Irish writers on Election 2020: ‘I want a revolutionary party’

Irish authors assess the outgoing government’s legacy and what the next one needs to do

Colm Tóibín: Whose job is it to solve the crisis?

How strange that now, in the light of a housing crisis, one aspect of de Valera’s legacy – his government’s support for State involvement in housing – seems almost heroic. It is clear to everyone that the lack of places to live and the astonishingly high price of rent, especially in the greater Dublin area, is a crisis.

The only argument is over whose job it is to solve the crisis, a crisis that has made many people homeless and forced many others into sub-standard conditions, a crisis that has made a huge impact on anyone who is young or who has scarce resources.

In my sector – the arts – actors, writers, painters, musicians, cannot find anywhere to live in Dublin. And why would anyone choose Dublin as a place to study or work (or invest in) when it is so hard to find accommodation?

The failure of recent governments to deal with the crisis is not a result of inertia, it is the result of ideology. There is a strong belief that in a crisis like this it is not the State’s urgent and pressing responsibility to manage the market and build houses.


If we can’t solve this problem, imagine how we will deal, in the next Dáil, with the global warming crisis. Will that be left to the private sector as well?

Colm Tóibín’s latest book is Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

Elaine Feeney: Education needs reform

Health, education, social housing and community are central to any evolved society. But as the Earth burns, climate action must be a determining issue for voters – including structures around reforestation, support in agriculture, radical tackling of carbon emissions etc.

The Irish housing crisis is deplorable. The next government must be willing to invest in social housing on a larger scale. Nationally, we have prioritised grossly misjudged bailouts over serious investment in social housing etc.

As a teacher, ideological inclusive legislation culminating in the Epsen Act, a product of the early noughties to incorporate students with special educational needs into mainstream education, was subsequently hit by recessionary cuts.

Education needs reform of the current inspectorate to allow an introduction of better checks, balances and support for allocation of special needs hours to make sure these students, often the most vulnerable, are properly included in our schools.

The health system is in crisis. We have a public system coupled with a private health insurance model which is contradictory. Similarly, in education, we have an outdated model of church patronage in publicly funded schools. If the State claims to run our two main public sector areas, then the State alone should run them.

Finally, direct provision needs immediate abolishing, it is absolutely inhumane.

Elaine Feeney has published three collections of poetry, and teaches at the National University of Ireland, Galway and St Jarlath’s College. Her debut novel, As You Were, is to be published in April by Harvill Secker

Thomas McCarthy: I love elections

I love elections, all the printed commentary and broadcasting. I’m so addicted that I’m now buying five newspapers every day, and will be doing so until a stable new government is formed. And I love election posters, so I worry about their disappearance: where have all the posters gone?

For me, a cascade of election posters along a country road is as beautiful as a drift of daffodils in an April meadow. Posters are true guarantors of freedom because even the smallest, poorest party can afford them.

As for this election, let me be very blunt with the candidates out there: Ireland has to reduce its carbon emissions. I would like to see 300,000 new homes built. I would like to see 3,000 extra beds with their compliment of young consultants in our health system.

I would like to see funding for both community art and very high-level professional art massively upgraded. I would like to see our Irish Army, both officers and ranks, properly cherished and rewarded by any government.

If all those things were achieved in climate, housing, health, arts and army, in the next 10 years, Ireland would be simply magnificent; elections would not have been in vain.

Thomas McCarthy is an Irish poet, novelist and critic

Sara Baume: I brace myself for disappointment

During the local elections a single Fianna Fáil canvasser made it up the lane to my rented house outside Skibbereen. I was so shocked I instantly forgot the litany of complaints I'd long been planning to launch at any member of either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael that darkened my kitchen door.

I was also caught off-guard by the fact that it was raining and he was rather elderly. I mumbled something polite yet disinterested and he handed me a leaflet and said: “I’ll leave you to your baking so!” He was gone before I realised he must have been referring to the white powder on my hands and clothes, which was not flour, but modelling plaster, and I was not baking, but making sculpture.

The presumption that a woman at home alone in the middle of the day in rural Ireland can only be busying herself by making scones was both a harmless mistake and a telling example of how retrograde the politics of the two major parties in this country have become.

I will give the Green Party my number-one vote in the general election, as I always have, and brace myself for disappointment.

