MICHAEL CLIFFORD: With record numbers sleeping rough our priorities are skewed again by water charges

A homeless camp site on the outskirts of Limerick City. Picture: Brian Gavin Press 22

WHAT matter that a record number of people are sleeping rough as temperatures dip below zero — once we’re not doomed to pay water charges, writes Michael Clifford

Who cares that large chunks of housing stock are being treated like a lotto win by vulture funds — as long as our taps are allowed to run free?

The focus of the body politic in the week gone by was on the publication of the report of the expert commission on domestic water services. Precious little of the debate that ensued concerned the most pressing aspect of the water infrastructure, which is the state of waste water treatment in the country. Rivers may turn brown, beaches wash up untreated excrement, but as long as shapes can be thrown on the issue of charges, none of it really matters.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, the cost of how we governed prior to the collapse and during the recession mounts.

On Wednesday, as the watery water report was being torturously dissected, the latest official figures for rough sleeping in Dublin found 142 souls on the streets. That number does not include the 77 people who were sleeping on the floor of the Merchant’s Quay Ireland café on the night last week when the count was taken by the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive.

The number of rough sleepers is up by more than 50% on last year, but the real volume of those exposed to the elements as the most inhospitable time of year is almost certainly far greater.

The statistic doesn’t include others such as the occupants of a gathering of tents to be found along the Dodder river on the south side of the city which was reported on last week. If past experience is anything to go by, and taking into account the inflated numbers sleeping rough, somebody will die a needless death on a street between now and the first shoots of Spring.

Dublin is not alone. During the week, RTÉ reporter Brian O’Connell explored another mini tent city on the outskirts of Limerick, something also reported in the Irish Examiner.

The occupants didn’t want the location identified, but O’Connell delivered a searing report that might have been lifted from a dystopian movie, except this was the real world, in an economy which is smothering society.

Spiralling rents are putting most of these people out of their homes and nowhere has the spiral been greater in the last 12 months than in Cork. Average rents in the city went up by 18.2%, according to Daft.ie. As with the other cities, this has thrown record numbers onto the streets, as hostels overflow with bodies and the attendant dangers of violence, fuelled by alcohol or drugs.

Still, at least the expert commission came down on the side of no charges. What kind of country would allow a system whereby consumers would have to make a direct contribution to the treatment of water? That, as some self-styled socialists have been pointing out, would amount to an abuse of human rights. No country that describes itself as civilised would permit such an odious regime.

On the eve of the publication of the expert commission, it was revealed that the capo di tutti capi of vulture funds, Cerberus, paid €1,900 in tax on profit of €77m last year.

Cerberus is currently the focus of a Dáil inquiry into the disposal of Nama’s property assets in Northern Ireland. There is an overpowering smell from the deal, with millions diverted into an off-shore account, among other things. Cerberus bears no responsibility for that stuff, but the mad rush to flog the property meant the field was open for others to turn a quick buck on the side.

Why was there the mad rush to sell property that was appreciating in value? This approach appears to have informed much of Nama’s mission over the last five years or so. Instead of being an asset management agency as designed, it turned into an asset disposal agency, flogging property to entities engaging in feeding off the carcass of the Irish economy. This, in turn, suits a short-term political culture, where almost anything can be mortgaged for the next election.

Much of the assets were disposed to vulture funds like Cerberus, and others such as those operating under a charity called the Matheson Foundation, which is linked to the Irish law firm, Matheson.

These funds are operating on a charitable status in order to — legally — avoid paying tax. Meanwhile, rents are pushed up, renters pushed out and the tax-free profits mount.

Where is the urgency in dealing with this appalling vista, in which lives, not least of developing children, are being damaged in increasing numbers because of short sighted and craven policies?

Such was the hue and cry about goddamn water charges during the week that there was little room made for a private members bill signed by most of the opposition which is designed to keep people from being turfed onto the streets.

The Secure Rents and Tenancies Bill, sponsored by Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin, should have been the focus of the body politic during the week.

The Government, in particular, should have been properly held to account for refusing to play ball on something designed to stem the flow of people onto the streets. That was beyond the base instinct of the political culture though in the week that was in it.

But look, water charges are dead, and that’s the main thing that occupied Leinster House and beyond since last Wednesday.

Fine Gael has long since hooked on the display of Phil Hogan who once obnoxiously declared “water pressure will be turned down to a trickle”, for those who failed to pay water bills. Now they are wrestling over whether to refund the mugs who did pay.

Micheál Martin has been brilliant in his tactical awareness, having located his inner Bertie and dispensed of any notion of principle on the matter.

The Shinners were slow out of the blocks, but they made up for it with attempts to hijack the whole anti-charge campaign.

They won’t get fooled again.

And top of the heap is Paul Murphy and the AAA, which have made some terrific political capital on the whole issue.

Paul, one assumes, awakes in a cold sweat the odd night with the realisation that some day all of this will end, some day water charges as an issue won’t matter anymore.

Some day soon, with any bit of luck. Then at least all that energy wasted on cynicism and populism might be redirected to addressing the real problems that persist, none more so that the abuse of a basic human right to a roof over one’s head.

More on this topic

Homeless shelter with 155 beds to open in Dublin cityHomeless shelter with 155 beds to open in Dublin city

Risk of homeless children becoming institutionalisedRisk of homeless children becoming institutionalised

Homelessness protest as City Hall launches policy on derelictionHomelessness protest as City Hall launches policy on dereliction

CBC students praised for birthday money donation to Cork Penny DinnersCBC students praised for birthday money donation to Cork Penny Dinners


Aileen Lee meets Christina Kenny - co-founder and design director of Lamb Design - to talk about her work and inspirations.Christina Kenny of Lamb Design: ‘I love bringing the outside in and inside out’

Tyrone designer Sharon Wauchob on her career and the worth of luxury fashion. By Paul McLauchlan.From Marc Jacobs to her own label, Tyrone designer Sharon Wauchob on her life in fashion

The recent sentencing of two teenage boys for the murder of Ana Kriégel has once again brought the issue of pornography into public discourse. The details of the case, which are finally coming into public knowledge, illuminate some very worrying trends that are pervasive in the modern adolescent world and as parents and indeed as a society we can no longer languish in complacency.Learning Points: Hardcore porn can pollute our children’s minds

If children are confident in interacting with others it takes away so much stress and social anxiety for them. Not too long ago, my daughter Joan and I were out with friends at a restaurant and we wanted extra water and a few other bits and Joan volunteered to go up and ask the waiter for them. My friend was really surprised at this and said that none of her children would willingly do that.Mum’s the word: We should look for chances to strengthen our kids’ social skills

More From The Irish Examiner