Community groups and interests can work outside formal structures or within them. In many cases, they are obliged to do the latter. In practice, many do both.

“We are serious as a Department of Communities,” Minister Simon Coveney assured people gathered in Royal Hospital Kilmainham. It was November, and the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government was holding a forum meeting with community representatives.

The aim of the day was to help develop an implementation plan for the government’s ‘Framework Policy for Local and Community Development’.

Community reps were gathered to hear about turning policy into a practice that will work on the ground and that will deliver community-driven, bottom-up social inclusion.

Opening the proceedings, Minister Simon Coveney noted that, in the most recent budget, “we saw an increase in funding” for community programmes.

While this was a positive, he also noted that “the approach towards community development has changed”.

“In rural Ireland, it was very much led by LEADER funding, financing ground-up led projects and we’ve been through a painful enough policy change, but I think we can make it work in ways that are more effective than before, even though there are many good and strong things about previous decision-making and funding structures which we don’t want to lose.

“The opportunities are there now for real engagement and genuine partnership between community leaders, community groups, sectoral interests, and local and national government.

“And getting those structures right is key,” he said.

He listed the five priorities in the government’s framework policy for the sector – published last year – saying, “They’re all fine and aspirational, but what I’m interested in is their pragmatic implementation. How do we ensure that the community has had involvement and a say in the process when I make decisions on the basis of recommendations that come up to me from talented and serious civil servants in the Department? Ensuring that involvement is the only way we’ll start to light a fire again under communities and empowering them…as opposed to top-down instruction.

“One of the reasons that I took the ministry I was offered was because I wanted to close a gap that had opened up in the past decade between communities and [the State]. One of the reasons we’re insisting, for instance, on mixed-tender housing development rather than segregated builds is because we are serious about community and community relations and diversity and we are trying to learn lessons from the past.

“We’re not going to be able to do everything, but I hope ye see me as somebody who if you have good ideas you want to share and incorporate into policy that we can do that,” he said.

While “sometimes, we disagree,” it was essential to have a forum to ensure there was an open line of communications and to enable us to work together.

“Communities have to be involved in decision-making”, said the Minister, adding that people should get in touch with him directly if they feel they are being ignored by the process.

Among those to also address the forum were Anna Marie Delaney, CEO of Offaly County Council, who outlined the extent of the policy changes in recent years.

Rachel Doyle of Community Work Ireland (CWI), in her contribution, reminded the audience of the critical role of community work in addressing poverty, social exclusion and inequality, and in building participation of communities in decisions that affect their lives. She stressed that this work cannot take place in the absence of strong, autonomous community development at local, national and international levels.

Policy into practice: What happens next?

The implementation plan is expected to be completed by the middle of this year.

The policy seeks to promote “a joined-up, collaborative and participative approach to local and community development at local level”.

Community and voluntary sector groups largely welcomed the framework policy statement when it was approved by government in late 2015, but also expressed criticism. Minister Coveney acknowledged there were some difficulties with the framework and the forum event gave community representatives a chance to strengthen it from the bottom up.

The event included five workshops themed around the policy:

  1. Engaging with Communities
  2. Working with Partners
  3. Planning for Local and Community Development
  4. Achieving with Partners
  5. Securing best outcomes for Communities

Since the forum, the Department has been busy preparing a detailed report to be published early in the new year.

A cross-sectoral group is also being established, guided by advice received through the forum, to assist and advise in the development of the implementation plan.

Meanwhile, CWI planned to meet with the Department to review the event and hoped to also meet with Minister Coveney.

Away from the main stage

The forum event was hailed by many as significant, as it had been quite some years since the Department had called a meeting of community representatives to discuss future possibilities.

The last occasion for such a gathering heralded in amalgamations, closures, cuts and cohesion, leading to the ‘alignment’ of community development with local government work.

In Kilmainham, the interaction between people was high, the venue was spectacular, the food excellent, the atmosphere good, and the promises of change made impressed a mature audience normally given to healthy scepticism.

One of the community rapporteurs remarked on stage that people present had put a lot of trust in the Department and that they now expect action in the coming months. That echoed what Minister Coveney said would happen, what civil servants said would happen and what is expected.

Meanwhile, there was an update from Junior Minister Catherine Byrne, who spoke about a new SICAP being introduced in 2018. Byrne also promised investment in training and capacity building for local community development committees to support the delivery of the programme on the ground.

Her audience included people who, while unhappy about elements of their work, obviously hold out hope for true bottom-up community development.

As was emphasised at the forum, community involvement isn’t an add-on – it’s central to the whole thing. Community development must be bottom-up and, ideally, the country should be led by bottom-up influenced policies.

Furthermore, the relationship between the State and the community and voluntary sector may indeed be improving.

“Two key words came through today, trust and respect. We acknowledge it was a great day. But, there’s a trust that we’ve been listened to today and a respect that something will happen out of today,” said a community worker addressing the forum.

Only time will tell – depending on the quality of the implementation plan for the National Framework – if communities are truly turning a new corner.

Main photo: William Murphy/ (CC BY-SA 2.0)