Sara Baume’s third book, Handiwork, is published by Tramp Press in March

Joseph O’Connor: People sleeping in tents... in wintertime

Through November and December, I walked Killiney beach 10 or a dozen times. Some of the most expensive homes in Ireland are visible from the strand; other large and opulent houses are not far away. The pines on Killiney Hill make a gorgeous contrast with the sea. On the summit, you see the obelisk built in 1742 by the hungry of the area, a relief project put together by a local landlord, John Malpas, "last year being hard with the poor", as the inscription proclaims. There was the idea back in those days that the poor deserved their poverty. Not like nowadays, of course.

Many mornings this past winter, people were sleeping in tents near the beach. At the foot of the slope from where the fortunate gaze out upon the vista of the bay, homeless people sleeping in tents. It isn’t the first time I’ve seen it and it won’t be the last. But I never saw it in wintertime before.

There is a block of public toilets in the Dart car park a few hundred yards away, that closes at night, of course. Apart from that, there is no running water, no heat, no electricity, no way of cooking food, no facilities to wash yourself or your clothes. Some of the people, in fact, were washing their clothes in the sea. In 2019. In Ireland.

We are told the issue of homelessness is complicated. Everything is, these days. We are told that politicians are only in it for themselves, when clearly and admirably most of them are not; there are so many good people in the Dáil who work long hours for their constituents.

It takes guts to stand for election. It takes grace to lose. But others have no choice about their loss.

The shame of how people who need help are still too often abandoned and belittled in Ireland is the issue I will be thinking of when I vote.

I’m tired of being told it’s complicated. Ridding Ireland of TB was complicated. Homelessness in Ireland, a wealthy country, was already unacceptable years ago. It is now a moral scandal and this is not a republic until every person in Ireland has a home.

Joseph O’Connor is Frank McCourt Chair of Creative Writing, University of Limerick. His latest novel, Shadowplay, was named Irish Novel of the Year

Martina Devlin: Affordable housing must be built

Time to stop treating human beings as disposable commodities – that’s what I’d say to those who govern us. Let’s house people and give them the dignity of a home. There’s a housing emergency and it hasn’t sprung up overnight – it’s dragging on because it’s not being addressed adequately. To carry on as we are is inhumane. It debases the notion of a republic.

Where’s the point in a thriving economy if the money generated isn’t used to look after our citizens in need?

High numbers are sleeping rough. Families are raising children in temporary accommodation.

In Brexit, the outgoing government has had a Pandora’s box to deal with. Credit where it’s due, it has done well to defend Ireland’s interests. But it has failed abysmally to tackle the interrelated housing and homeless emergencies, and that shortcoming cannot be blamed on Brexit.

Most young people need a fairy godmother if ever they are to buy their own home – we don’t even have a stable and affordable rental alternative.

Meanwhile, high numbers of vacant houses lie idle, and available State land is not being used for social housing. No ifs, no buts, affordable housing must be built – Éamon de Valera managed it in the 1930s and 1940s when the nation was dirt poor.

Photographs posted online by the Homeless Street Café charity will be the images on my mind as I go to the polls: an elderly woman having her evening meal on a Dublin street using a windowsill as her table; a five-year-old boy eating his pizza dinner from a sheet of cardboard on the pavement.

Human beings are not throwaway. High time we stopped dealing with them as if they are.

Martina Devlin is an author, journalist and host of the City of Books podcast

Michelle Gallen: I want a revolutionary party

I know first-hand how hard it is to think or care about anything else if you don’t feel safe and warm in affordable housing, if getting to see a doctor takes weeks, and hospital waiting lists are years, not months. I understand why the cost and availability of housing, and timely access to healthcare are dominating the election.

But it frightens me that Brexit – which will have an immediate and long-term effect on the island of Ireland – has slipped down our agenda. My mind is scorched with the knowledge that an area the size of England has been burnt black in Australia.

Yet I find myself spending more time than any human should trying to figure out the difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – the “opponents” described by Dr Mary McAuliffe as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

In the North, I yearned for “normal” moderate politics, to vote for a candidate who didn’t leave me with the feeling there was someone standing behind them with a gun. It’s ironic that my first Irish general election comes at a time of national and global crisis – of climate emergency and international extremism – and I want a revolutionary party that puts housing, healthcare and climate change first, that will deliver social change, and a sustainable future for the generations to come.

