Urban activism in Dublin: from the politicization of urban development to the right to the city?

The idea behind this piece is to give a brief overview of urban politics in Dublin, in part because this is an important history and in part because it is useful in terms of situating urban conflicts and social movements today. Although it is impossible to single out a ‘beginning’ of Dublin’s urban politics, there has been a clear trajectory since the late-1960s involving the emergence of local, working class communities as significant urban actors and the politicization of the processes of urban development and urban planning. I take the conflicts and the movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s as a starting point and from there provide a potted history. However, this is not a historical piece. Rather, I want to provide what is sometimes called a genealogy of the political practices and discourses which have been produced by urban social movements.

There are already a number of very useful pieces of research on these issues, especially the research of UCD’s Michael Punch, and this is what I have largely drawn on in writing what follows.

Urban development in post-war Dublin

The 1960s was famously a time of economic change and growth. Following the introduction of Sean Lemass’ Programme for Economic Expansion, Ireland experienced a significant growth of foreign direct investment and GNP grew by almost 50% over the decade. Employment grew in Dublin, with a 13% increase in industrial employment and a 15% increase in service sector employment – developments which also provoked an 18% increase in the capital’s population. These developments came on top of existing problems with overcrowding and substandard housing, particularly in the working class inner-city. The 1960s saw the shortage of housing exasperated as well as a number of high-profile events which underlined the chronic housing conditions, including the collapse of a number of buildings.

The growth of the service sector was in turn linked to an increase in office construction in many parts of central Dublin. Of particular importance was the north inner-city, where housing conditions were at their worst. As developers eyed up land and buildings decayed a response from local and national government began to emerge which essentially involved the displacement of working class communities out of the city centre (e.g. the removal of 700 families from the Gardener St. area in the late 1960s) and the prioritization of office construction. The scenario is summed up by a community activist quoted in Michael Punch’s excellent Contested Urban Environments:

“…around the 1970s, there was a lot of speculators who would have moved in and seen this was prime land and they had great visions for it. But in the meantime all the flat complexes around Sheriff Street and around the inner city, the likes of Seán MacDermott Street, Corporation Street and Foley Street, were being allowed to run down… The plan that the Corporation had for them then was to shift these people, the community, out of the area. Put them out in the suburbs where there was no infrastructure in place”

Dublin Housing Action

DHAC image

On the ground, however, local residents were developing a different vision of housing and urban development and laying the foundations of one of the most significant of Dublin’s urban conflicts. In the mid- and late-1960s Sinn Féin and the Republican movement had becoming increasingly left-wing and shifted its focus towards agitation around social issues, as described in Hanley and Millar’s The Lost Revolution. This new strategy famously gave rise to the Derry Housing Action Committee, which would become a key organisation in the Civil Rights Movement in the North of Ireland. At the same time (1967), the Dublin Housing Action Committee was formed, taking up residence in Gardener Sts in Dublin 1. The aim of the group was to advance the right to housing and specifically to house homeless families. The DHAC interestingly worked with a very wide interpretation of ‘homeless’, understood to include anyone denied adequate housing. The following appeared in their newsletter around 1969:

“The Dublin Housing Action Committee regards as homeless those individuals and families falling into one or more of the following categories:

a)      Split families – father and mother and children unable to live together

b)      The severely overcrowded

c)       Married couples living in property where children are not allowed

d)      Families obliged to live with parents-in-law

e)      Families obliged to pay rent excessive in relation to their income

f)       Fatherless families – mother and children with no male support, e.g. widows and deserted wives

g)      The statutory homeless, who have been taken into local authority reception centres

h)      Most caravan-dwelling families

i)        Squatting families who have been forced to squat on either private or Corporation property.”

While the origins of the organisation were in the Republican movement, community and political activists of many stripes took part. It is also important to recognise, as argued by Alesandro Zagato, that this was a period of experimentation, in which many activists, growing weary of the standard forms of political practice associated with the left, began to work outside inherited organisational and political practices.

The key focus of The DHAC was squatting empty housing. Concerned that squatting empty council housing would be perceived as a way of ‘jumping the queue’, in relation to the housing waiting list, they emphasized private residential units. Many of these were successfully occupied by families with the active support of DHAC. In conjunction they developed a discourse and propaganda about the right to squat, which they advanced as a necessary form of direct action to deliver the right to housing in the context of a local and national government beholden to property developers. These arguments were put forward in their newsletter, the Squatter, which also identified suitable targets for squatting.  In 1968 Dennis Dennehy and his family squatted a building at 20 Mountjoy Square and began a local petition to convert vacant properties on the square into social housing. Following his refusal to comply with a court order to vacate the premises, Dennehy was imprisoned in Mountjoy were he went on hunger strike. Nightly protests, some of which were quite conflictual, were organised to support Dennehy and the DHAC. Around this time many other forms of direct action were engaged in, including the occupation of the four courts and sit-ins blocking O’Connell Bridge.

