Well-planned Greenspace enhances Community Wellbeing

A Funeral in County Meath


If you are familiar with recent Public Participation Network (PPN) affairs in County Meath, you can skip this first page. 

The first Plenary session of the Meath Public Participation Network (PPN) for a number of years took place on April 27. The Plenary is the paramount body in the PPN structure at the County level. It elects the Secretariat, the 12-member committee which is charged with dealing with matters on a day-to-day basis. The Plenary determines major strategic decisions, agrees programs of work, and generally resembles a meeting of shareholders in a corporate context.

This Plenary was much anticipated by those community groups in Meath who clung to the hope that PPN would experience a resurgence in Meath, that its early promise of community involvement in decision-making at the Local Authority level might become a reality. For reasons that continue to be debated, the health of PPN in Co Meath had deteriorated in recent years. The term of office of the Secretariat had long expired, and there was a conviction amongst some community members that Meath County Council (MCC) and many Councilors felt that PPN was an intrusion into their domain. The Plenary on April 27 was seen by the disciples of Citizen Engagement as a possible ‘new dawn’, a chance to start anew, lessons learned and imbibed, old scores buried, all in a spirit of ‘let’s try again’.

Alas, that now seems a forlorn and perhaps naive hope. The Plenary, which could have been held in a public setting, was instead held on Zoom. And no ordinary Zoom either. There was no audience participation – we were all muted for the duration of the meeting. Attendees could not see who else was in attendance – no thumbnail portraits or lists of attendees as per a normal Zoom meeting. The extent of audience participation was the opportunity to vote yes/no to some carefully choreographed questions, crafted to diminish the Citizen Engagement aspect of the PPN’s role in Meath to the point of virtual non-existence. And we didn’t lack for time, the meeting, scheduled to last two hours, was ended after 57 minutes by the facilitator, the only person who was seen or heard at the much-anticipated Plenary. 

In response, the registered attendee from Ashbourne Greenspaces, Jack Holmes, penned the below essay: 

                                                  Citizen Engagement buried in County Meath.

The Funeral

Last week, I had a most unusual dream; I dreamt I went to a funeral. I had not planned to go to a funeral – my schedule said I was to attend the first Plenary session of the Public Participation Network (PPN) to be held in Meath for a number of years. And a most unusual funeral it turned out to be1. The deceased was a member of a large extended family, with more than 1,000 relatives across County Meath, all of whom had been informed of the arrangements multiple times. Still, less than five percent attended the funeral. But if that was strange, worse was still to come: I know the number of mourners present (54) because the Celebrant said so. However, I do not know who was there, because I could not see any of them. Neither could I talk to them because my voice had been muted by the Celebrant. And we did not get to mingle afterwards, as the Celebrant cut the ceremonies short after less than half the allotted time had elapsed. Truly unlike any other funeral I’d ever attended.

The deceased

I should not have been surprised that it turned out to be a funeral. The deceased had suffered neglect and downright deprivation for several years. He went by the name of Citizen Engagement, better known locally as PPN. The soubriquet ‘Citizen’ testifies to his European origins (Strasbourg, France we believe), and, to tell the truth, we’re not even sure if his family there are aware of his fate. It will fall to some kind person to remedy this. He was never much welcomed by the authorities in Meath, though heartily so in most other counties in Ireland. Not quite strangled at birth, but certainly never nurtured sufficiently to allow any chance of growing to maturity2. We’ll miss him more than we know; a great potential lost.

The chief mourners

Though we could only guess at who the mourners were, our eyes being closed, and our voices stilled by the Celebrant, I’m guessing some of MCC senior management and a substantial cohort of councilors were there, if only to make sure the deceased was properly buried. Most of the mourners would have come from the community sector, no doubt attending out of respect for what might have been, a sadness tinged perhaps with a sense of guilt that they did not give him more support while he was alive4.

The coroner’s report

The first draft of the coroner’s report being to hand (anything is possible in a dream), I can share some of this with you, the reader (in confidence, of course!!!). I understand that the coroner drew her conclusions from evidence provided by members of the outgoing Secretariat, some community groups, and members of the general public who felt ‘something untoward had happened here’. Her view was that MCC senior management never had any sympathy for the deceased, considering him a nuisance who could intrude in their time-honoured manner of doing things, asking awkward questions, and demanding to be kept informed3. He was an unnecessary complication and anyway ‘why couldn’t the public just ask their excellent councilors’5. With some exceptions, the majority of the councilors appeared to consider Citizen Engagement as a competitor rather than as an ally, a veritable treasure trove of skills and wisdom; they dare not say it though, and sure there was no need to; they could just continue stonewalling by pleading their hands were tied by senior management (questionable though convenient)6.

