The Nuclear Syndrome Victory for the Irish Anti-nuclear Power Movement



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The Carnsore Rally

The Carnsore rally was the first and arguably the most successful attempt to put the libertarian ideal of mass organisation into practice in the Irish ANM. Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of a formal organisation structure, it was a real success and there was no shortage of volunteers to do the logistical work and musicians to provide entertainment. The festival generated a spirit of hope and purpose amongst those present and some were to unabashedly claim that the weekend was the greatest 'high' of their lives. The whole event was a new departure in Irish politics. One journalist wrote:



No radical political protest of the past ten years so caught the public imagination or so successfully spanned the chasms between ‘alternative society’ advocates, flower power hangovers, constitutional liberals and revolutionary Marxists. They were united against the nuclear power station proposed for the wind blasted and beautiful Carnsore Point.
The tent city was the subject of extensive pictorial coverage in the national media and on BBC Television news. Groups around the country hired trains and buses to bring thousands of supporters to the site. A perpetual traffic jam resulted, especially on the Sunday afternoon, as many day trippers arrived to swell the crowds and join the march to build the ceremonial cairn on the ESB site.
The format of the festival is indicative of the philosophy under lying its inception. There was no central organising focus. A rather irregularly manned information caravan and a small stage in one of the large marquees served as focal points for the volunteers who arrived early to prepare the site. No press facilities were provided as no one had any intent of turning the event into one staged for the media. Reporters were forced to contact individuals from the various groups and conduct informal interviews to elicit statements. Also no press passes were issued. The press were forced to park with everyone else and walk onto the site. Food was laid on by a number of groups including a local parish organisation, raising money for parish activities. Volunteers manned the carparks, crèches, and beach patrols and picked up garbage at regular intervals.
Not everyone was completely happy. A number of feminists were disappointed at the lack of awareness of those present of the women's issue and overtly sexist attitudes which some men showed. The national ANM started at the rally, the large meeting on the Sunday afternoon is considered as the first mass meeting of the movement. These were organised on approximately a three monthly basis and rotated around the country to different geographical locations. A national sign up list was also posted and many interested people from most counties signed their names and addresses to start opposition groups around the country. These lists were duly typed up and sent to county co-ordinators who were hopefully to take the next steps and organise county meetings. The lack of formal organisation and a central office reflected the ideology of the activists, strongly emphasising personal responsibility and initiative in organisation.
Debates over tactics and politics continued in the movement and in the autumn of 1978 the Cork group split to form two groups with one faction going for a more militant approach organising demonstrations in housing estates and benefit concerts while the other faction emphasised the more traditional lobby approaches. In Dublin in September there was a major meeting to discuss the organisation of the ANM which came to a rather inconclusive ending. The next major focus of the movement was at the second national mass meeting in Dublin in November. 1978.
Motion Sickness

The second mass (or 'Monster Meeting' as they were sometimes advertised) meeting of the ANM took place in the State cinema in Dublin late in November. This meeting followed the pattern of earlier events and was organised by a loose collective of activists from various political perspectives. The meeting was structured with a very loose chair and a microphone available for anyone who wised to speak. A long and unedited list of motions was presented to the meeting and subsequently an attempt was made to vote on them. A newsletter was also prepared from submissions sent in by groups all over the country detailing what the groups had done in the previous few months and giving and indication of what they hoped to achieve at the meeting and afterwards.


The organising collective proposed a format to the meeting where the discussion was to be broken into four sections each of one hour's duration. The four topics were:


  • the aims of the national ANM.

  • the form and structures of the movement.

  • strategy and tactics of the movement.

  • the co-ordination of the movement

The general tendencies of the motions were towards a decentralised approach and a recallable secretariat. In some suggestions the duration of office holding was limited to three months. The motions from rural areas tended to be more in favour of central co-ordination, Longford calling for a central address while Sligo wanted a central organising body made up of delegates from each anti-nuclear group. The Dublin group based in Dundrum emphasised the need for as little centralisation as possible while Dublin South West argued for a mass democratic movement based on autonomous local groups. The ideas of rotating mass assemblies to make decisions was proposed on a number of occasions. A number of motions also argued for keeping the ANM separate from any political grouping.