Dennehy eventually ended up in the High Court, were he argued (unsuccessfully) that the Constitution’s protection of the family was in conflict with the eviction of squatters. As noted by Thomas Murray, this was an important plank of the DHAC’s argument.

Murray also notes the significant response from both local and national government. At a local level, ‘crowbar crews’ were organised to illegally evict and intimate squatters. At a national level, the Prohibition of Forcible Entry and Occupation Bill (1970) was introduced to change squatting from a Civil to a Criminal Offence and render its public endorsement illegal.

The DHAC represents an extremely significant movement in the context of Dublin’s urban politics. First of all, it played a key role in politicizing the process of urban development. Specifically, it identified, drew out and challenged the political economy of urban development or the relationship between capital accumulation and urban development. DHAC made clear how the ‘creative destruction’ of the city associated with the real estate business leads to the destruction of urban places, and urban places, with their dense network of place-based social relations or cooperation and solidarity, are central to the social reproduction of the urban working class.  Second of all, DHAC raised the question of the democratization of urban development – signalling a place-based right to participate in decision making. They thus challenged the notion that urban development was a matter for expert planners and local government officials. There is little doubt that the struggles of this period played a significant part in ensuring that today, in spite of everything, Dublin remains a city with a relatively large working class population located in the inner-city.

The displacement of Dublin’s working class

Nevertheless, the displacement or ‘suburbanization’ of inner-city communities and the working class in general proceeded apace throughout the 1970s via the development of suburbs such as Clondalkin, Blanchardstown and Tallaght. Here, on the flip side of the processes taking place in the inner city, a rather different set of political conflicts and movements would emerge.

The context for this was the Dublin County Development Plan of 1972, largely based on British planning consultant Myles Wright’s (1967) Dublin Region: Advisory Regional Plan and Final Report. The Development Plan paved the way for the new suburbs of Tallaght, Clondalkin and Blanchardstown.

The developments were characterised by low-density housing which were to include social housing and private sector housing. The plan however, relied heavily on the private sector. The zoning of land for the development led to a rapid escalation of the value of land and a scramble by speculators to take advantage, which they duly did, thus undermining the development process. The under-resourced development was also characterised by a series of planning failures. Punch and Maclaran’s research on Tallaght highlights transport as a key issue. Wright himself had argued that “The optimum location in the motor age is one that combines local spaciousness (at home and work) with…access to a wide choice of jobs and employers, customers, suppliers and facilities of all kinds”. The design of Tallaght and the woefully inadequate public transport was based in part on the presumption that Ireland would follow the UK with regard to increased car usage. In fact, even by 1991 as much of 40% of Tallaght’s families lacked access to a car. At the time, of course, Tallaght was seen by Dubliners as being very much ‘in the sticks’ – and the transport failure led to a sense of isolation not just from services and employment but from the city itself.

Transport services were not they only variety that failed to appear. Even in 1991, Killinarden, a housing estate comprised predominantly of social housing and with a population of 8,000, lacked a supermarket, phone kiosk, clothes shop, dentist, police station, bank, building society and credit union.

Many of these issues stemmed in one way or another from familiar problems with urban planning. To quote Maclaran and Punch, “The method of physical planning was fairly traditional, involving a blueprint approach orchestrated by a body of ‘experts’ with little direct considerations for the needs or values of the likely end-users…” Most importantly, the development of Tallaght reflects the failure of urban planners and local government to recognise the fact that working class urban communities do not survive on the basis of paid employment alone (or sometimes at all), but rather depend on networks of community relations which are place-based, develop over time and are vital to social reproduction, particularly in terms of caring work. This is what we might call the urban commons. The process of displacement and suburbanization destroyed these commons.

Urban development from the bottom up

In spite of everything, collective forms of action and cooperation arose in Tallaght. One important example was the Tallaght Welfare Society, established in 1969. Unlike the DHAC in the inner-city, with its focus on direct action and political campaigning, the TWS was primarily involved in developing collective, bottom-up urban services to meet the needs of residents. Included home help, child care, a day centre for the elderly and advice on welfare and household budgeting. TWS activists were also involved in setting up local democratic structures, namely neighbourhood committees elected on an annual basis, as well as networking other community initiatives such as the Women’s Refuge, the Traveler Development Group and the Centre for the Unemployed.

