Irish society’s real problem is closer to home than climate or Brexit

Irish society’s real problem is closer to home than climate or Brexit

Last week, I wrote about Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s greatest achievement. This week, I want to write about his greatest failure.

This newspaper had a very powerful editorial the other day, and it made a point that hadn’t occurred to me before:

That two subjects have dominated public discourse in Ireland for the last number of years. One we take seriously; one we don’t. One is in our control; the other isn’t.

They are housing and the climate crisis. Where climate is concerned, we march, we protest.

And we do more. Families all over Ireland are taking seriously their responsibilities to the environment. We recycle and separate, we compost, we invest in cleaner cars, and we use public transport as much as we can.

Where housing is concerned, we wring our hands, overwhelmed by the numbers, and perhaps numbed by the labels. We’re capable of being moved to anger by the sight of a little boy eating his dinner on the pavement. But when we hear the label “the homeless”, we give up.

That’s the power of labels: The homeless, the disabled, the elderly, the asylum seekers. Labels rob people of identity and voice, and they make us more immune to injustice.

Labels are a powerful tool of a neglectful public policy. It’s a public policy that’s only stirred into action by the sight of people suffering — a boy eating from the pavement, a man dying in a doorway at Christmas. As soon as the emotion dies, the anonymous label again deadens all concern.

Last week’s editorial here concluded that it was “an indictment of us … that we have a better chance of averting climate collapse” than dealing with homelessness.

It’s highly impertinent of me to disagree with the editor, I know, but actually, three subjects have dominated public discourse. The third is Brexit, which also poses an existential threat to our wellbeing.

Though we can’t control Brexit, look at the intellectual energy, political capital, financial resources, and the overwhelming sense of urgency and of priority that we have devoted to that subject. And we have done as well as we can possibly do.

If the same political will and leadership had been directed at the homelessness crisis, imagine what could have been achieved.

The editorial forcefully made the point that “one of the mysteries at the heart of this crisis is the reluctance of local authorities to use compulsory purchase orders to secure building land. This reticence benefits everyone in the equation, except those victims trying to buy a home. This process would make land available at a cost that would be a game-changer.”

As I read it, I kept saying to myself, ‘yes.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes.’ And then, ‘But.’

Of course, I don’t disagree with the editorial. I, too, find it impossible to understand why compulsory purchase orders have fallen into disuse for housing. Only a few months ago, the National Transport Authority was proposing to use a swathe of them to enable the widening of bus routes throughout Dublin (and the vandalising of hundreds of old trees in the process).

And, frequently, I pass places where, years ago, the State should have acquired the land to build houses. On the South Circular Road, in Dublin, for example, there is a mighty site — it used to be where John Player cigarettes were manufactured — that could accommodate hundreds of housing units.

It has been the subject of some interminable wrangle between a developer and the NTMA for years, and it’s a prime example of how the State should simply step in and take it at a fair and reasonable price. As the editorial said, it would be a game-changer.

But. Here’s the but. Climate change is seen as a whole-of-government affair. Brexit is definitely a whole-of-government affair. Housing is seen as the responsibility of a line minister; not a bad or incompetent minister, and certainly not a minister who doesn’t care. But he’s a minister trapped by ideology and forced to apply the only strategy this government will support.

The ideology is simple. This government, like every government since the start of the Celtic Tiger, believes that house-building is a job for developers.

In every decade from the 1930s to the Noughties in Ireland, governments built houses (and used CPOs for the purpose); thousands of houses, and neighbourhoods and towns. In the process, they built communities that lasted for generations.

And then, they stopped. Somehow, they came to believe that only the private sector could do this job, and only then if there were large profits involved.

That is the ideology that has to change.

And if we are to go back to the old way — the way that worked — there is one other thing that has to change: the Constitution.

Irish society’s real problem is closer to home than climate or Brexit

If you search the Dáil record, you can find dozens of examples — where land can’t be taken, where rents can’t be controlled, where tenants can’t be protected — because to do so would be to infringe the property rights of the Constitution.

I don’t know if that’s an excuse or a reality (probably a bit of both). But any leader who was as interested in homelessness as he is in Brexit and the environment would lead the people of Ireland in changing that.

To my non-lawyer eyes, our Constitution contains the most powerful right to the ownership of private property in the world. It says it’s a natural right; it can never be abolished; it’s antecedent to positive law.

That’s all written down. The only way in which those rights can be limited is if it is necessary to reconcile them with “the exigencies of the common good.”

So here, I believe, is where a leader would stop and ask himself what exactly is meant by the exigencies of the common good (because the Constitution doesn’t spell it out).

Should private property rights trump the rights of a child eating his dinner off the pavement? Should private property rights allow a homeless man to freeze to death in a doorway?

Should private property rights prevent us from addressing the single greatest social issue of our current time, which is well within our control?

We have a leader who has served us well in recent crises, and led fundamental change in Ireland.

But he is presiding over — and seems content to preside over — a housing policy that everyone knows has failed. And it’s a policy that’s destroying families, damaging communities, and contributing to a miserable future.

We might be able to buy that — maybe — if there was nothing our leader could do about it. But the solutions are in his hands.

Until he grasps them, we can only conclude that Leo’s ultimate legacy is one of failure.

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