Miriam Lord: A day that called for protective ear muffs

Boyd Barrett manages to out-shout Mary Lou as he ratchets it up on homelessness

AAA-PBP TD Richard Boyd Barrett highlights the stories of people in the Dáil gallery as he challenges the Taoiseach on the housing crisis during a heated exchange

 

Richard Boyd Barrett’s name was down on the list for Leaders’ Questions. In light of developments the night before, protective ear muffs seemed a sensible way to go.

Particularly with Mary Lou McDonald’s name featuring above him on the Bill. She wasn’t best pleased on Tuesday to see Fianna Fáil suddenly sidle away from embracing Sinn Féin’s stance on the water charges issue, and she informed the Taoiseach and Micheál Martin of her displeasure in no uncertain terms.

Wednesday dawned with the news that the two main parties had reached agreement on two key areas which had proved a sticking point in signing off on the committee’s report – imposing penalties on people who use excessive amounts of water and installing meters in all new builds.

FF and FG actually agreed it 10 days earlier but then succumbed to a serious outbreak of political posturing before haggling themselves back to square one on Tuesday night.

The Right2Water campaign, on foot of Sinn Féin proposals not to concede a fluid ounce on meters and overuse, became the brief beneficiary of Fianna Fáil’s period of chest-thumping on the plinth.

The despised Soldiers of Destiny were singing their song and they were delighted. “And it’s no pay never. No pay never no more. Will I pay Irish Water. No never, no more.”

Then, as Mary Lou put it, Fianna Fáil “flip-flopped” and deserted the cause.

When it comes to stances on water only the TDs from the AAA and PBP camps can say they have never changed their policy. Where the rest are concerned, you wouldn’t find as many flip-flops in Torremolinos.

Tension

The mood in the chamber had considerably lightened since last week when tension between the Government and the party offering it minority support put Enda Kenny’s administration in peril.

They knew the immediate danger had passed. When McDonald tore strips off them this time they barely listened. Fianna Fáil TDs talked among themselves as she accused them of abandoning a key election pledge “to abolish water charges in their totality”.

Sinn Féin’s deputy leader was fuming. She upped the decibel level from the previous day’s outrage, declaring the deal on water charges an example of “connivance and cute-hoorism”.

Whatever about meters going into houses at the construction stage, water wasters won’t be unduly troubled by the confused and convoluted process now under consideration for extracting payment from those abusing the privilege of having potable water piped in and waste water piped out and treated.

Sinn Féin and the Right2Water campaign may not have achieved the axing of water charges “in their totality” but they have succeeded in effectively ending them for almost everyone.

“I don’t think anyone has received a water bill since last July. That’s just an observation with all the outrage that’s flying about,” FF leader Martin told the Dáil, on a point of information.

Out-shout Mary Lou

But almost is not enough for some. When Boyd Barrett rose to speak, there was every chance he would out-shout Mary Lou. And he did, in the end, but not about water.

What he had to talk about was far more pressing. He began by telling the Taoiseach he was sick and tired of hearing him or one of his Ministers declaring that it takes time to fix the homelessness and housing emergency.

He recalled bringing in “probably for the first time, dozens of families and individuals, including children, who were facing housing emergencies in 2011”. Back then he told Enda his policy of moving away from council-built homes towards private sector builders would lead to a housing crisis.

“Today, again, there are about 25 households, individuals, families and children in the visitors’ gallery. They are just the tip of a very dire and desperate iceberg of misery, anxiety, insecurity and suffering because of the abject and total failure of the Government’s policies on housing and homelessness.”

We already knew they were there, thanks to the youngest visitor – a baby who cried at the top of her voice for much of the proceedings. The authorities are very quick to shush people who defile the precious oxygen reserved for TDs declaiming below in the Dáil chamber. But there was no attempt to silence this little one.

In the eye

A child without a proper place to call home, moved on by the national parliament. Not likely. The People Before Profit TD challenged the Taoiseach: “I want you to look those people in the eye and tell them that your housing policies are working.”

People like Sinéad and her three-year-old daughter, who was told a few weeks ago to go 12km into town with her children to a hostel where there are active drug users. People like James and his family – a mother and their five children – who have been homeless for the last six months, whose daughter has special needs and who are being pushed from one hotel to another.

Tell Richard or Peter or Carrie or Tom or Amanda and her two children, Sarah and Eamon and their four children, Samantha and her three children.

He read their names into the Dáil record, along with their experiences. Many had housing assistance payment (HAP) tenancies, “the Government’s great solution and the centrepiece of its housing policy”, explained Boyd Barrett, and they “are all now being evicted by landlords who want to pull out of the HAP arrangements”.

The crowd in the gallery leaned forward, listening intently as Boyd Barrett ratcheted up the intensity. The Taoiseach countered by saying his Government was now moving on with providing housing having had to deal first with the collapse of the economy.

He listed a number of projects nearing completion around Dublin. People would be housed. “They have the same stories. I’ll give their names also.”

Six years

Boyd Barrett told him he was in denial over the problem. They traded words. “You can’t wave your wand in Dún Laoghaire and build houses like that,” snapped the Taoiseach. The TD shouted louder and louder. “Six years! Six years!”

Above them, in the front row of the public gallery, a little girl slowly doubled up, gleefully folding her frame down into the leather pop-up seat until only the top of her head and the soles of her shoes were visible. She might not have a home but at least she was enjoying Leinster House.

And yet the palaver over water is the most important thing ever. It’s enough to give anyone hydrophobia.