Women played a strong part, reflecting the particular gendered significance of the form of urban development which characterized planning. The process of displacement and the related uprooting of working class communities undermined the sets of social relations and informal community mechanisms around social reproduction. In particular extended family and neighbour networks which were vital to the collective organization of caring work had been drastically eroded. Moreover, many of the unmet needs which arose due to planning failures affected women in particular. The absence of transport, as noted above, was one such issue. Where residents had access to a car, this usually disappeared with the father each morning as he drove to work, leaving women with extremely limited access to mobility. By working together to develop shared responses to the challenges presented by this new urban environment, TWS established a new community infrastructure oriented around social reproduction and access to services.

The legacy of this period of urban activism is deeply significant. Three issues are particularly worth highlighting.

Firstly, the movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s played a key role in politicizing the process of urban development. By politicization I mean making forms of social or power relations visible and subject to contestation. Until this period, urban development was seen as the preserve of planning experts, officials and elected representatives and these typically hid behind a pseudo-neutral, technical and expert-driven vision of how our city should develop. In contrast, urban struggles drew out the forms of power relations, biases and underlying agendas which shape the city. In doing so, they not only made urban development a political issue in its own right, they also challenged the epistemological underpinnings of conventional urban development –s pecifically its expert-led nature. A key innovation of this period was to develop the notion that urban inhabitants also have valid knowledge of urban development, one that is not-framed in terms of expertise but rather in terms of the lived experience of the city. This form of knowledge was particularly interesting in that it was characterised not just by an understanding of the built environment, but of how the built environment interacts with place-based forms of social relations, as referred to above. Additionally, the struggles opened up new and direct avenues for democratic participation for city dwellers, by-passing the hierarchical and bureaucratic organisation of planning (e.g. the relationship between the Minister for the Environment, the Local Authority and the private sector). This is particularly evident in the case of direct action to meet housing need (squatting) and the direct production or urban services by and for the community.

Secondly, each political struggle produces a political subject – politics is a process of subjectivisation. In this case, the forms of contestation which emerged in this period procuded the subject that we call the ‘community’ or ‘local community’. The subject which emerged was a specifically place-based political actor which articulated its right to democratic participation and access to resources in terms of its historical existence in a particular place and in terms of its wider, structural exclusion form economic and urban development and the state. The ‘local community’ continues to be a significant political actor and subject up to the present day.

Thirdly, each processes of politicisation and subjectivisation produces a scale of politics, a particular spatial organisation of political action and institutions. Just as the ‘people’ and movements for independence produce ‘the nation’ as a political scale, the urban struggles of this period produced the neighbourhood as a political scale. This refers to a clear and tangible concentration of political action, mobilization, and discourse at a local level and in relation to local, neighbourhood issues. The neighbourhood was thus produced as a space of political action and change. Moreover, and thinking in particular of the experience of the TWS, a set of neighbourhood-based institutions grew up, some very much bottom-up with others more top-down. Today, any working class area of Dublin hosts many local institutions including service providers (usually community organisations), funding distributers (such as Local Drugs Task Forces and Local Area Partnerships), and participative or democratic institutions (such as mechanisms for community participation in urban regeneration).

From the mid-1970s onwards another set of urban issues would increasingly set the agenda: de-industrialization and drugs. These, in particular the latter, gave rise to a new set of mobilizations, many of which built upon the previous wave of urban movements, for example incorporating the language of community and locality. These issues deserve a much fuller account, but for reasons of space I’ve chosen to omit them here.

Institutional experimentation, incorporation and depoliticisation

While the urban activism described so far was clearly characterized by a grassroots, oppositional dimension, the 1980s and 1990s saw a proliferation of institutions which would link local communities and various forms of governance and state institutions centred on the provision of services, the disbursement of funding and political participation. This period should be understood as an extremely important moment of institutional experimentation with regard to social movements in Dublin. The forms of service provision which were being developed in places like Tallaght required an organisational structure and financing. The state played a key role here. First of all, given that the state is the most important mechanism for redistribution of wealth (i.e. taxation), it is hardly surprising that communities sought to gain access to funding for local projects. By and large, the objective of the movements was to be able to finance their projects, and thus meet the needs of residents, while at the same time maintaining control, i.e. political autonomy. This is particularly important in relation to the question not just of what services are delivered but, crucially, how they are delivered. The experience of urban development and urban services had been that the state was essentially incapable of responding to the needs of the urban poor. This issue came out most brutally in relation to the heroine crisis and HIV. The state’s initial reaction was criminalization, followed by medicalization. In both cases, it was clear to communities that officials, policy makers and medical professional were unable or unwilling to take on board the reality of how issues such as addiction and care operate in working class communities. As such, in a move which was extraordinarily radical and creative, urban movements sought to develop services designed and provided by and for the urban poor. While the Irish left and others have often suggested that the move towards service provision represented a retreat from the forms of activity more typically associated with “politics” (e.g. protesting, propagandizing, ideological grand-standing – all of which are more masculine), I would suggest the politicization of the organisation of urban services, and especially the politics of care and social reproduction, was deeply significant.