The ensuing debate was acrimonious at some stages with one member of the SLP making accusations that RS was attempting to manipulate the movement into accepting a mass meeting structure which it could then direct because of its tightly organised co-ordination. This theme was to occur frequently in the coming months. The voting, when it eventually did get underway was a shambles both because of the contradictory claims as to how many people actually voted, and because contradictory motions were passed. The voting was complicated by the presence of many people (some estimate as high as 40% of those present) who were waiting for the concert due to follow the meeting and provide the culmination of road show project that evening. Many who worked hard in the movement were frustrated that these people were voting and yet had done little if anything for the movement.
This question of who should vote and who should make the decisions was never finally decided in the movement. The advocates of mass democracy stuck to the basic principle that anyone who was present at a meeting had the right to take part in all the proceedings. Although this led to the recurring problems of newcomers being allowed the same say as those familiar with the issues, the movement was so concerned with participation for all that no attempt to organise formal membership votes were carried out, with the noticeable exception of the FoE postal ballot described above. It did however lead to frustration at the meeting. Further, no one was empowered to carry out the motions that were carried on the agenda. Consequently, the movement continued in its ad hoc method of operation with the 40 or 50 local groups continuing to organise events in their local areas. The newsletters prepared for the mass meetings show the diversity of this activity and the vitality of the protest actions around the country which included pickets of meetings involving government ministers, pickets of ESB offices around the country, leaf letting, anti-nuclear theatre, concerts and film shows and even a puppet show on a few occasions. Many groups around the country set up stalls and portable exhibitions in shopping mails and city streets distributing leaf-lets, selling books, and, as they became available, badges and stickers by the tens of thousands.
Spontaneity vs. Effectivity

A fundamental tension existed within the New Left between the expressive ideals of participatory democracy (spontaneity and will) and attempts to deal instrumentally with the centralised bureaucratic organisation of the state and large scale capitalist institutions.


In Wexford Again

The third mass meeting took place in mid-February 1979 in the 'Dun Mhuire' hall in Wexford on a cold and snowy weekend that discouraged attendance. The meeting had been organised by Nuclear Opposition Wexford and NSA people who installed someone they thought would be an acceptable chairperson and suggested that each group send three delegates to make decisions. This was unpopular with mass democracy advocates who arrived by the busload in Wexford determined to put an end to ideas of delegates. They quickly voted the chairman out of a job and divided the meeting into a number of small discussion groups which discussed aspects of the nuclear problem and tactics to be used against the Carnsore proposal. Some present were upset by the change of format but the radicals who enjoyed wide support were determined to stop attempts to structure and bureaucratise the movement. This question of delegates came to be a recurring theme repeated often by those who were unhappy with the organisation of the ANM. The case against delegation was summarised in Rebel as follows;



The question of delegates which seems to be at the centre of the debate is not simply a technical one. If we are serious in our struggle, if we truly want to control our own lives, then having others debate, fight and decide on our behalf is a step backwards... We put forward as an alternative MASS ASSEMBLIES, which recognise the autonomy of local groups and initiatives, while retaining a national coherence and perspectives.
In the view of many, the whole point of having delegate meetings was that the mass assemblies were failing to provide this coherence, many participants seeing the whole operation as chaotic. Subsequently Rebel returned to this theme, arguing that the Wexford proposals were dangerously divisive. ‘There is a healthy aversion to bourgeois forms of organisation inside the movement.' was a somewhat premature claim when a proposal from a Kilkenny group to the Wexford meeting advocated the use of public relations consultants to promote the anti- nuclear cause. This was too much for the RS and they responded:

... to argue for the movement to employ advertising agencies and professional agencies and professional sellers to sell the anti-nuclear movement is to put bourgeois relations so deep into the movement as to drown it completely.
Later in the editorial on the question of organisation the RS position is clarified thus:

An organisation fighting for a (participatory) society is based on the direct participation of everybody. It cannot have delegates. There is nothing in all of this that could be delegated... Direct action and direct democracy are the tools of such an organisation. It leaves delegate (representative) democracy to the historians.
Indicative of this type of approach was a motion accepted by the meeting 'that a public inquiry is already in the 32 counties where people discuss and debate the pros and cons of nuclear power' indicating that the movement saw itself as separate from the state structure of political decision making and implying that the people intended to make the decision. This view on the inquiry was repeated many times.
The question of the movement’s image was to recur frequently too;

... we disagree strongly with those who want to legitimise the movement. Giving the movement the veneer of respectability means sacrificing its vitality and stifling its energy and imagination. It will mean rigidity for local groups and a straight jacket on the movement.
Many of these issues remained unresolved but the meetings continued, leaflets were written and protests mounted.
To Belfast, Carnsore

The fourth mass meeting occurred in Belfast in May 1979 and was marred again by more accusation of manipulation this time by an unidentified SLP member attempting to ensure that an SLP member spoke at the forthcoming June 2nd protest march in Dublin. Despite the internal debates a second rally was organised and held in Carnsore in August 1979 with the slogan this time being 'BACK TO THE POINT'. This was a somewhat smaller affair than the previous year but the number of groups present and the diversity of political and environmental statements had increased.


