ALISON O'CONNOR: Eoghan Murphy in firing line for Government’s failure on housing

Promises, promises. It the sense of déjà vu that does it really. 

We have now in my view the most comprehensive policy response to homelessness that Ireland has ever had… It is all about implementation now

— Minister for Housing Simon Coveney, October 21, 2016;
more than 6,709 homeless.

The number that we have accessing emergency accommodation is still unacceptably high… We are making some progress here. It is too slow, I completely accept that, but I think it is important to recognise that we are helping families and making some progress, and we want to continue that progress

— Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy, October 27, 2017;
8,373 people homeless.

Next year almost 10,000 new homes will come into the stock of social housing, that is not a small number… We mustn’t mislead the public by pretending to them we would fix all these problems in 16 months. We’re talking about rebuilding an entire sector

— Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy, September 25, 2018;
almost 10,000 people homeless.

Promises, promises. It the sense of déjà vu that does it really. Three statements, three years apart, involving two different housing ministers and the same Fine Gael party in power. Listening to Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy on Morning Ireland on Tuesday, there was the usual sense of surreality as he defended himself in advance of the Dáil motion of no confidence in him which he comfortably survived. What is always missing from the narrative is a proper explanation as to the actual why, to date, their efforts to tackle this very serious crisis have resulted in such abject failure — as many numbers as they like can be bandied about, but the one that counts is that ever rising figure surrounding the number of people becoming homeless.

Over the years, we’ve heard a near-exhaustive list of who or what is to blame for the crisis — the recession, our national debt, landlords, land hoarders, local authorities, banks, the Central Bank, the private sector, owners of empty dwellings, developers who can’t/won’t build, who only build in certain places, or for certain types of buyers or certain types of apartments, or who only build office blocks and not houses at all. There have been the rough sleepers who can’t be managed or the accidental landlords who just weren’t coping.

And still the numbers kept rising, up at almost 10,000 homeless now. It seemed an interesting exercise to go back and see what Mr Murphy was saying on that same programme this time last year, when that number was 8,373, or the previous year when Simon Coveney held that job and the number was 6,709.

Eoghan Murphy in firing line for Government’s failure on housing

So on Tuesday morning, when asked about those latest really alarming figures, Mr Murphy applied the most marvellous logic.

“The numbers in emergency accommodation do keep going up because people keep presenting in emergency accommodation,” he said.

He had been arguing that huge progress had been made in the past two years but was challenged with the fact that, in June, four families were made homeless every day.

“And every day in June, four families were prevented from going into emergency accommodation and three families exited from emergency accommodation,” he said.”We should be judged not by the fact that there is a crisis but how we are treating people in a
crisis, and what our long-term solutions are to end that crisis.”

He accused the opposition of trying to establish that this crisis was caused by this Government and by him under his watch and that he should have corrected it in the 16 months since his appointment.

This is spin at its very finest. To be fair, Fine Gael took office in 2011 in the teeth of the financial recession and any mention at that time of the need for a housing plan would have had them laughed off the stage. But here we are in 2018 and each quarter of each year that passes we see more excuses from them despite the reality of the figures as they are presented.

Of course, Mr Murphy couldn’t be expected to solve it all in a year and a half, but the obvious point is that he was taking over from a party colleague — now the second most senior person in Cabinet, Tánaiste Simon Coveney. It’s not like he was coming to it cold with an utterly different plan in place by a different party with a vastly different ideology.

After all, Mr Coveney himself said two years ago:

We have now in my view the most comprehensive policy response to homelessness that Ireland has ever had

This week, Sinn Féin was doing exactly what an opposition should do in terms of the confidence motion and attempting to put pressure on the Government. However, it’s unlikely that a change of face in that portfolio would make much of a difference. Mr Coveney talked a good talk when he was in there, and did a good job of keeping the homelessness sector on side but it would be hard to imagine there would be much difference in the figures, if he had remained in housing.

Eoghan Murphy in firing line for Government’s failure on housing

It’s far easier for Cabinet colleagues and party backbenchers to point to the minister, just as it is in health, and to disclaim any blame. That way the brief becomes toxic;
it is seen as a punishment posting for anyone appointed, and failure is the expected outcome.

This is a whole of Govermnment issue. Its potential impact on the outcome of the next general election is a cause for serious concern for Fine Gael. The Government has come to the sharp realisation in recent months that the issue has gone from being mainly Dublin- or urban-based to a matter of alarm throughout the country. Everyone knows someone who has been affected. Ordinary middle-class, middle-aged, law-abiding people find themselves in sympathy with the ‘Take Back the City’ movement and its occupation of vacant buildings and protest marches. They don’t like the idea of breaking the law but there is a feeling of guilt that the younger generation face such insurmountable obstacles in trying to get a roof over their head, be it rented or purchased.

Next week, there is a cross-party motion on housing that will be debated during Private Members Business in the Dáil. Taking place on Wednesday, it will coincide with the ICTU-led ‘Raise the Roof: Homes for All’ rally which will take place outside Leinster House.

Launched by Sinn Féin, the motion has also been signed by Labour, People Before Profit, Solidarity, the Social Democrats, the Green Party, Independents for Change, and Independent members of the Oireachtas.

The protest outside is supported by the Union of Students in Ireland, the National Women’s Council, the National Housing and Homeless Coalition, Fr Peter McVerry, Focus Ireland, Simon Communities of Ireland, and a number of other advocacy and campaign groups. That’s quite a group and the growing momentum points towards it growing. The recent referendum on the Eighth Amendment showed what can be achieved with the power of the group collective.

There is a real momentum beginning to gather.


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