Fintan O’Toole: Rugby is an emergency, homeless kids can wait

Government meets rugby event deadline but misses one on homeless children

The deadline for the Rugby World Cup was treated as absolute. The deadline for ending an abuse of the rights of our children remains a moveable feast. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The deadline for the Rugby World Cup was treated as absolute. The deadline for ending an abuse of the rights of our children remains a moveable feast. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

On Friday, June 30th, official figures showed that a new record number of 2,777 children, in 1,312 families, were living in emergency accommodation across the State. Scandalous in itself, this news was even more appalling because the following day, July 1st, was the Government’s own deadline for moving all homeless families out of hotel accommodation, which is wildly inappropriate for children. In Dublin alone, there are still 650 families in hotels and B&Bs.

A few days later, on Wednesday, July 5th, the Dáil met in emergency session because it had to meet an urgent deadline.

Were these two events by any chance related? As closely as Earth and Proxima Centauri, which is to say they are not even in the same solar system. The Dáil sat late on Wednesday night to push through emergency legislation related to Ireland’s bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023. In 3½ hours, and with no prior scrutiny, it agreed a Bill committing the State to putting up a tournament fee of €138 million to a company registered in the Isle of Man called World Cup Rugby Limited. The legislation also commits the State to guaranteeing a further sum – unknown at this stage but thought to be about €200 million – in indemnities against possible losses relating to the tournament.

Values and priorities

The Irish bid to host the Rugby World Cup is a good thing and it is hard to see circumstances in which the €138 million fee would not be recouped or the €200 million would actually be drawn down. The interesting point, though, is the tale of two deadlines and what it says about the State’s values and priorities.

When is an emergency not an emergency? When it’s poor kids who are suffering

The timeline for the Rugby World Cup Bill goes like this. The bidding process requires the Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, to sign the relevant guarantees by July 31st, so that’s the deadline. Preliminary legal advice from the Attorney General was delivered on February 1st, to the effect that legislation would not be necessary. On April 3rd further advice was sought by the department and on May 4th the Attorney General got back to say that she had changed her mind and legislation would be necessary after all. So here we had what the Government and the Civil Service clearly see as an emergency – with less than three months to a vital deadline, the system had to go into crisis mode.

And it did so with no great bother. By June 15th, the Bill was published. By Wednesday night, it was passed by the Dáil. It took just two months from the discovery of this emergency for the people’s representatives to commit the State to a contingent liability of €380 million to a private offshore company. The deadline of July 31st will be comfortably met.

‘Emergency situation’

Now consider the other deadline – moving all families out of emergency hotel accommodation by July 1st. It was set a full year ago, in the Government’s flagship Rebuilding Ireland plan on housing and homelessness. The then taoiseach Enda Kenny, in his foreword, wrote that “ending . . . the use of unsuitable long-term emergency accommodation, including hotels and B&Bs, for homeless families” was a “key priority” that would “take precedence”. The then housing minister Simon Coveney described this scandal as “an emergency situation” and said “none of us can fail to be moved by the plight of people who are homeless, especially families and children living in hotels”. He promised that “by mid-2017” families would be housed in hotels and B&Bs only “in very limited circumstances”.

Remember that this deadline was chosen by the Government itself, presumably because it was entirely confident that, given the necessary sense of urgency, it could be met. At the time the deadline was set, the latest figures showed 1,054 families including 2,077 children in emergency accommodation. At the time the same deadline was breached, there were 700 more children in such accommodation. When is an emergency not an emergency? When it’s poor kids who are suffering.

The deadline for the Rugby World Cup was treated as absolute. The deadline for ending an abuse of the rights of our children remains a moveable feast. Last week, Minister of State Damien English said that “by the end of July, maybe early August, everybody in those hotels will be out of them bar exceptional circumstances”. End of June, end of July, maybe August – what’s another month in a child’s life? I don’t doubt that everyone in power is, as Simon Coveney said, “moved” by the plight of these children – just not moved enough to get a move on.

One of the things we’ve been told about hosting the Rugby World Cup is how good it would be for the image of the country. I don’t doubt it. But wouldn’t it be good for the image of the country if the only childhoods that these kids have were not being spent in conditions that amount to a form of incarceration? Why is our republic more energised by the prospect of filling hotels and B&Bs with rugby fans five years from now than it is with emptying those hotels and B&Bs of families and children who should not be in them?

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