A common criticism of the movement at this time was the narrow social base that was active in the movement and what some saw as the rather limited appeal of its activities. Remarking on this aspect of the Carnsore rally one commentator returned to the theme of image, arguing that:

It is the image the event projects which will determine The nature of a large proportion of its audience, and the image presented by Carnsore is of appeal to a limited audience viz. it involves en masse camping and a fairly specialised brand of entertainment. It thus attracts ‘young trendies’ and passes up the opportunity to influence the greater portion of public opinion.
Another related it more directly to the political structure of the movement, asking why the ANM was becoming a clique 'only allowing people with similar political beliefs to work with us?' The debate over structures and alleged manipulation heated up again in the autumn of 1979 with a meeting near Dublin at Ticknock held to discuss the Carnsore festival turning into a 'RS bashing ' session. A number of people in Cork were also very unhappy with what they perceived as RS attempts to control and manipulate meetings. The issue came to the surface again at the sixth mass meeting in Cork in October. At this meeting a group from Tralee put forward a number of proposals for a delegate structure to operate in parallel with the mass meeting structure. Polarisation became acute and suspicion reigned at this meeting which was marred from the beginning by confusion over the venue caused by the last minute cancellation by the University of permission to hold the event in its grounds. The question of manipulation and control are crucial in attempting to understand the movement
Leadership and Control

A number of dilemmas are present in the debate over the political control of the movement. Few activists deny that the ANM would never have been so large and successful if the RS activists had not worked so hard organising the events. There is little doubt that groups like the SLP did want more power in the movement than they got, although many of their activists considered themselves as just individuals in the movement leaving their party affiliations at the entrance to meetings. The FoE groups were unhappy that their approach did not have greater impact. As the polarisation increased, people on both sides tended to develop conspiracy theories and viewed people with different viewpoints as either agents or dupes of the other side. RS maintain in their publications and in interviews that they did not attempt to control the movement but proudly admit to pushing their point of view within it They were at a considerable advantage within the movement, being an organised group and at least by Irish political standards, having a sophisticated theoretical analysis of Irish society available to interpret the controversy and guide their political actions. It was this articulated line and enthusiasm that led many to support their arguments on organisational and tactical questions.


For newcomers to political organisation who preferred more conventional approaches however, the presence of an organised group who were very articulate and used radical rhetoric, the experience was unsettling. The concepts of mass democracy assume mutual trust by all participants and at least some parity of experience, political and verbal skills. In addition to having these skills RS thought out what they were going to say prior to meetings. Many unattached activists felt that the meetings ought to be the forum for discussing ideas and were upset to find that certain groups were in positions where they discussed anti-nuclear strategy beforehand. Inevitably RS was seen as manipulative by some of those who did not have another political affiliation inside the movement. However, many others appreciated the guidance that RS could offer to local groups and RS members provided skills and contacts.
It appears that many activists did not understand what the direct democracy approach meant, and old behaviour patterns of waiting until a central office or a big meeting told them what to do reasserted themselves. Equally it appears that rural groups who were already more conservative to begin with, felt particularly isolated and failed to initiate enough contacts to overcome their relative geographic disadvantage. Instead of initiating actions many groups after an initial burst of activity ceased to function because of lack of external inspiration. The problem was aggravated in part by the failure of urban based radicals to realise that this was happening and their consequent failure to take rural calls for a central office seriously. In an unstructured movement the leadership, and what power exists, gradually moves towards those who put in the most effort, develop the most contacts and become most knowledgeable on the issue in question. In his essay The Limits of Protest: A Critique of the Anti-Nuclear Movement (Socialist Review 54, 1980, p. 130) Vogel puts it:

In reality, leadership is exercised by initiative and attrition. With no elected leadership, whoever stays the longest, puts in the most hours and is most persuasive, effectively becomes leadership.
In the Irish movement in a number of groups this informal leadership came from activists who advocated mass democratic ideas. When these people also appeared to support ideas identified with RS, suspicions mounted. RS are also charged with changing words on leaflets, failing to do things as they promised and identifying their line too closely with that of the whole anti-nuclear movement, but their real problems probably occurred because of their perceived reluctance to address criticism openly. One exasperated activist wrote,