Michelle Gallen’s debut novel, Big Girl, Small Town, is published next month by John Murray

Jo Spain: We do a lot right here

One of the offshoots of my screenwriting is working a lot in Scandinavia and it's been an eye-opener, learning what our fellow European citizens expect from the State. In Finland recently, I left the airport in a train from within the building, cheaply, and was brought speedily to the city centre. I encountered their exceptional healthcare system (the private sector is minimal) where user fees are tiny (no more than €21 for a doctor's visit). They've also prioritised education, with one of the most progressive systems in the world.

This is not talking down Ireland. We do a lot right, there’s nowhere else I’d rather live, but we’ve been stuck in hapless, hopeless, ambition-less, empty promise land for too long. Anybody who commits to do it differently is attacked as radical and unrealistic. The thing is, it’s not radical to suggest our health/education/public services can be user-friendly and put the citizen first. It’s a European norm.

In this election, I hope the Irish people move beyond how we’ve always done it and look to the parties’ policy details in health, education, climate change, childcare, housing, Irish unity and the financial sector. We can and should do better.

Jo Spain’s latest novel, Six Wicked Reasons, is published by Quercus

Sinéad Gleeson: Dismantle direct provision

Political parties can blame each other all they like and cite legacy issues all the way, but the current state of this country is due to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The fact that the scale of homelessness is not an emergency for our politicians demonstrates a huge lack of empathy and credibility. Housing, and particularly social housing, needs to be addressed immediately. Direct provision is a shameful system, devoid of humanity and deeply dysfunctional. Any future government needs to dismantle it.

As a country that’s fond of bragging loudly abroad about our artists, writers, film-makers and actors, let’s fund the arts from the ground up, and particularly those who are marginalised and feel there is no access. With so many in creative fields struggling to pay rent, subsist, make art – many give up, which means we don’t get to hear diverse voices in the creative arts.

Sinéad Gleeson is the author of Constellations winner of Irish Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2019

Peter Murphy: The arts are starved of investment

I’m afraid that for many people in our country, we are entering a state of emergency. I’m afraid that low voter turnout will result in the continuation of the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil choke-hold, and we’ll continue to be ruled by a century-old, two-headed beast that is part neo-Tory obscenity, part jobs-for-the-boys conspiracy. To our politicians, I propose a social experiment. Allow yourself a stipend of a fiver a day for a week. See how it alters your perspective. To our so-called rogue independents: quit trying to demonise asylum seekers, non-white Irish, social welfare recipients, and people who do not have the means, the money or the muscle to defend themselves. It’s cheap and cowardly.

Introduce rent controls. Invest in public housing. Freeze evictions. Gut all government bodies of extortionate consultancy expenditure and money-sucking administrative leeches. Introduce a basic survival stipend so that the working poor, the unemployed, the self-employed, and people surviving on the gig economy are assured of a decent standard of living. Invest in affordable public transport.

As a writer and artist I would say this: our country produces a staggering number of Grammy winners, Booker winners, Oscar winners, Tony winners and Obie winners. The Irish arts and entertainment sector is a potentially multibillion euro prospect that is criminally starved of investment. To artists, I would say this: do not partake in a photo opportunity with any politician who does not support, promote and invest in our industry.

Peter Murphy’s latest novel is Shall We Gather at the River

Naoise Dolan: Ireland can vote against barbarism

Leo Varadkar recently did photo ops with a pet greyhound and at a meat shop, the latter "to disprove rumours that he's vegan". It's not funny; it's vulgar. There's more homelessness in Ireland now than during the Famine.

Fianna Fáil have abetted Fine Gael’s savagery. They started direct provision and many of the cruellest policies that Fine Gael have continued, and they’ve voted with the government to enrich the ruling class at the country’s expense.

I would like a new government to declare a climate emergency and work urgently towards net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. I also want them to make companies pay their taxes; abolish direct provision, and replace it with a decent Irish welcome to anyone seeking one; bring in rent controls and adequate public housing; introduce free healthcare and transport; and back ordinary people over the landlords, corporations, and assorted gombeens presently looting the country.

We face a choice between a system that’s leading humanity to mass extinction, or socialist ideas that might just save us. Ireland can vote against barbarism, and for a fairer society. I pray we do.

Naoise Dolan’s debut novel, Exciting Times, will be published in April by W&N

This article was compiled by Books Editor Martin Doyle