That said, there is no doubt that there has indeed been a process of incorporation, and even depoliticization, in relation to urban movements in Dublin. A key aspect of this process, I want to suggest, was the organisational structures imposed by the state in return for funding. These often included hierarchical, NGO structures and in particular Boards of Management based on ‘partnership structures’ which diluted militancy and fomented the professionalization of the ‘sector’ (via formal qualifications etc.) It is vital to underline, however, that the fact that the development of services, the accessing of finance and the imposition of depoliticizing organisational structures developed in tandem in this case does not mean that they must always do so.

These issues must be set in a wider context. The extent of depoliticization in the community sector, as it is now known, has received an awful lot of criticism form activists and researchers. It is also worth noting that this is the case with other movements which developed in the late 1960s, with feminists and queer activists being the target of frequent critiques. Often one gets the impression that this is part of a wider tendency to dismiss forms of political practice which diverged from the sacred paths of workers revolution and national freedom – both of which defined the horizon of emancipation for many decades.

However, it seems to me that this has been the case to the same, and even a much greater, extent in other cases. The workers movement underwent an intense historical period of depoliticization from the introduction of the vote for workers to the formation of the European welfare state and from the disciplinary organisation of work under the fordist/taylorist model to the Soviet disaster (the dissolution of the workers soviets etc).

The ubiquitous nature of the process of depoliticization urges us to steer away from moralistic denunciations of the leaders who ‘betrayed us’, and towards a more nuanced analysis of the way in which forms of power relations are shaped by resistance from below and emancipatory struggles.

In addition to the question of incorporation and depoliticisation, the a further problematic legacy of the urban movements discussed here is their intense localism. As noted, the production of the neighbourhood or ‘local community’ as a scale of political intervention was a productive development. Yet this very localism has not developed in tandem with broader, city-wide networks. As a result, local struggles have often been isolated from the wider city, and the wider population of the city has had few avenues for participation in local struggles. Local activists can be miss-trustful of people coming from as little as a kilometre away. The difficulty here is that, particularly today, the process of urban development is deeply and directly linked to global flows of finance, capital and power. As a result, it is clear that very localized movements face an extraordinarily difficult task. This calls for an effort to link local issues to a city-scale and global-scale and to network local initiatives.


Today, a new field of urban struggle is opening up before us and demanding our attention. Occupy Gezi Park in Istanbul, the struggle around access to transport in Brazil, the recent neighbourhood movement in Burgos (Spain), and Spain’s anti-eviction movement all point towards the increasing centrality of the city to emerging forms of political conflict.

Dublin is part of this global picture. On the hand, the recent property boom saw the intense commercialization of the city and a rapid increase of exclusion from both public space and housing. On the other hand, the post-boom context has witnessed numerous important conflicts. In terms of housing, one of the most significant issue has been the collapse of up to five Public Private Partnerships for the regeneration of social housing complexes in Dublin, following the withdrawal of developer Bernard Macnamara/Castlethorn in 2008. This has left a number of partially demolished complexes, displaced residents and broken promises. The community of St. Michael’s Estate (Inchicore) has been particularly active in challenging the city council around the failure of these schemes and the ongoing failure to meet the housing needs of tenants. On the other hand, the question of public and non-commercial social space has gained new urgency in the context of widespread vacancy. Bottom up projects, such as Granby Park’s ‘pop-up park’ in August 2013 have developed new ways of facilitating access to urban space and participation in the production and management of urban space. The recent closure of Exchange Dublin also gave rise to much public discussion of the absence of non-commercial social spaces.

The present moment is also characterized by a continuing housing crisis as well as concern around a return to the property bubble dynamics of the boom era. The designation of the Strategic Development Zone in the Docklands area, which aims to fast track commercial office development, and NAMA’s plans to invest up to €2bn in commercial development are sure to spark anger in local residents and across the city in response to the prioritization of commercial real estate speculation over democratic access to the city and the right to housing.

It is in this context, questions around the urban development are being re-framed by the idea of the ‘right to the city’. Yet urban social movements, despite the achievements and innovations of recent decades, are ill-equipped. This calls of a renewed effort on the part of urban activists in building forms of analysis and political organisation which are up the task of democratizing the city.


One comment

  1. […] for up two decades for regeneration and adequate housing and the regeneration projects included community participation structures, reflecting a ‘partnership’ approach to urban regeneration. With the collapse of the […]

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