citizens are included and recognised as respected members of the group and given the opportunity to participate in areas where they have specific concerns, knowledge and ideas. In practice, the participation of a diverse range of people in political decision making is sadly lacking. Within many communities only a minority are likely to be involved in community groups, hence an unrepresentative few may take over. For example, the lack of representation of minority groups in Dáil Eireann is apparent. However, the most recent introduction of a gender quota for political candidates has been instrumental in increasing the percentage of female representation in politics.


Empowerment as a principle enables individuals to take a proactive part in social change to improve the quality of their lives or communities in which they live. All citizens are encouraged to become involved and influence decision making in areas that affect them. Community development encourages a social analysis of the structures and causes of inequalities and how it can be changed. O’Doherty (2012) agrees stating ‘the focus is on challenging and questioning how resources, power and social rules are manufactured and distributed within communities.’ An awareness of the link between individual problems and public policy is developed through educational processes aimed at social change. To be effective in influencing policy, community groups need to build their organisational and operational capacity while also maintaining the community’s autonomy and independence. O’Hare (2010) states ‘community engagement demands certain criteria, namely resources to enable empowerment - such as political and legal rights, funding and the social capacity to create mobilisation networks, opportunities’. Hence, in reality, empowering people can be difficult. Individuals are often time poor, lack confidence, resources and expertise to become involved and bring about change Comment on whether or not you think community development is a useful tool for tackling poverty, backing up your position with reference to the literature.

The Central Statistics Office Survey on income and living Conditions indicates that more than 790,000 people are living in poverty in Ireland. O’Doherty (2012) states ‘imbalanced or inadequate policy making disadvantages individuals, groups and communities and relegates them to the margins of society’. Hence those affected are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. Despite the many achievements of community development in tackling poverty, there is disenchantment with the process for a number of reasons. A contributing factor to this is community development is funded through the public purse. Lee (2006) states ‘there is an inherent conflict in a situation where the state provides resources to organisations whose stated aim is to change the state’. The critique of current policies and acceptable levels of dissent are important aspects of community development. However, removal of resources from those who question is a major concern and hence local community development groups tend to carry out and attend to the priorities of the state. There has been a growing individualism in Irish society, particularly in the Celtic Tiger era and its legacy remains today. In the past, Irish communities have had a strong community focus and worked together. However, the growth of capitalism and neoliberalism in Ireland has affected community development in a negative manner. Many feel isolated in communities and material wealth is a growing indicator of success. Often those marginalised have been ‘blamed’ by society for their situation. For example, in recent times, Eileen Gleeson, head of Dublin Region Homeless Executive stated ‘Let’s be under no illusion here, when somebody becomes homeless it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes years of bad behaviour probably’. However, policies and structures play an important part in the inequalities inherent in modern society and thus, should not be overlooked.

Lee (2000) states ‘policies intended to reduce poverty or disadvantage are much more likely to be efficient and effective if they involve people with direct experience of the problems or living in communities affected by these problems, in the design and implementation of solutions’. However, issues surrounding poverty occur nationally. Poverty cannot be solved at a local level. Hence as Lee stated it is important to forge strong links between local action and national decision making. Nonetheless, mistrust between local and national levels exists and as a result, there is a negative impact on policy development. A managerial culture has emerged in community development, thus, increased paperwork, audits, red tape and bureaucracy now underpin it. This is highly labour intensive, impacting on time available to empower communities to effect change. Additionally, outcomes and impacts are evaluated by those funding the work. Qualitative data is most easy to gather and hence analysed, however, the more difficult outcomes are more difficult to measure. This, in many ways this misses the point of community development and can in actual fact be destructive. The Combat Poverty Agency has defined community development as a ‘process whereby those who are marginalised and excluded are enabled to gain in self-confidence, to join with others and to participate in actions to change their situation and to tackle the problems that face their community’. However, community development appears to have come to a standstill in terms of giving a voice and empowering the most marginalised and vulnerable citizens. Increasingly Ireland has allowed inequality to grow and consequentially, poverty has increased. The neoliberal, individualistic culture in Ireland, together with the lack of political and moral will to bring about change is fuelling poverty in Ireland today.

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