Social Work and the Struggle for Social Justice in an International Context – The Irish Experience


This presentation is more of an “opinion piece” than an academic one. It is a small observation of one social worker striving for social justice in Ireland within a much larger societal and political context. My background I worked as a social care worker for around seven years in the areas of homelessness and intellectual disability. I qualified as a social worker in 2010 and have experience in the areas of child protection, fostering, medical and community development social work and am currently working as a mental health social worker.

Current context of Irish life

The global recession, the Irish experience of this, austerity measures, IMF “bailout” package, new government continuing to implement old governments plans under pretence of “new thinking”, increasing gap between rich and poor, widening of inequalities in Irish society, retraction of human rights and equality as important issues-free market, capitalist and purely economic issues at the fore-front of governments mind to the detriment of ordinary people’s lives, unemployment continues to be at record high, Ireland officially re-entered recession at the end of last quarter of 2011 ( Counter discourse – Occupy Dame Street, Occupy University, emergence of “new” leftist political groups – ULA (United Left Alliance), People before Profit, the continuation and strengthening of Socialist Party and SWP, emergence of civil society groups such as The Spectacle of Defiance and Hope, S.P.A.R.K (Single Parents Acting for the Rights of our Kids), Anglo: Not our Debt, Claiming our Future, Unlock Nama, TASC (Independent Think Tank for Social Change),, Campaign against the Household Charge.

History of social work in Ireland

A very small amount has been written on the history of social work in Ireland (Kearney and Skehill, 2005). Social work in Ireland is just over 100 years old. The first social work qualification board was only introduced in Ireland in 1997. Before this social work qualifications were validated through the U.K.  Social work in Ireland came about quite late in relation to other countries including Britain. There were parallels between the development of social work in Britain and Ireland but some points were unique to Ireland such as the fact that political struggles to become free of English rule encompassed the time of those who could be called “social reformers” and who otherwise could have turned to social work type reform as was the case in other countries such as the USA. The first social workers in Ireland were called “almoners” and worked in hospitals.  Before social work developed as a profession religious organisations had a monopoly over the running and delivery of services that we would consider social work related e.g. in the fields of education, care of the disabled, lone parents, mental health etc. Specifically, the development of childcare services and services for women in Ireland can be seen to have been directly influenced by the overt hold of religious organisations on such services in the past (Skehill, 2004).

My two case studies – Spectacle and SPARK

As a social worker I instinctively tend to work from a framework of human rights/social justice/social change/critical theory. I consider myself a macro social worker, a radical social worker. I intrinsically believe in working from a community development approach (whatever my “job title” or my boss suggests!). My involvement in the two campaigns I am discussing evolved through my worldview as a social worker and my understanding of the absolute necessity of social workers to engage in macro or social change work.

The Spectacle of Defiance and Hope is a broadly based alliance of Community Organisations from Dublin and beyond. In 2010 a large number of groups came together to protest and challenge the programme of cuts that were imposed on the youth and community sector and draw attention to the savage economic injustices that were taking place in Ireland. The Spectacle is for an Ireland of true equality in the conditions of people’s lives. In December of 2010 the powerful Spectacle of Defiance and Hope event took place, in which community organisations from all over Dublin participated. In 2011 the second protest of creative resistance took place. It was modelled on the French Revolution. People and community groups all over Ireland were asked to contribute “Books of Grievances and Hopes”. Within the last two years large numbers of projects have been cut or closed in areas which experience frightening levels of inequality. The idea behind the Books of Grievances and Hopes was to provide a forum and an accessible format where people could express their grievances at what is happening to ordinary people in some sort of a coherent way. This was a way for ordinary people to express their anxieties, concerns, frustration and anger at the decisions of the last government which are being continued without any great change by the new administration. I was part of the organising committee for the 2011 Spectacle and for my small part, personally mobilised a number of projects in an area of Dublin that is one of the most dis-advantaged in the country. The three projects that I engaged with had never been involved in a civil society group or protest like this before. I was met with a huge amount of resistance by the people from these projects in the beginning as they told me they had never been consulted in any way before, they were mistrustful and were disparaging of how engaging in a process such as this could be of any benefit to them or to their community (which was very understandable and which I openly validated). Through many conversations and long facilitated sessions where the groups physically made their books of grievances and hope, they began to articulate and voice their excitement at realising that they “had a voice” and at “having an outlet and opportunity to voice their anger” at the government, at those who have ignored them and at those who have continued to oppress them. The groups I engaged are the “invisible” in Irish society. They are representative of some of the groups in Irish society who have been marginalised throughout the “Celtic Tiger” years and continue to be marginalised in the current recession.

