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Fintan O’Toole: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael decided to reshape Ireland as a nation beholden to private property owners

Rory Hearne’s lively book Gaffs also covers the growing issue of hidden homelessness

Author: Rory Hearne
ISBN-13: 978-0008529581
Publisher: Harper Collins Ireland
Guideline Price: £14.99

One of the proudest moments in my childhood was the first day my mother trusted me to go and pay the rent. I went down our narrow road of corporation houses, then crossed and turned into a similar row of identical houses. One of them was the local authority rent office.

There was a taciturn man sitting behind a grill. I handed over the cash and the rent book. He took the money, then signed and stamped the book. I took it home satisfied that I had taken part in a solemn and serious transaction.

This felt, to a kid, like being part of something much bigger than yourself. It was about fancying yourself to be all grown up, of course. But there was also a simple and direct idea of what I would not then have known to call the social contract.

There was an exchange of obligations. A deal had been made between our family, and all our neighbours, and the State, the authorities, the public and collective world. If we paid our rent, we got to be securely housed in a stable community of people who had made the same bargain.


Without asking us for permission, the State has ripped up that social contract. The deal — we contribute to society as citizens and the State in return helps to ensure that we have a decent and secure place to live — has been brutally reneged on.

The house on which I was paying the rent, to what was then called Dublin Corporation, was built on the huge Crumlin estate in the southwest of Dublin city, nearly three-quarters of a century ago. It was created in a relatively backward country that was nonetheless able to deliver public housing on a vast scale, at rents that ordinary working people could afford.

Rory Hearne’s Gaffs tells the story of how what was possible in a poor country became impossible in a wealthy one. It is, though he does not put it like this, a story of how Ireland, while moving rapidly forward in time, simultaneously moved backwards.

For there is a real sense in which 21st century Ireland looks a lot like 19th century Ireland. A good way to think about the slow and painful emergence of modernity in Ireland is as a two-step destruction of landlordism.

The first phase was rural. It was the massive transfer of land ownership from the old Ascendancy class to their former tenants. The creation of a new society of farmers who owned their own land was critical to the way Ireland was transformed in the early 20th century.

The second phase was urban. The big public housing programmes funded by the new State and implemented by local authorities squeezed private landlordism out of the cities and towns.

The State – in effect Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – decided to bring back 19th century landlordism, to reshape Ireland as a nation beholden to private property owners

In 1946, 26 per cent of Irish households were renting their homes from a private owner. By 1991 that figure was down to just 8 per cent. By then, most people who paid rent for their homes did so, as I had done as kid, to their elected local authority, benefiting as a result from well-regulated construction, security of tenure and protection from arbitrary increases.

I don’t know whether it is possible to estimate (it would make a good PhD thesis) the number of people who grew up in public housing between the foundation of the State and the end of the 20th century. But it must be a seven-figure sum.

And we weren’t, on the whole, such a bad lot. The estates were often poorly planned (in relation to schools, shops, transport and other facilities) but we coped with those failings. We made decent communities. We lived decent lives as good citizens.

Why, then, was this contract ripped up? What government ever sought a mandate to tear it to shreds, to turn “public housing” into “social housing”, to promulgate the idea that it was fit only for those who were on welfare and that working people could fend for themselves on the private market?

None ever did. This is a revolutionary social change whose engineering has never been justified or even fully articulated. The State — in effect Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael — decided to bring back 19th century landlordism, to reshape Ireland as a nation beholden to private property owners.

It’s an astonishing move. And also a disastrous one, not least for the political parties that made it happen.

Perhaps the housing crisis can usefully be thought of as the equivalent, for the political wing of Irish conservatism, of the child abuse scandals for the religious wing. For both were death by suicide.

The church destroyed itself by its horrific breach of the trust of the faithful. The conservative centre-right has been doing something similar by deliberately shrinking its own natural base: a homeowning middle class.

A recent ESRI report tells us that fewer than 20 per cent of Irish people born in the 1950s or 1960s lived in rented accommodation in their mid-thirties. For those born in the 1970s this rises to just over 30 per cent. For those born in the 1980s it is more than 40 per cent.

