Academic journal article Journal of the Community Development Society

Towards a Theory of State-Community Partnerships: Interpreting the Irish Muintir Na Tire Movement's Experience

Academic journal article Journal of the Community Development Society

Towards a Theory of State-Community Partnerships: Interpreting the Irish Muintir Na Tire Movement's Experience

Article excerpt


This paper begins by outlining two very different models or ideal-types of partnership relations between community movements and the state. What we call the optimistic model of partnerships suggests that community interests are central to the partnership approach and that they can expect to be empowered by their participation in partnerships. The pessimistic model of partnerships, in contrast, draws our attention to the manner power imbalances can skew partnership-type relations to the advantage of the state and to the disempowerment of community interests. How well these optimistic and pessimistic models fit the phenomenon of partnership as experienced by the Irish community movement, Muintir na Tire, is then considered. The Muintir case poses numerous interpretative challenges, as elements of both models are relevant to understanding it, though pessimistic model assumptions turn out to be especially relevant. Finally, the possibility that community interests may seek to exploit the opportunities the optimistic model sees contributing to empowerment, and to resist the disempowerment the pessimistic model sees flowing from co-optation, allows us to push beyond our pessimistic and optimistic models to propose a third model of partnership. What we call the activist model focuses on the abilities of community interests to assert their own capacity for collective agency by devising strategies to exploit the opportunities and negotiate the constraints associated with partnerships more to their own advantage.

Keywords: partnership, empowerment, co-optation, capacity for collective agency, optimistic, pessimistic, and activist models



Over the past decade or so, the notion of "partnership" as a means of restructuring the nature of democratic governance, and stimulating local development, has become hugely fashionable in Irish public policy discourse. Much of the impetus for the rise of the partnership approach, at least in its main guises, can be attributed to the influence of the European Union, particularly in its sponsorship of a whole series of area-based partnership programs (Sabel, 1996; Walsh, et al., 1998; Geddes, 2000). (1) While much of what has transpired within the area-based programs is of relevance to our discussion, our focus here will fall on the now frequently encountered suggestion that relations between the state and organized community interests should also be structured along partnership lines. The nature of state-community movement partnership-type relations will be explored with specific reference to the experience over recent years of the long-established Irish community development movement, Muintir na Tire (People of the Land, hereafter referred to as Muintir).

We begin our discussion with the possibility that state-community interest partnerships can be understood in two very different ways. The idea of starting out with what we will term the optimistic and the pessimistic models of how the partnership approach to state-community interest relations is structured reflects our belief that these models help summarize competing accounts of reality. Generally speaking, these two models correspond broadly and respectively to the "consensus" and "conflict" perspectives that stand out as fundamental benchmarks in contemporary social science (Alexander, 1987, pp. 8-9).

Our optimistic model is inspired by that tradition of social theorizing that highlights the phenomenon of consensus in social life. At the level of aspiration and ideology, many community interests (and Muintir is no exception here) show a preference for seeing the world in consensus terms. They are encouraged to do this by an all-inclusive ideology that desires to represent everyone in the local community and to ensure that the benefits of community development are spread as widely as possible. …

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