“Listen to me, Fianna Fáil is disintegrating”.
That was the strong charge made at the tail end of the party’s weekly private meeting on Wednesday night, which made many attendees sit up and listen.
During a sharp contribution from James O’Connor, the 23-year-old Cork East TD set out why in his view the party is “extremely unpopular” in areas of the country and also among younger voters.
According to sources, the country’s youngest TD “laid into” his colleague the Housing and Local Government Minister Darragh O’Brien over the party’s housing strategy and what he called the systemic locking out of young professionals from being able to own a home.
Sources at the meeting have said Mr O’Connor argued that the inability of educated young working professionals to secure mortgage deposits due to high rents needs to be addressed and that the party is failing to meet their needs.
He also called on the Government to support the USI's efforts to address issues facing student renters and for the Taoiseach and Minister for Local Government to engage with the Union of Students of Ireland (USI).
Speaking to me afterwards about his contribution, Mr O’Connor said: “I’m trying to get my colleagues to see we need to focus on the sector of society who are earning good money, paying their taxes but not getting a fair return for their efforts.”
“They need to be heard,” he said.
Mr O’Connor said that in cities like Cork and Dublin, the status quo means that entire generations are being “locked out” of their genuine aspiration of wanting to own their own home.
It would be easy to dismiss Mr O’Connor as a naïve first-time TD in his mid-20s, as some of his more weary and senior colleagues have sought to do.
However, his analysis of the state of his party’s misfortunes and the cancer of the inequity of Ireland’s housing sector are well placed.
Since returning to Government last year, Fianna Fáil’s popular support as reflected in a series of opinion polls has slumped to historically low levels.
While the latest Red C poll for the Business Post saw an upturn in support for the party, it still only finds itself at 16% with support for the party in Dublin running at just 15%.
The poll also showed the same level of support among 18–35-year-olds and just 12% for those between 35-54-year-olds.
Mr O’Connor’s setting out of the frustrations of those younger professionals is spot on.
Compared with their parents, their generation are paying higher taxes, working longer hours for less reward, will have far less job security, will have to make do with much poorer pensions — all to pay for their good time.
It is undeniable that the baby boomers have had the most extraordinary luck to have been born when they were.
Squeezed out of the property market, many younger professionals are forced to live at home longer, remaining dependent on their parents for much longer, ultimately stymieing their own development and potential contribution to society as a result.
Indeed, contrary to what was expected, the Covid-19 pandemic has not made it any easier for the younger generation to buy their first house, because the banks tightened all lines of credit.
Whereas the parents of those young professionals tended to enter into a job and stay with one company or government department for their career, those in their late 20s and early 30s today have no such comfort.
Zero-hour contracts, the need to be more flexible, the need to work longer hours for less reward is our reality. The crisis in pensions means that those who retire in the next quarter of a century will receive much less per year than their parents who have retired on the old traditional guaranteed final salary pension.
The move en masse away from the defined benefit pension — where people retired with a massive tax-free, lump sum worth up to 1.5 times your annual salary plus an annual pension worth between a half or 60% of your final salary — to the lower defined contribution pensions has been a travesty.
Done because so many defined benefit schemes were massively in debt because they were gorged upon by the boomers, my generation and those coming after me now face poverty in old age despite having good jobs.
The paucity of supply has been the stated main reason for the housing crisis, since it was first declared by then Housing Minister Alan Kelly in 2014. In fact, Mr Kelly called it an emergency. Seven years on, that emergency is still not only ongoing but it is much worse.
Mr O’Connor’s clear frustration, as articulated at the parliamentary party, cuts to the heart of the party’s retrenchment into a minority force in Irish politics with its future very much in doubt.
His criticisms are the latest in a string of stinging internal barbs from TDs against Taoiseach Micheál Martin, his Cabinet and the leadership.
The passage of the Land Development Agency bill through the Dáil this week is Mr O’Brien’s big attempt at addressing the gulf in supply, but it is already clear it will be nothing more than a drop in the ocean of what is required.
The LDA is planning to deliver homes at its first site at a discount of about one-third of the market rent, its chief executive has said.
Giving evidence to the Oireachtas housing committee this week, LDA chief executive John Coleman said a one-bed apartment at its scheme at Shanganagh in Dublin will be put up for rent of about €1,000 per month, a decrease of 34.9% on market rents.
A two-bed will be rented for between €1,200 and €1,300 per month, a discount of 27.7% to 33.3% on market rents in the area, he said. Construction is expected to begin on the site in the second half of this year, with homes being finished off in 2023.
The committee was told that the LDA plans to deliver 600 homes in 2023 and “ramp up” from there. It has a near-term pipeline of about 3,000 units across nine sites, mostly in and around Dublin or the commuter belt.
Looking purely at the politics of this, the significance of what Mr O’Connor told his party is that he has identified a gaping hole in the party’s attractiveness ahead of the next election.
After a terrible campaign during the 2020 General Election, Fianna Fáil cannot simply afford another one if they are to remain as a viable force in Irish politics.
Unburdened by the legacy of civil war loyalties of previous generations, voters in Ireland today are far more fickle and more transitory.
Seven years on from the calling of the housing emergency, as Mr O’Connor told his colleagues, the party that can free younger professionals from the property trap they are in is likely to be rewarded in spades.