When the traditional ‘Powers that be’ effectively emasculated poor Citizen, his disciples responded by losing interest. Those Powers did this so effectively that the poor man couldn’t even draw a quorum to his funeral7

Enter the Shadow of Autocracy

The Dream continued but the scene shifted. I was no longer lingering in the graveyard in the aftermath of the burial, seeking acquaintances whom I knew were there but who were invisible and silent. Rather my eyes were beginning to grow accustomed to the semi-darkness of a theatre with the lights dimmed. Several councilors whom I recognized were sitting at a table on the stage, facing an audience of perhaps 100. On stage right sat a lady who introduced herself as the Moderator. I realized I was attending the Southeast Meath Townhall meeting at the Venue Theatre in Ratoath, scheduled for the night after the funeral of poor hapless Citizen Engagement. The opening topics were dealt with very sensibly, water issues, infrastructure, parks and greenspaces, access to healthcare; the very stuff that makes Townhalls so useful to those communities attached to them. We moved on to Housing. It was then that the train wobbled a bit. We should be aware (the moderator told us) that a forthcoming referendum which ostensibly is intended to tame land speculators excessive profiteering was going to enable the authorities to take away private homes, or rooms in private houses. The train was veering quite strongly to the right. Then a lady pleaded with us to stop persecuting our young men, who, it seems, ‘are afraid to show their manliness for fear of being labelled homophobic’. Not to be outdone a lady beside the manliness champion declared stridently (if mysteriously) that ‘No government was going to take away her right to be a woman’.

This was the point when the train left the tracks entirely.

It seems the World Health Organization (WHO) is intent on World Domination, nothing less. And who is its paymaster? Its Professor Moriarty? None other than the arch-fiend Bill Gates. But of course, we should have known that!!! And the real frightener was, this was not coming from some lúdramán in the audience; it was coming from the ‘Moderator’. A man in the audience who protested ‘this is conspiracy theory nonsense’ was silenced by shouts of ‘hear her out’. This was ridiculous. Trump had appeared in Ratoath, on a normal Thursday night, albeit in drag. My mind raced. What was happening here? Was this the Ghost of what was to come, a Kafkaesque reckoning visited on the citizenry for neglecting their role as citizens, for letting others do their thinking for them? For leaving it to the ubiquitous ‘Them’ to take care of everything, or at least to be available as scapegoats when ‘They’ didn’t do whatever they should have done.

The Shade of Yeats swirled through the auditorium, quietly intoning the lines of his poem, The Fisherman8:

The clever man who cries

The catch cries of the clown,

The beating down of the wise,

And great Art beaten down.’

One of the councilors strode purposefully (manfully?) from the stage, probably feeling he had better things to do with his time. Deciding that I could do with an early night, I followed. And slept fitfully until Dawn.

The Real Nightmare begins…..

Though I am retired for many years now, I still waken on Friday mornings with that TGIF feeling – ‘the weekend starts this afternoon’. Not so that Friday morning.

I was still semi-comatose when it hit me. That was no dream. Those two episodes had really happened. PPN in Meath in its legislated role6 had indeed been buried on Wednesday night, with less than five percent of the Community Groups in Meath following the cortege. And a clone of the Donald had indeed spoken in Ratoath on Thursday night, disguised as the Moderator of a Townhall meeting.

There must be a message here somewhere? 

I feel I know what the message is; it’s not new; in fact, it has been well described by wise men for decades now8. Where Communities abdicate responsibility for their own affairs, where what was formerly a community project is now put out to tender, in such cases social capital, pride of place, community resilience, all suffer. Where citizen engagement is discouraged or impeded, as it is now in Meath, a ‘can-do’ outlook gives way to apathy, feeding an entitlement culture, where our only responsibility is to protest and call names. A local authority which discourages community engagement in decision-making is not only ignoring National Policy; it is also short-changing present and future generations. The ultimate price is the loss of the liberal democracy we have enjoyed for generations, as autocracy and inequality edge out the imperfect but very worthwhile social structures that communities have built over the years since independence.


If you would care to discuss the above, please feel free to email us. Footnotes may be made available upon request. Contact us at info@ashgreenspaces.com


(From Sept 2021)  80-acre zoning – After sixty years, a giant step forward!!!

Public support was the key factor

On September 21, Meath Councillors voted to zone 80 acres of Killegland Farm for a community park. The following day, the County Development Plan 2021-27 was adopted, bringing a close to years of work by Councillors and MCC Staff.

