It’s time again to shine a spotlight on one of our community’s petition-starters, and glean some useful tricks of the trade from their campaign work.
This time we’re talking to Pom, who started a petition to Save the Iveagh Gardens.
Tell us about you and how the campaign started
I’ve lived in Dublin city most of my adult life and I don’t have a garden as I live in an apartment – as many people do in cities. The Iveagh Gardens, a little park in Dublin city centre, is an important park to me and to a lot of people. It’s an oasis in the middle of the city, a beautiful place to walk the dog, do some yoga, be with nature, do whatever – and it’s a protected heritage area and structure.
In 2017, I became aware of the Office of Public Works (OPW) plans to demolish the ‘protected’ garden old wall and build a plaza to accommodate a massive 4-story museum. I couldn’t believe they had been granted planning permission to interfere so catastrophically with a heritage structure. It would destroy the space and be the end of the Iveagh Gardens as we know it.
I couldn’t sleep, it upset me so much. Living in Dublin, the destruction around you and buildings left to decay is, unfortunately, something you become used to seeing.
I decided I had to do something. So, what does someone who wants to do something do? I started a petition.
How did you start the campaign?
First I organised an event called ‘Listen to the Gardens’ in the Iveagh Gardens – it was a spontaneous protest to draw attention to what was happening. I was making it up as I went along! I hadn’t a clue, I’d never done something like this before. I was being carried by the cause and I have a certain ‘can do’ attitude from doing street theatre since I was young. My husband and actor Phelim Drew brought guitars and everyone was singing along to the song Big Yellow Taxi from the lyric sheets I printed.
“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” which was pretty apt for the occasion. I passed around a clipboard and gathered signatures from everyone but it was very laborious, it was clear I’d need to go bigger if I wanted the campaign to be successful. An online petition was the obvious thing to do but I’d never done one before. I thought it would be really difficult and complicated.
But it was amazing how easy and accessible setting up the petition was. I wrote up the main ask of the campaign which was to save Iveagh Gardens, explaining the campaign and put it up with a photo of the gardens.
It was fascinating to watch signatures climb. It reached 10,000 signatures in 3 days – which was mind blowing! It would take me a lot longer to stand outside the gardens to get that amount of names on a petition. I still used those offline signatures and easily added them to the online petition the online petition helped the campaign reach new heights.
The Uplift petition became a linchpin for the campaign. It was a talking point for the media, people could easily tweet about it and I could make Facebook posts with the link.
It was such a great way to grow a campaign. You could reach the whole country and beyond.
The ‘email supporters’ tool was what I used to communicate what was going on to supporters. I can’t stress enough how important it was for galvanising people.
How did you keep momentum on such a long campaign?
I felt so strongly about the prospective destruction. There was such an undemocratic arrogance the whole thing – I couldn’t ignore it. I kept the pressure on in any avenue I could. Over the years, there were many different developments along the way that I could act on and feedback to supporters of the campaign through the petition and social media.
As well as endless emails to conservations groups, Councillors and TD’s, I wrote to people with a visible public profile who might lend their voice, musicians who played in the gardens or anyone who might be sympathetic. Getting support from other people is vital.
I spend alot of energy trying to get articles in the paper or items on the radio. I spent a long time building up a relationship with journalists, feeding information and trying to find a hook for an article they could cover. Eventually, I was successful – which was a victory in itself and it helps keeps you going.
I was ringing City Councillors to try to get them on board. Even now I’m still emailing them to get the gardens included in the City Development Plan under City Heritage.
I also did a lot of letter writing to the prospect museum, to their board, to the Office of Public Works (OPW) and others trying to gain information on the status of the project.
The OPW were responsive and we had a robust meeting with me and another Uplift member. While we didn’t agree – it was democracy in action. I definitely think being able to say nearly 47,000 people were behind me helped get me in the door.
Did you face any hurdles in the campaign?
In the early stages of the campaign, at one point one of the parties asked me to take down the petition saying it was being misleading. That was disconcerting – it made me question myself and the campaign.
But staff in Uplift were on hand to support and go through it and go back over the wording so I didn’t have any doubts. It wasn’t misleading – they just didn’t agree with me and didn’t like the pressure the campaign was putting on them.
And I wasn’t alone – 47,000 people on the petition think their plan was a bad idea too!
Keeping a cool head was important and knowing that I’m perfectly entitled to run with this and help the common good. I had to be strong to go up against people with more resources that I had. But I had one resource they didn’t: people power.
What did you learn along the way?
I learned more about how the city works – it seems no one is in charge! Councillors don’t always have all the information – often you know more than Councillors! And the planning system is a mess – there is very little oversight or enforcement of protection laws. Heritage protection isn’t being acted on.
Dublin’s character is being destroyed bit by bit – and it seems An Bord Pleanála (ABP) is a willing executioner.
Kevin Duff from An Taisce “protecting the built heritage in the 2020’s is not for the faint hearted.”
I had never engaged with Councillors properly before. I wrote letters to support my submission to the Dublin City Development Plan – I had never done that before. One councillor got back to me and I didn’t understand the language she wrote back. I felt I didn’t know the structures or what to ask for. So I emailed another Councillor asking them to meet me about the motion and asking to explain how the council works using my own language. Now, I’ve been to a few council meetings and it’s fascinating.
When contacting my local Councillors – I tell them I’m a voter. I tell them 46,675 of us care about this and that it’s popular with constituents so it helps get them behind it. They act for us after all!
I also learned that the planning system is so corrupt. Certain people just assume they’re getting permission and don’t want any oversight. Recently it’s all come to light with An Bord Pleanála.
What advice would you offer someone who wanted to start their own campaign for the first time?
The Iveagh Garden campaign it’s fair to say erupted into my life (ask my husband and my kids!) more than me sitting down and choosing it. If you really feel strongly about something, just do it. There’s so many campaigns in the world, I did question myself but this is the one that fell into my lap so i just decided this is the one – just go for it!. I feel passionate about people in the inner city who do not have access to gardens. So I owed it to them and myself, I believed this is the one thing I could change and make my mark on my contribution to Dublin city, to human kind, to animals and wildlife. Then run with the ball, start your petition, write to your councillors, get creative, be prepared not to say no and give up!
Persistence over anger. Find your allies. People really do have power when they act together. It’ll take over your life for a while but it’s worth it.
How was your campaign successful?
Their plan fell apart, the OPW knew it wasn’t a popular plan but whenever I asked for the start date, I was told that the parties were in arbitration and then permission ran out. Which is a win. But they will never admit it – they won’t come out and say it. This was our win.
The campaign started in 2017 and it was May 2022 when it became obvious the plan wasn’t going ahead, permission ran out and no new permission went ahead.
I took the time to celebrate that and communicate with supporters. I held an event in the garden in May. It was really nice, a small group. After I sent an email to supporters, it took me weeks to go through all of the amazing messages about how much the campaign and the garden meant so much to people. There really is a lot of heartache around Dublin.
Will they go again?
They might. But for now it is a win, it’s off the table.
I haven’t taken the petition down so we are ready for something else if it starts to happen – if another planning goes up. I will be able to communicate with supporters and revive the campaign again.
Petition-starter, Pom, works in the arts – she’s an actor, writer, performer and comedian. Check out Pom’s petition to Save The Iveagh Gardens here.
P.S. You can start your own petition on an issue you’re passionate about by heading over to MyUplift.