Interview with Bernie Connolly

Bernie Connolly; Development Co-ordinator, Cork Environmental Forum 

Getting Started. Bernie traces her interest in environmental matters to her upbringing in Glengariff. Her family didn’t have a car and so walking and being in nature were an integral part of growing up. Travelling in her adult life toAustralia,London,Africa has shown how the approaches to environment can differ.

Bernie initially gained a degree in Business Studies and on her return from Lesothoand the Southern Africaprogramme of Irish Aid she completed a Diploma in rural development course. She has always been involved with voluntary work such as soup runs and community work with the Cork Simon Community.  Her current work as Development Coordinator of the Cork Environmental Forum involves project management more than environmental know-how, as the membership provides that expertise when needed.

Bernie was involved with the Green Party through her concern for social justice more than the environmental issues. Though not a current member of the Party because of her other commitments, she still believes that we need the ‘green’ agenda to have a political power base. Her main interest in gardening is often left unattended as her ‘busy-ness’ with Forum works takes so much time.

Valuing our Connections – Bernie can be frustrated that “inIreland there is no appreciation of our landscapes and little value on the social and cultural advantages we have”. She believes that we lost much of our social cohesion through the ‘noughties’  due to apathy, which we have to guard against. Seeing better practices abroad has given her an understanding of what we have inIreland.


Describing herself as a ‘Blow Back’ – as opposed to a ‘blow-in’ – those who have been away and come back to live here,  she feels there can be a resentment in Ireland to some outsiders, particularly those who adopt a superior attitude, even though she understands the historical reasons for this. She senses that we are better at appreciating cultures far away but not so good when differences come up close and personal. Though Irish people may have very similar experiences and cultural backgrounds they are very different which is what builds complexity in a community. Blow backs in community can be more cohesive as they have consciously moved into that community (often for similar reasons) and so can be more motivated to support and improve it. More settled communities can resist new ideas and they can be rooted in a deep residual past.

Every little helps – Bernie believes – and the Forum agrees – that we can all do a little and if we all do something then that helps a lot as the cumulative affect is great.  Making change all starts with building awareness and gaining the language to incorporate change. It is important to meet people where they are and to present the case for change in a language that is easily understood. In the past much of the environmental movement was quite ‘preachy’ –  a little all-knowing and arrogant – and this has created difficulties for delivering the current message about sustainability. It is important that everyone gets the opportunity to avail of the opportunity to make changes and so have their contribution appreciated.

Real sustainability requires that indivdiuals feel really valued but some previous environmental movement issues have divided people and communities. We need to ensure we don’t replicate discord but focus on bringing communities together.

Collaboration – Bernie feels strongly that we need to learn how to do this. We need to teach kids the skills of collaboration and though some of this is done in primary school once we get to secondary then the system is competitive and narrowly focussed and this needs radical change which we are not prepared for yet.

Cork Environmental Forum (CEF)- because of a lack of resources, they have had to collaborate across sectors to complete projects. The Forum believes that society is made up of four pillars – public, private, community/voluntary and individual -interests and the Forum now has long-term experience of working collaboratively. She notices how others who are new to collaborative projects can get very frustrated with the process and in a rush to just get results.

There are some very good examples now of collaboration in practice which the Forum has been involved with, such as the EcCoWell, the Transport & Mobility Forum, and CEF’s own Boomerang recycling project. Bernie is hopeful that people are seeing the value of the slower but ultimately more fruitful process of cross sectoral collaboration.

Contribution – A concern she has is that too often the follow through actions on projects are being borne by the smaller organisations like CEF. Bernie believes that all participants have to contribute for a collaborative process to be successful and the work needs to be divided equally amongst the organisations/individuals involved. This also means that some organisations need to ‘step back’ and not always be the ones to take on the tasks but to allow others to contribute, even if that means a slower pace of progress.

The challenge for process based practices is that once they go mainstream ‘checklist filling’ can become more important and this can be very de-motivating for participants or employees. She identifies this within Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for example, where a company wants to build ‘volunteer hours’ done and the danger is that the number of hours can over-ride the supported project outcomes which may be more process oriented. There must be very clear policies within the companies in respect of CSR and also within the beneficiary organisations about who they partner with and under what circumstances.

Learning – we need to give people and organisations the tools to help them to become part of the solutions. For example, using gardening as a tool to help people to understand about the environment through soil, water, pollination, diversity etc. These tools will then allow people to engage and deepen their own understanding of bigger issues such as climate change.

Bernie has seen this work through the CEF’s own course Global Action Plan and also on the CEF Boomerang mattress programme both of which have been very successful in moving the participants along into being far more committed environmentally. The Glen Family Resource Centre’s community garden is a great example of learning at appropriate levels where mental health issues are addressed through community garden projects. She believes strongly that we all have a spiritual side and that we are ‘of nature’ and this needs nurturing and nourishing. Gardening is a very good pathway to help access this part of our being.

Positive for the future – Bernie is positive about the fact that so many collaborative projects are gaining ground and wonders does this represent a ‘coming of age’ of the mainstream. Projects such as EcCoWell inCork and the plans for St Mary’s Hospital are showing how the institutional barriers to inclusion and collaboration are coming down. She also cites the Strategic Policy Committees, The Public Participation Networks, Local Community Development Committees as signs that the environment is being recognised and will have a voice in a structured manner.

One challenge she recognises is that there are so many consultations that one could spend one’s whole time just attending consultations and it is difficult to see the outcomes of these. It is important to be strategic about one’s time and efforts so as not to be overwhelmed or dispirited.

CEF is twenty years old this year and this is a time for reflection and is a pivot point and a time for them to address the future opportunities. CEF needs to collaborate with like minded groups to get more work done.

Useful Sources

The website called ‘Story of Stuff’ is both very informative and accessible. Available at

The Irish based Environmental Protection Agency’s own website

Book – Environment and Food by Colin Sage of UCC published by Routledge

The ‘One Million Women’ website is great – see



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