If in doubt, spin it out. So appears to be the primary approach of the Government to the housing crisis and homeless emergency.
While there is a dearth of creativity being applied to tackling the issue, the whole gamut of spin is being used to deflect from it. There are countless and varied examples of this in recent months, but let’s just look at three which show the creativity that can be applied to the dark arts.
On July 12, the newly installed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was asked in the Dáil about a report on problems around emergency accommodation.
Entitled Right to A Home: Housing HAPs and Hubs, the report was compiled by academic Rory Hearne.
Independent TD Joan Collins asked the Taoiseach if he would address the issues raised in it.
This was the Taoiseach’s response: “I have met Rory Hearne on occasion in the past. I recall he was a student union president in Trinity when I was a student there, and I think he may even have been an election candidate for one of the left-wing groups more recently than that.
“I met with him not too long ago at a running event in the Phoenix Park where he was less than pleasant, to put it that way. It certainly was not the kind of polite conversation I would expect from a university academic.”
So instead of addressing whether he would tackle some of the humanitarian issues raised in the report, the Taoiseach effectively attacked the author’s character.
Whatever happened when the pair allegedly met in the Phoenix Park is not relevant to whether children are being developmentally damaged in emergency accommodation.
But apart from that, it is surely beneath the office of the Taoiseach to use the privilege of the Dáil to personally disparage anybody’s character in order to deflect from the embarrassment of the homeless emergency.
How are other academics — or their bosses in third-level institutes — to interpret this response? Should they now pause to reflect before producing something that might embarrass or displease the Government? If they highlight deficiencies in governance are they exposing themselves to personal attack from the Taoiseach?
Mr Varadkar got away with it, not least because of the failure of either academia or those working in the area of housing and homelessness to call him out. One might well ask whether the silence is attributable to fear of displeasing a central government that tightly controls funding for such institutions and groups.
Another example of the spin involves a failure to publish what may well be a report dealing with life and death issues in housing.
In September 2015, the then housing minister Alan Kelly commissioned a report into fire safety concerns in timber-frame dwellings. This followed a fire that levelled a terrace of six houses in half an hour in Newbridge, Co Kildare, the previous March.
The report was completed by a high-level team and delivered in March 2016. It has not been published, despite a fear that it contains some shocking shortfalls in fire safety that could impact on the homes and lives of thousands who live in timber frame houses.
For the first year after it was delivered, inquiries from this newspaper repeatedly received the reply that the report was “still under consideration”.
Then in June, the new housing minister Eoghan Murphy said the delay was due to it being considered by the attorney general, though there is no word on when it was passed to the AG.
Mr Murphy said he had only received the report in May, which may be correct, but the reality is it was with the department for a year by then.
In June also, Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman Eoin O’Broin had an FOI request for the report turned down on the basis that it “contains information relevant to the deliberative process of the department”.
The same month, Kildare’s Fine Gael TD Martin Haydon told his constituents that he met the minister about the matter and “the report has been finalised and is currently with the attorney general for legal advice. He assured me that he wants to publish it as soon as he can.”
Who’s he kiddin’? The report was finalised 15 months before Haydon’s press release. If the minister wanted to publish it, the matter could have been dealt with long before now.
The reality is the fire safety report is a legacy issue, albeit one that affects thousands of homeowners and residents. In all likelihood, publication will result in further headaches for the Government.
The response for the Government is to keep the bad news under wraps — throwing out different excuses for doing so — and keeping fingers crossed that they don’t have a serious fire on their hands anytime soon.
One other example of the spin comes straight out of the dog-eared book of burying bad news. The official homeless figures for June were released at 6pm on Friday, August 4, at least two weeks later than scheduled.
More importantly, the release coincided with the beginning of the August bank holiday weekend, ensuring critical reaction would be delayed until possibly the following Tuesday.
The figures showed that a record number of 7,941 men, women and children were homeless during June, an increase of 24.9% on the previous year.
There is widespread belief among those in both the housing and homeless sectors that the Government has still not recognised the scale of the problem on its hands.
This is unlikely to change as long as the first instinct is to think up creative ways to spin the problem away.
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