These figures are mirrored on the other side by a dramatic decline in home ownership among young people. More than 60 per cent of those born in the 1960s lived in a home they or their partner owned by the age of 30, whereas the comparable figure for those born in the 1970s was 39 per cent and, for those born in the early 1980s, 32 per cent.

Hearne, who lectures in social policy in Maynooth, frames his book pretty much as though it were a lecture to a first-year undergraduate class, with the class being in this case that broad audience called Generation Rent. This gives it an unfortunately didactic tone.

“The government,” he writes, “makes many decisions that affect housing. We call this public policy or social policy.” It might have been much better to assume that anyone interested in reading a book on the politics of housing in Ireland knows what the term “public policy” means.

A huge programme of public house building, funded by government and implemented by local authorities and not-for-profit housing associations, is possible

Yet this should not discourage those potential readers. For the heart of the book is a clear, cogent and persuasive account of how this crisis was created. Showing that it is, indeed, a deliberate creation is the strength of Hearne’s argument. And while this is a source of anger, it might also be a source of hope: what bad public policy has wrought, better policy can undo.

The immediate symptoms of the crisis are the feverish rise in rents. They have doubled in the last decade. In Dublin they are now 52 per cent above the peak levels of the Celtic Tiger years.

An associated symptom — and Hearne is good on this — is the hidden homelessness of adults who can no longer afford to leave their parents’ house and set up on their own. The sheer scale of the problem is breathtaking: 350,000 people aged 18-29 and 100,000 aged 30-49 are still living in their family home.

These are not, typically, either students or slackers. Most of them are working people — taxpayers and voters who are being trapped in an ever-extending childhood.

But if these are the symptoms, the disease itself has two vectors. One is Fianna Fáil’s abandonment, under Charles Haughey and Bertie Ahern, of what used to be its most potent brand — the party that built houses for working people.

From the late 1980s onwards, governments cut in half the proportion of new housing that was in the public domain. They accepted the neoliberal fantasy that the private sector, driven by the desire for profit but (naturally) incentivised by subsidies and tax breaks, would satisfy the basic need for shelter of all but the poorest and most dependent members of society.

The other route to disaster has been the shift in the private sector itself. After the great crash of 2008 the Fine Gael-Labour government did not use the opportunity of drastically reduced building costs to embark on a major programme of public housing construction.

Instead it incentivised the arrival of a new global landlord class. These giant corporate landlords bought just 76 housing units in Ireland in 2010, but 5,132 in 2019, 44 per cent of all new purchases in Dublin.

This has created a system that sucks much of the new housing stock up into a stratosphere of unaffordable rents where the imperatives of high returns for international investors float above Irish social realities. And, as Hearne spells out, above the other imperative to create environmentally sustainable zero-emissions housing.

Can this change? Of course it can. Things are different elsewhere: in Amsterdam 42 per cent of housing is public; in Vienna it’s 50 per cent; in Copenhagen 28 per cent. The comparable figure in Ireland is just 10 per cent. Things were also different for the first half of the history of the State.

A huge programme of public house building, funded by government and implemented by local authorities and not-for-profit housing associations, is possible. It would change the way that shelter has been turned into a commodity and an investment rather than a basic human right.

We’ve already had a giant, politically-driven, leap back to the 19th century. We need a similar jump back to the 20th. Hearne’s lively book is a very useful springboard.

Further reading

Ending Homelessness? The Contrasting Experiences of Denmark, Finland and Ireland by Mike Allen, Lars Benjaminsen, Eoin O’Sullivan and Nicholas Pleace (Policy Press, 2020) An excellent comparative study of policy responses to homelessness that shows what works, what doesn’t and what Ireland can learn. A good counterweight to the pessimistic view that nothing can be done.

Low-income renters and housing supports by Michael Doolan, Barra Roantree and Rachel Slaymaker (ESRI, 2022) This recent ESRI report brings home the huge cost of State subsidies to private landlords, money that could be better spent on providing public housing. It also analyses in illuminating ways the massive shift towards rental and away from home ownership.

Dublin, 1910-1940: Shaping the City and Suburbs by Ruth McManus (Four Courts Press, 2022) This is a terrific historical study of the development of the capital city that encompasses the new State’s ambitious efforts to create the public suburbs like Marino and Crumlin. What was possible then is even more so now.

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist and writer