Daniel McConnell: Why would any young person vote for Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil?

A housing emergency was declared eight years ago, but, with uproar over a vulture fund buying up nearly an entire estate in Kildare, who in Government is going to take accountability for it?
Daniel McConnell: Why would any young person vote for Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil?

 Mullen Park estate in Maynooth, Co Kildare. The 170-home estate has had 135 homes bought by the Round Hill Capital fund. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The events of the last week have left me asking, why would any young person vote for Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil?

The so-called defenders of the political centre-ground, who between them controlled this country for the past century, have all but abandoned the social contract with the people they are supposed to represent.

The three main elements of that contract — owning a house, a job, and a decent pension — are out of reach of many, if not most, young people and will remain out of reach for the foreseeable.

Last week’s scoop by Michael Brennan in the Business Post about an investment fund buying up a large housing estate in Maynooth set the political agenda for the week amid rather somewhat pathetic and unbelievable expressions of surprise from the Government benches.

Do they think we are stupid and not realise that, in the case of Fine Gael, the party been in power since 2011 and as the opposition said this week, “cheer-led” such foreign funds into the country?

Fianna Fáil, now in charge of the housing portfolio under minister Darragh O’Brien, is still paying the price for its previous foibles in the property market in the 2000s. Its facilitating Fine Gael between 2016 and 2020 is also a black mark against the party.

All week, the Government has come under intense criticism after it was claimed in the Dáil that it enabled a housing "bloodsucker rampage", which has seen the majority of houses in some estates bought up by these deep-pocketed foreign investors who can easily gazump first-time buyers.

Parliamentary party angst

At the two parliamentary party meetings, considerable angst and concern was voiced over the potential damage done to their electoral prospects if a speedy and meaningful solution is not delivered.

At their meetings, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs and senators blamed each other for the housing controversy, which has seen thousands of homes end up in the hands of vulture funds.

Fianna Fáil TDs launched a stinging attack on Fine Gael over housing at its meeting; at a private Fine Gael meeting, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar moved to distance his party from the housing portfolio.

Members of Varadkar's own party warned him that Fine Gael will face "enormous political consequences" if they do not tackle vulture funds buying up housing estates.

John Lahart became “very angry”, according to a TD present, over the institutional investor funds and the lack of action on them, and said in his area young adults are returning “in droves” to their parents' houses.

“Only for Covid they’d be marching on streets... and I’d be with them,” he said.

James O'Connor raised the issue of access to credit for younger buyers and builders.

 Paschal Donohoe:Fianna Fáil ministers have deliberately sought to tie the finance minister to the need to fix the issue around stopping vulture funds from swooping in and denying first-time buyers. FIle picture: Moya Nolan
Paschal Donohoe:Fianna Fáil ministers have deliberately sought to tie the finance minister to the need to fix the issue around stopping vulture funds from swooping in and denying first-time buyers. FIle picture: Moya Nolan

O'Connor said Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe “needs to do more to tackle this issue”. He said the situation is out of control and that house prices are rocketing, according to auctioneers.

Varadkar told his TDs and senators that Fine Gael does not control the housing department, but that “we as a party need to help minister Darragh O'Brien” in resolving the problem.

Having spoken to several Fine Gael TDs, what is interesting is that while there was plenty of concern, there was little or no direct criticism of O’Brien. There was “considerable angst”, however, at Donohoe's  response to criticism.

He was said to have been “overly defensive” in his defence of the tax breaks introduced by his predecessor, Michael Noonan, and in the role these investment trusts have played.

“There was nothing stopping him from coming out and saying such investment trusts were needed in 2012 and 2013 but have served their purpose and we are changing the rules. He was too defensive and colleagues were not very happy,” said one senior party member.

All week, O’Brien and other Fianna Fáil ministers have deliberately sought to tie Donohoe to the need to fix the issue around stopping vulture funds from swooping in and denying first-time buyers.

O’Brien noted that the Department of Finance has the power to “affect real change” on the issue by cutting back on the tax breaks currently offered to the funds. He said he needs the support of the finance minister to tackle the issue but insisted he is “not writing anything off” at this point. A clear attempt to share the load.

O'Brien a lightning rod?

 Darragh O'Brien: Coalition does not want the housing minister to become a lightning rod for criticism. File picture: Moya Nolan
Darragh O'Brien: Coalition does not want the housing minister to become a lightning rod for criticism. File picture: Moya Nolan

What has also been interesting has been recognition from across the Coalition to prevent O’Brien from becoming, like Eoghan Murphy before him, a lightning rod for criticism from the opposition and the electorate.

Despite internal jokes that we have gone from “Posh Boy to Del Boy” in terms of who is running the department, there is a recognition that housing is the major issue that could sink this Government.

Although it is eight years since a housing emergency was declared in this country, progress remains painfully slow. And while 33,000-plus houses are needed each year, we will build just 15,000 this year and it could be 2025 before we hit that target.

What is also clear is that there has been a tendency in the Government to silo off housing to the one department, even though the main levers of change reside in the Department of Finance.

“The Department of Finance are the primary problem and the primary solution to fixing the housing problem,” one minister conceded to me.

Donohoe and O’Brien are readying plans to fix the immediate issue of the vulture funds, but the size of the housing crisis is far, far greater.

On taking office last June, Taoiseach Micheál Martin made a virtue of his party taking control of the difficult departments of Health and Housing.

While most politicians feel the electorate has “priced in” the chaos in the health service, the same cannot be said about housing, which has the potency to do real damage.

Feeling priced out of the property ladder and woefully protected in the crazily inflated rental sector, young people are quite right to feel abandoned by the Government.

Opposition parties such as Sinn Féin, Labour, Social Democrats, and People Before Profit see housing as fertile hunting grounds for disaffected voters and it is no coincidence that most, if not all, are attracting younger voters compared to the “stale, male, and pale” parties of Government.

Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have set themselves up as bastions of centrist politics bulwarks to the kind of populist extremism which has emerged in the past 10 years.

They see themselves as defenders of the centre-ground but the truth is they have abandoned it and allowed it to be hallowed out.

Until they fix that, their feigned surprise at what happened in Maynooth last week will rightly ring hollow to the public.

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