The touchiness of RS members and the tendency of people to grumble among themselves about RS and not attempt to articulate the critique both con- tribute to this lack of discussion. The ‘Rebel’ report of the Ticknock meeting where the above criticisms of RS were voiced was not encouraging. The report hopes that they can now work together, now that people have got the criticisms off their chests, with never a thought given to whether there was any basis to the allegations. It is hard to interpret this refusal of self-examination as anything but arrogance and elitism, basically authoritarian and showing a staggering contempt for fellow activists.
Undoubtedly RS were less open and flexible than would have been desirable on many occasions, but the charges of deliberate manipulation on a large scale are unfounded. RS have reaped little direct political advancement from their involvement in the ANM apart, probably, from a considerable amount of experience and some recruits who were politicised in the ANM. The inexperience of many of the activists, including RS people, was partly to blame for the problems that resulted. The suspicion and secrecy to which radical groups are always susceptible is also important in understanding the tensions within the movement; the Irish 'special branch' has taken a more than passing interest in the ANM. A final factor of importance in understanding the problems in the movement is the failure of young and mobile activists who have a political network within which to work, to realise that those who have not developed these supports were lost in the large mass meeting method of organisation. Many groups argued for a delegate structure in the hopes that they would get information and some indications of what was going on in the movement. These mass meetings lacked a clarity of purpose and steadily the numbers attending them declined. The Contaminated Crow commented that:

Certain groups came wishing to make ‘decisions’, certain groups wished to examine what had been done over the past three months and examine possible areas of activity in the future. Certain comrades wished to exchange experience about organising at the local level, learn from each other, examine their difficulties and problems and return to put these lessons to use. Others wished to make policy decisions nationally. Some wished for activity, some for statements.
The political wrangles within the movement probably had an unfortunate effect in scaring away newcomers to ANM meetings. Potential supporters in search of information were scared away by the apparently endless political discussions.
The political discussions have never been resolved, if indeed that is possible, but in the fall of 1979 they reached a peak of intensity as a Tralee group attempted to set up a parallel delegate structure in the movement The contradictions in the movement were brought into focus and the polemics reached a new pitch of intensity.
A Delicate Structure?

Following the debates at the Cork mass meeting in October 1979 the Tralee Opposition Workshop set up a meeting for all those interested in starting a delegate structure. The groups involved met a number of times early in 1980 and these meetings were reasonably constructive as far as some of the participating groups were concerned, improving communications and co-ordinating the production of leaflets. At no time did the delegate structure claim to speak for more than its participating groups. In its enthusiasm to prevent undemocratic procedures and manipulation, it effectively hamstrung itself by insisting that all decisions be ratified by members of the participating groups before any action was taken. Essentially the delegate structure acted as a social and communication focus for groups unhappy with the mass movement structure. In contrast to the proposals from the Wexford meeting the previous February, this organisation did not try to force their structure on groups that did not wish to take part. Despite this, the reaction to the proposals was sustained and severe on the part of the mass movement advocates. The proposals put forward by the Tralee Nuclear Opposition Workshop to the October 20-21, 1979 Cork mass meeting summarised the views of a number of groups who found themselves isolated:



There is a crippling lack of communication, co-operation and co-ordination in the movement... While we are in total agreement with local autonomous groups carrying on in their own way we feel that there is a need for those groups to come together every now and then to exchange ideas, literature and experiences... Gatherings such as Carnsore should of course continue, but their function should be merely as a show of strength – the main ‘business' should be carried on away from distraction such as music which although it has its place does a lot of damage to the movement by taking away prospective ‘older’anti-nukes.
And later, to try and still the anticipated fears and objections to structure and hierarchy, the Tralee group continued:
What we envision is not a tight hierarchical structure. Some seem to think that we have only 2 courses open to us, a tight restricting slow moving organisation and on the other hand a totally unstructured situation such as we have now.
Out of the accusations and counter-accusations at the Cork meeting, the Tralee proposals were circulated to many groups and correspondence flowed. It is worth noting that not all Tralee activists supported this initiative. A few were furious that the group was too busy organising the delegate structure to mount a protest in support of the activists who were arrested in the EEC offices in Dublin.
The first delegate meeting was held in Tralee on 1 December 1979. People representing twelve groups arrived as delegates, or at least ended up as delegates, a few only decided to be delegates once they had arrived. Some groups came to observe what was happening without a firm commitment to participate, A number of letters were read to the meeting before discussions commenced. The Belfast anti-nuclear group opposed delegates because they argued that the delegate idea would divert the movement from issues such as the arrest of the EEC-9. The Limerick anti-nuclear group produced a four page statement on the delegate structure condemning it roundly and arguing for a continuation of the mass movement and that the case for a duplication of structures was unclear. In response to the Tralee proposals to improve the image of the movement Limerick retorted,

