February 1st, 1978


FROM THE ARCHIVES:Social services correspondent Paul Murray described the turbulent beginnings of the Combat Poverty Committee, precursor of the Combat Poverty Agency, four years after its foundation. - JOE JOYCE

WHEN THE Combat Poverty Committee was set up in 1974 there was considerable excitement. Here at last, it was said, was an effort to find out what caused poverty, to see how it could be eradicated, and an indication that there was more to poverty than doling out welfare payments . . .

Such was the euphoria when Malcolm Bryan took on the big job as director. It is unlikely that he realised what he was letting himself in for, but then the salary of just over £7,000 was a few thousand more than he had been earning. At the time, too, there was no more prestigious job, and what with a committee talking about the necessity for a “redistribution of power and resources in Irish society”, the opportunity to actually do something as distinct from just alleviating the plight of many poor people was very tempting.

This is not to say that Bryan underestimated the job he was taking on, it is just that perhaps he and Frank Cluskey, the then Social Welfare Parliamentary Secretary , the government-appointed committee and social-service personnel generally had temporarily forgotten that human nature, jockeying for position, and personality difficulties can come in the way of the most idealistic projects.

As it has been phrased – hatchet work in the halls of humanity is quite common. Concern, Gorta, the Samaritans, the Irish Foundation for Human Development, and the National Association for Cerebral Palsy have all had their problems, sometimes leading to sacking and resignations.

Such was to be the plight of Malcolm Bryan, and the wounds and distress involved in the controversy and his final removal – the squabblings, debates about the need for consultation, the “conservatism” of the Poverty Committee itself, ideological verbiage, the talk about “hierarchical structures”, the adolescent rantings of some of the staff, the insensitivity of some committee members – left the committee and its staff more or less torn apart.

Rory Hynes, who had been secretary to the committee, then took up the job of acting director and set about, somewhat successfully, keeping the work going. Projects to combat poverty eventually returned to normal (although their progress is still not clear) . . . The aim was to find out how poverty might be eliminated, and to get the information which would help in developing a national programme to end poverty. Perhaps no one ever believed that could be done, but the intention was there, and the committee had signed a declaration of the need for a “redistribution of powers and resources” in the country.

The last is somewhat far away, but whoever takes up the job of director will have to concur with such thinking and other criteria.