THE 19th century American philosopher Henry David Thoreau was not thinking about Ireland when he penned his famous essay on civil disobedience.
Published in 1849, ‘Civil Disobedience’ or ‘Resistance to Civil Government’ was a call to arms to his fellow citizens to follow their conscience rather than unjust government laws and policies.
His focus was slavery but his ideas were global and continue to influence protest movements both in the US and elsewhere.
Consciously or otherwise, the 100 or so people who took over a Nama-controlled building in Dublin at the weekend to house some of the city’s homeless people were following Thoreau’s way.
They describe the occupation of Apollo House on Tara Street as an ‘act of civil disobedience’ and have garnered the support of a number of well known musicians and actors as well as filmmaker Jim Sheridan.
The Irish Housing Network, a loose coalition of housing and homeless activist groups, said that the building would “provide safe and secure accommodation to the most vulnerable people in Irish society, those sleeping on our streets”.
In taking over what once housed the Department of Social Protection, the activists are doing more than following Thoreau’s message. They are enhancing it by employing civil disobedience not just as a tool of protest but for an immediate worthwhile social purpose, providing a practical solution to Dublin’s chronic homeless crisis.
The occupation highlights the complete disconnect between government policies that have facilitated Nama to change from being Ireland’s biggest landowner to Ireland’s biggest landlord without addressing an overriding social crisis within our midst.
Housing Minister Simon Coveney’s attempt to address rising rents is welcome but it will do nothing for the 142 people living on the streets of Dublin every night. Other cities like Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway have similarly scandalous numbers of homeless people.
Perhaps the Government — and Nama — should ‘do the math’ to come up with a solution. We have thousands of vacant buildings, many of them controlled by Nama, and thousands without a home to call their own. Is it simplistic to suggest that putting two and two together might help? Perhaps, but this is a time for a radical solution as homelessness nationally has almost doubled in the past five years.
In Dublin alone, there are vacant residences, offices, public and other buildings that could be put to good use now while long-term solutions are considered. There may be health and safety concerns but even makeshift accommodation has to be better than living dangerously on the streets.
Bombastic and self-righteous the organisers may be, at least they are tapping into a groundswell of legitimate anger at the hopelessness generated by years of successive governments driving economic prosperity to the detriment of real social change.
Henry David Thoreau would have been proud.
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