The relationship between image and support is not simply ‘better’ image ‘more’ support. We see that support is hard earned by active anti-nukes who go out and canvass in numerous ways – for the support of all the people who have nothing to gain from nuclear power. Unifying and improving our image may make the movement mom acceptable to some people... but if that is their condition for becoming identified with the movement we would like to know what their relationship is with those for whom image is of little concern. The phrase ‘less alien to the rest of the country’ can only imply that somehow the hippies, freaks, communists, anarchists, etc., etc., are damaging the movement. If this is what FoE believes then why not say it?
They go on to point to the crucial issues of personal responsibility for political action:

Mass structures, on the other hand, only allows people who are willing to put the necessary work into anti-nuclear activity to gain influence inside the movement...
and later;

Direct democracy is first and foremost a gesture of faith in the integrity of other people and their inalienable right to learn, decide and determine the direction of their actions.
Two fundamentally different concepts of politics and approaches to social change are present here. Mobilisation and protest by people outside the political bargaining system are crucial to gaining a hearing and getting results. On the other hand, those that accept the basic liberal conceptions of politics and pressure group lobbying tactics, attempt to appear respectable and are concerned with image and credibility. The radicals, those convinced that major structural changes are essential, and that capitalist society is basically antagonistic, are interested in further developing opposition, and causing as many disturbances and problems as possible for the ruling class, to make nuclear power a politically untenable option. This fundamental difference in political ideology is the key to these internal debates, both within the Irish ANM and the international movement. The conflict was quite insightfully rationalised by some members of the Cork FoE group as being a question of priorities. They argued that they wished to stop nuclear power first and then change the world. The pressure group/lobby approach was thought to be best for this purpose. They also suggested that RS wished to change the world and then stop nuclear power as part of their project to fundamentally change society.
The internal wrangles within the movement came to a head and the lines between forceful argument and personal intimidation were crossed several times. The irony of the situation remains because the anti-bureaucratic tendencies remained strong especially within the Cork FoE group who were pushing the delegate idea very hard. They refused to allow a central organisation to be set up and the few delegate structure meetings that did occur rotated on a monthly basis between different groups. The first meeting was held in Tralee in December and it was the scene of angry verbal arguments where non-delegates argued that they could speak and most of the other people present left in disgust, this being the first occasion in the anti-nuclear movement when people had been silenced. This meeting came to a number of conclusions: that a referendum was inopportune because of the lack of public information, that a statement on the issue of the public inquiry should be made and condemned the failure of the government to provide financial backing for a proposed windmill project on a small island off the west coast The ironies of the occasion came close to farce when the topic of uranium mining was raised. It happened that the only person present who had up to date information on the subject was one of the non-delegates who had previously been forbidden to speak!
Dawn magazine advertised the meeting and outlined the ideas of no-power delegates that had been discussed at the Cork meeting. Rebel published a stream of criticism of the delegate idea arguing that it was a bourgeois reaction to the developing political content of the movement. Returning to an age-old controversy in political theory between participatory and representative politics they argue that:

Its objective is to create a bourgeois form of organisation, heavily distorted forms of representation, easy for the press to handle and the government to negotiate with, but inaccessible to the mass of the working people.
Regarding the point about autonomous groups continuing to function they continued:

We are saying AUTONOMY is NOT about everyone doing their own thing. It is about AUTONOMY FROM THE STATE, CAPITAL and BUREAUCRATIC FORMS OF ORGANISATION. Autonomy means refusing to internalise the needs of the state and Capital inside the movement.
This article, one of Rebel’s most vicious polemics, also castigated the group at the Ticknock meeting dismissing their concern as

'... individual self-expression and spontaneity, stemming from petty bourgeois desire to deny class forces inside (and often outside) the movement...'
A later edition carried a letter appealing against the delegate structure; 'the briefcase, and caucus type, the wheelers and dealers, the self-advancing.'
The delegates met a few times in the spring of 1980, wrote several leaflets, a letter to the new Taoiseach, Mr. Haughey and improved their own morale somewhat. The delegate idea, clearly an anathema to many activists, reveals the radical leanings within the movement. The mass meeting approach would never have considered letter writing to the Taoiseach who was considered part of the system that was being opposed. The delegate structure, like the rest of the movement, suffered from decreasing interest as 1980 passed. The third Carnsore rally in 1980 was smaller than previous years and by this time attention was focused on the other issues of noxious industries, toxic waste and uranium prospecting.
Related to the questions of organisation and politics was the issue of nonviolence which we now briefly discuss.
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