“Ireland from below” — a web weaver at work


Richard Moore

From: "Laurence Cox" <•••@••.•••>
To: •••@••.•••, •••@••.•••
Date: Fri, 21 Aug 1998
Subject: Ireland from below activist / academic encounter


I've been thinking and talking to people for about six
months about a project that would bring together
theoretically-minded activists and politically-minded
academics from or interested in social movements, and I
think it's about time to give it a go. So this is a sketch for
an event that I'm planning for the first half of 1999, in the
hope of attracting feedback, participants and co-

.1. The Good Things

There are a lot of things happening in Ireland at the
moment in all kinds of different social movements. We
have eco-warriors in treehouses and striking building
workers, refugee solidarity and new religions, community
women's groups and Rainbow Gatherings.

A lot of people who have never been active before have
started to become involved in one movement or another,
and at the same time students and academics are
starting to take an interest. Talking to people who are
active in or thinking about different movements, it turns
out that very often the experience of one movement has a
lot of parallels with the experience of another movement;
and that a lot of what people interested in one area would
like to see happening connects up with what people
interested in another area might be interested in.

Meanwhile, Irish politicians are looking more and more
like clones of each other; at this stage almost everyone
in the Dail has been in government with almost everyone
else, and in any case their policies are largely driven by
EU decisions and Partnership agreements. In other
words, if there's an alternative to "business as usual" for
the next twenty years, it's an alternative from below.

.2. The Bad Things

One of the things that gets in the way is how social
movements are organised. Although very many activists
have very wide-ranging visions of what they would like to
see happen, in day-to-day practice we tend to narrow our
focus as much as possible. One of the reasons for this is
that in practice our politics are driven by the agendas set
by those same politicians, whether our main problem is
trying to make an impact on the policy process or trying
to get funding for our projects: we wind up organising in
ways that mesh with the state's way of organising.

At the same time, we find ourselves competing with each
other, not just for funds, policy input or media attention,
but also for acceptability: we need to convince politicians,
journalists and the "mainstream" that whatever our own
group is saying can be accepted on its own terms
without accepting any of the wider issues that we might
actually want to see happen. We also wind up being
owned by our own organisations much more than we
might be happy with, simply because we don't have any
spaces where we can meet and cooperate with people
from other movements.

It doesn't help that Ireland's been changing very fast over
the past ten years or so, for good and for bad. This
means that a lot of the ways we've learned how to do
things don't work so well any more. But we assume that
"other people" - the people who make the news and sell
the products - are in charge of what's happening, so
much so that we don't even try to challenge their control,
even though we know that most of them are neither very
bright nor very good at what they do.

.3. The Solution

It could be time to talk to each other a bit more; to do
whatever we can to get a better picture of the whole
situation and a better sense of what the overall result of
what we've done to date has been, and what our future
options might be.

So there might be something to be said for talking to
each other - to activists who do a lot of thinking and
researchers who want to help - with the thought in mind
that we are the alternative, that activism is something we
can get better at, and that one way of doing this is by
talking to and learning from each other.

.4.     The Concept

The idea is to hire a hostel for the weekend, so that we'll
have time to communicate with each other; we won't have
the distractions of holding an event in the city; and we'll
have to manage very basic kinds of cooperation and
communication with each other if we're cooking and
eating together, sleeping in dorms and all the rest of it.
The max cost per person will be #25 all in, hopefully less;
if people who might want to come feel they're going to
need some kind of creche setup let us know and we'll
see what we can do! Food'll be vegetarian; if possible
participants are vegan, have religious requirements or
allergies let us know.

We're inviting people from any and every social movement
in or relevant to Ireland. So feminists and Marxists,
republicans and ravers, youth workers and the alternative
press - but also refugees and immigrants who are active
in movements elsewhere, Irish people involved in
solidarity work, and people from movements abroad that
connect to Ireland, from TERN to MAI. We hope to have
around 30 people, give or take.

Everyone who comes is asked to participate in some way
that involves communicating with people from other
movements, with other backgrounds and other interests.
That could be talks or workshops, rituals or roleplay, or
even something as basic as organising the sessions to
get the best effect or coming up with an overall food plan!
The one thing that's out is people reading ... from ...
written ... papers. If you've got something written and you
want to talk about it, by all means do - we'll even copy
and distribute it for you. But don't read it out word for word!

The suggested themes are:

- Movement activism

- Movements and the state

- Visions of the future

Please remember when thinking about your participation
to do something that's aimed at *communicating* with
other people. There'd be nothing more painful and
pointless than spending a weekend with 30 people all
trying to convert each other....

.5.     The Purpose

The main purpose is simply exploration: to see what
happens when we try this kind of communication
seriously. In the nature of things, the people who come
won't be speaking "for" their movements, so it isn't an
organisation-building event. My guess is that trying to find
common ground with each other, and learning to listen to
each other, will give us quite enough to do for a weekend.
There isn't any preset goal for the event: none of us have
the whole picture. We don't even know, until we try,
which of us can manage to communicate with each
other. It'll be sufficient to call the event a success if we
come away from it with a better picture of what's
happening, one that we can relate our own work to, and
some ideas that we can feed back into our own day-to-
day activities.

.6.     The Follow-up

One part of the follow-up is easy: if the event is even half
a success, we do it again next year. And the year after
that. And the year after that. In other words, we make a
space where people who are interested in thinking about
different movements and doing them can meet and reflect.

The other part is a bit less easy: the obvious thing to do
is publish the results. In some cases this will be easy:
we can print people's workshop notes, roleplay
guidelines, speech cards, written papers or whatever
else. In other cases people might not have those. We
could print the proposals people send us in; we could ask
people to bring along something they've written for people
in their movement that might interest people outside it; or
we could as someone suggested interview the people
who don't have anything written, and print the interviews.
The main point is that it would be good to be able to
circulate what we do a bit more widely than the 30 people
who take part. We should be able to arrange for printing
and distribution (academics please note: with ISBN
number and all!)

.7.     What Else?

Well - if this is going to happen there are still three things

One, the most important, is people who want to
participate. If you're one of those people, please get in
touch and send me some kind of description of what
you'd like to do. Since we'll only have so much space in
the hostel etc., we're going to want to have as broad a
range of movements and perspectives as possible. Plus
we don't want to bore other people!

The second thing is other people who'd be interested in
helping organise this in practical ways, from looking
through proposals to doing the food shopping to putting
the publication together. (At least the money shouldn't be
a problem - we should be able to get funding for the
Centre to do this without having to make compromises.)

The third thing is feedback, from people who might be
interested but would be put off by some part of it; people
with really good ideas for how to set it up; people who've
done things like this before; or even just people with
definite ideas as to which weekend and which hostel....

That's really it for the moment. Once I start to get some
definite participants and a couple of other people who're
willing to help organise this we can do a formal
announcement with dates and all the rest of it. So if
you're interested, send me an email or a letter!

And forward this to anyone you think might be

Take care,

Laurence Cox

- - -

Centre for Research on Environment and Community
College St. campus, Waterford Institute of Technology
Waterford, Ireland
Tel. (+353-51) 302257



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