When is an emergency not an emergency? asks Daniel McConnell

There is general consensus that the housing crisis is just that.

The housing minister, Simon Coveney, said as much yesterday at the Oireachtas committee on housing.

“I am firmly of the view that the position can only be described as an emergency situation in our key urban centres, particularly in Dublin and Cork,” he said.

Coveney took office just four weeks ago and made a big deal of his action plan for housing being launched within 100 days.

When it was pointed out that that deadline was the middle of August, Coveney claimed he was ready to step up and meet the challenge.

But then, he changed his mind.

He will now not meet the 100-day deadline to launch his plan to deal with what has been described as the greatest crisis of a generation.

At the committee, he said that one of the problems around the 100-day target is that it lands right in the middle of August.

“For obvious reasons, that poses a problem because many people are not focused on work in the middle of August. I suspect some of the people at this table will be but many others will not be,” he said.

“In reality, we will end up publishing our plan at the end of August and moving into September with a really proactive and aggressive work programme to implement it and ensure it works. That is the likely timing at this stage. It will lead to it being launched immediately after the 100 days are up and then selling it. We could launch it at the end of July before everybody heads off on holidays but that is not the kind of momentum we want the project to generate.”

Housing minister, Simon Coveney
Housing minister, Simon Coveney

This is an emergency but people taking their holidays is an understandable reason to delay its launch, it seems.

Now to be fair to Coveney, he is a well-intentioned politician and, according to many of those on the front lines, he has shown a willingness to confront the crisis head-on.

Was he simply reflecting the realities of a system that seems incapable of stepping up to rapidly tackle the emergency?

He may not have meant it, but Coveney sounded like he was out of touch with the harsh realities of what it is like to be facing homelessness.

Perhaps the two-week delay to the launch of the plan, which will now not happen until early September, is not that significant if the plan itself does the trick.

But it ill behoves a Government which lost an election because of over-spin to continue the bad old ways of breaking bold promises just weeks after they are made.

Pat Doyle of the Peter McVerry Trust told me last night that every day extra means another family are at risk of becoming homeless.

He said that in the grander scheme of things it may not be a catastrophe and that the Trust are willing to “keep their powder dry” in terms of criticisms until they see the plan in its totality.

But it goes back to the point of whether this is or isn’t an emergency.

Not everyone is going on holiday, minister

What do you do in times of emergency?

You cancel shore leave, you convene emergency meetings of the great and the good, and you ensure the primary focus of all agents of the State are focused on tackling that emergency.

You don’t blithely accept that the system shuts down in August and nothing can be done about that.

In situations like this, words matter, and rightly or wrongly, Coveney’s comments are alarming.

They are alarming because they portray an attitude of passivity from the system rather than one of dynamic action.

They are alarming because they give a clear message to those affected by the lack of housing that nothing, absolutely nothing, will now happen before September.

Not a great start for those tasked with having to end what the new minister has called the “housing emergency”.

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