Some procedural steps remain, and there may be legal or Ministerial interventions to aspects of the Plan, but it is very likely that the mirage that has eluded us since the 1960’s – a Community Park for Ashbourne – will shortly be one very important step closer.

How did this come about? Are there lessons to be learned here?

There are.

Like many an ‘overnight success’, this moment had been years in the making:

  • The Playspaces’ report was the bedrock of the case for the park. The Greenspaces’ research augmented that and was influential in fixing location. The professionals at MCC, the planners, the legal eagles and the Chief Executive together constructed a plan for Ashbourne that was farsighted, balanced and fair. And finally, our group of five Councillors expert coalition-building carried the day in the Council Chamber.
  • But Councillors and Community activists in Ashbourne had collectively been beating this drum for years. What was different this time? That’s easy: an unprecedented 300-plus public submissions in March 2020 and a cascade of 2,399 more in June 2021, facilitated by Greenspaces – that made the difference. All parties played their role – the clinching factor was the level of community engagement at the critical moment.

The key lesson: Well-reasoned arguments, evidence-based promotion, all play a part, but will only get you so far; at the end of the day, the degree of community interest and engagement determines the degree and quality of success achieved.

This was local democracy played out at its very best!

The Park will be a community-driven project

If Community participation has made the key difference so far, it will also be the ‘secret sauce’ that will determine how well the Park project will succeed. Will we achieve a high-quality version of what a Park can be, or will we settle for a minimal park of mediocre quality? The professionals at MCC and our Councillors have presented us with the opportunity; it is now up to us.

Let’s be clear, the Plan has Zoned 80 acres; we still must acquire the land. To move from Zoning to Owning will call for a major ramp-up in terms of effort and competencies required.  There will be many setbacks and regroupings; commitment for the long-term will be essential and community resolve will regularly be tested over the next few years. Ashbourne must marshall the collective genius of the Community, the sum of the skillsets, the inventiveness, the experience and the wisdom of our citizens, and channel it to tackle the many opportunities and challenges ahead.

We can take comfort in the certain knowledge that such competence exists in abundance in our community and that it has always answered the call in the past. Projects on this scale, though significant, won’t phase us. The lateral thinking, fund-sourcing, negotiation, interest-balancing, and political maneuvering called for are daily fare to many of our Citizens in their various careers.

So, when we say ‘Community-driven’, we mean just that, including:

  • Continuing to build a cohesive and diversified team to get stuck into exploring possibilities in terms of features and facilities for the Park,
  • developing a realistic funding strategy that will find the millions needed,
  • anticipating risks, from plain bad luck, to moves by parties who don’t want to see this dream succeed,
  • building the extensive organization that can marshall the multitude of skills, talents, and resources needed to deliver the dream,
  • negotiating the formula that reconciles all the conflicting interests of the many parties involved, to consistently find the ‘win-win’ solutions.

All this and much more is what we mean by Community-driven.

Next steps….

On June 1, Greenspaces published a discussion document that proposed ideas on the way forward. This can be viewed at www. http://www.ashgreenspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/21_06_01_Greenspaces_plans_for_2021_-_Discussion_Document.pdf

To harness the sentiment and enthusiasm we encountered on our two Submission campaigns, we launched ‘Friends of the Community Park’ in September. This group will be valuable when we are canvassing opinions and ideas and sometimes more directly when we are recruiting skills and experience to the program. We are in the very early stages of a survey to build a comprehensive catalogue of features, functions, ideas and opinions that will help shape the Park.  Over the Winter we will convene a Park conference to consolidate the myriad inputs and produce a ‘Statement of Requirements’ for the park. This will feed into a detailed planning process that will happen during 2022.

Zooming out for a moment, we should not forget that the area zoned for the Park occupies about a third of the overall Killegland landbank. How the totality of this landbank is used has strategic implications for the future of Ashbourne. Indeed, it would be short-sighted now to view the Park without taking the wider context into account. The discussions around these matters will determine what type of Town we will leave for our children and grandchildren.

Finally, and to return to the Park, the scale of this undertaking will require the participation of all parties, Community, Elected Representatives, MCC Executive, and Business. If we, the Community, abdicate our responsibility, if we leave it to others, we do so at our peril; it’s much too large and complex a project not to have all hands on deck. Our collective capabilities are called for here.

This Park is for the Ages, for the generations to come. Think long-term.

Greenspaces would like to thank all those many Citizens who have contributed to our thinking and offered their assistance for the road ahead.

Ní neart go cur le chéile (From Unity comes Strength).

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