Meitheal? What’s a ‘meitheal’?
The Mary Robinson Centre defines ‘meitheal’ as the ‘Irish word for a work team, gang, or party and denotes the co-operative labour system in Ireland where groups of neighbours help each other in turn with farming work, such as harvesting crops.’ That is, a meitheal is a framework for cooperation between groups and individuals sharing a common social or political cause.
Neighbours who give their work to others are helped in turn with their own heavy seasonal tasks. . . . The heart of the concept is community unity through cooperative work and mutually reciprocal support. Meitheal is the Irish expression of the ancient and universal appliance of cooperation to social need.
For centuries the meitheal has been a vital feature in Irish society and it is still well known and active in rural Ireland in particular. Meitheal is in our DNA and that is why the co-op movement and credit unions are so successful in Ireland. The GAA (while it may have unsavoury facets) is an example of a massively successful Mega Meitheal of Meitheals.
Two important things to know about Meitheals
- All personal and other differences are set aside in pursuit of common benefit for the community.
- They are inclusive of age, gender, and creed and all hands are welcome whether you are 7, 17 or 97.
That diversity within a community is part of the usefulness of the Meithal concept.
Nature thrives on diversity and despises uniformity. Everything from the Universe though to the human body and everything in between are examples of mind-boggling diversity combining to create miraculously complex successful systems. If you try to impose uniformity, nature will inevitably smash it to pieces. Even the atom, which we once thought as the most pure, complete, indivisible entity we know, is comprised of strange and complex subatomic particles and energies.
Without the diversity of cells and organism in our bodies, we would die.
Diversity makes us a smarter and more efficient society. Scientific America in an article from 2014 (which they reprinted last year in the face of Trump’s immigration policies) declared that
decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers, show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups and that diversity powers science and innovation.
So why do we need a unified left? A diverse left community is dynamic, flexible, energetic, creative, committed, activist, caring, inquiring, resilient, undaunted, and generous.
Why harvest all that only to mould it into a uniform blob? Why would a muddy amalgam of ‘leftist’ parties be such a wonderful thing? Why would it be wonderful to have a ‘united’ left and dispense with the variety of opinions and ideas that thrive in the ‘sinister’ and diverse hothouse of socialist and social democratic parties and groups? Unity does not require uniformity. It doesn’t even require agreement on all things. In a traditional meitheal, two individuals who do not speak and detest one another will still cooperate to help the community. They may work at opposite ends of the field, but they are there for the common cause. And when the day’s work is complete they will stand beside one another, admire their achievements and say, ‘We did that together. I still fucken’ hate you, but we achieved that.’
I believe that diversity of the ‘left’ can create a fantastically successful and valuable political entity. I believe that social democracy can lead the way in political development using the concept of ‘meitheal’ to form An Meitheal Mor—The Great Co-op.
An Meitheal Mor
I am suggesting that the left adopt An Meitheal Mor as a means of creating an open and transparent route to solving the challenges our country faces on an issue-by-issue, task-by-task basis—an umbrella for an evolution of cooperatives, each with a very specific set of objectives and goals, working together for the common good, while keeping their diverse characteristics intact.
So, for example:
- achieving an ‘open and transparent Government’; who would come together for that meitheal?
- alleviating the homelessness crisis, the mortgage arrears crisis, and providing affordable and social housing; who would come together for that meitheal?
- achieving a long-term ‘National Housing Policy’; who would come together for that meitheal?
- closing the age-based and gender-based pay gaps; who would come together for that meitheal?
Imagine the power of having diverse talents, ideas, and energies coming together in cooperation to achieve wonderful goals for the betterment of society. These Meitheals would include charities and apolitical groups and individuals as well as political parties.
But isn’t that a definition of ‘democratic national government’??? Well, holy shit, I think it is. Isn’t that what government should be—a Meitheal Mor. A collective of ‘Meitheals’ all working for the betterment of the country?
I am suggesting that we develop our tried, tested, trusted, and successful heritage of meitheal; that we explore this method which has worked so well for our nation for centuries and apply it to our sadly dysfunctional political system; that we formulate a plan for An Meitheal Mor.