Alongside this was, for me, the parallel of the current situation of social workers in Ireland. I could clearly see the similarities between the invisibility and oppression of the groups I engaged in the “Book of Grievances and Hopes” process and the invisibility and oppression of social workers as a group in Irish society. I believe that in order to be able to stand in true solidarity with the oppressed one must be critically conscious (see Freire’s work) and cognisant of one’s own disempowerment. I believe that social workers in Ireland are disempowered through many mediums such as managerialism, increasing bureaucracy, the continued shrinking space that we exist in professionally, the increasing individualisation of workers and the increasing distance between social workers and service users through these measures. Being cognisant of these parallels I wanted to try and begin the process of aligning social workers and service users. I am very active in the Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW) – I am the chairperson of a national special interest group for new social workers through the IASW, I am also part of the International Group through the IASW which is aligned to the European region of the IFSW which focuses on issues of equality and human rights. Utilising my connections with the IASW, I contacted all of their members and asked them to contribute to a “Social Work Book of Grievances and Hopes”. I did this through email and asked four basic questions which all social workers could answer anonymously (therefore making it safer for social workers to tell the truth about the reality of their working lives and their service users lives). I collated all of the responses into an actual book (some of the pictures are in the presentation) and invited all IASW social workers to attend the protest in December 2011.  Approximately 500 people turned up to the Spectacle of Defiance and Hope protest in December. Some of the service users from the groups I engaged with and a small number of social workers attended the protest – this I considered an achievement! The plan moving forward is to display the books in a public space in order for all of the people who contributed to know that their grievances and hopes will be seen and heard in a meaningful way. A longer term plan is to figure out the way forward for The “Spectacle” as a concept and how best it can serve it’s purpose as a means of creative resistance to the increasing inequalities in Irish society.

S.P.A.R.K. is a diverse group of single parents living in Ireland who have united together to protect their children from the radical policy changes introduced in Budget 2012. Their aim is to raise awareness of the many challenges one-parent families currently face and to identify the essential supports needed to allow them to have equal participation in society. They assert the rights of their children to be treated equally and demand acknowledgment and recognition of their family status.  They oppose any economic, social, political or legal policies that have a detrimental effect on their children or them as single parents. They are asking for equality for their children regardless of their family circumstances. The main thing that stands out about this campaign is that it is run almost entirely through social media – facebook, twitter and google groups. To me, this represents  a new way of organising compared to the more traditional approaches of meetings and physically bringing people together. The use of social media as an organising tool has allowed a group that could not possibly physically gather together regularly (due to the fact that they are all lone parents and have children to care for!) to mobilize in large numbers and at a rapid pace. The campaign only began in November 2011 and already has succeeded in hosting two protests, coordinated numerous media stunts and has secured a lot of support from most of the opposition TD’s in government through relentless and creative methods. My involvement in this campaign began at the end of 2011 at the time of the budget. The December 2011 budget in Ireland literally attacked a number of vulnerable groups in Irish society – namely young people with disabilities, young people attending schools in disadvantaged areas and single parents. The government hastily reviewed their attacks on young people with disabilities after an immediate and vocal backlash by the general public ( The government were slower to reverse the cuts made to schools in disadvantaged areas but did so recently after continued public anger ( . However, the one group the government continues to attack is lone parents. I don’t have the space here to go into all of the economic attacks the government has made on lone parents. These can all be found on SPARK’s website ( The point I would like to make here is the importance of social workers building alliances with, and supporting campaigns such as this. Technically, I have no direct contact with lone parents in my day to day work as a social worker (as I work with older persons). But that does not stop me from understanding the connection between the framework I work from as a social worker (as I explained above) and the significance of standing in solidarity with SPARK. SPARK is a response to the way Irish society continues to view single mothers (as something to be ashamed of, as a drain on society, as leeches on our social welfare system, as second class citizens, as something to hide away from the “good” people in society (e.g. the Magdelene Laundry’s). SPARK is a response to the way women continue to be subordinated within our society (our constitution, the foundation of all Irish law explicitly states that a woman’s place is within the home, article 41.2.1). SPARK is a response to the continued invisibility of children and children’s rights within Irish society (a children’s rights referendum has been promised to the Irish people since 2006, article 40.1.1 gives all rights to the family with “family” being defined as a heterosexual married couple). SPARK is a response to the continued overt stranglehold the catholic church (or at least the church’s “values”, “morals” and insidious nature) has on the people of Ireland. SPARK stands as a representative for women’s rights, children’s rights and the possibility of one of the most invisible and vulnerable groups in Irish society creating a counter discourse to the pre-dominant catholic/conservative one that has ravaged our country for the past century.  

References/Resources,,,,,,,,,,,,, Kearney, N. and C. Skehill, 2005, Social Work in Ireland: Historical Perspectives. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.,,

Cite as: Cuskelly, Kerry. “Social Work and the Struggle for Social Justice in an International Context- The Irish Experience”.The Seventh Annual Social Work Action Network Conference (SWAN), Liverpool Hope University, March 2012. Unpublished conference paper. 2012.

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