President says Irish housing crisis ‘a disaster’ and ‘our great, great, great failure’

Higgins says building homes is important, not being a ‘star performer’ for international speculators

President Michael D Higgins speaking after he officially opened Jigginstown Manor, a Tiglin facility for vulnerable young adults in Naas, Co. Kildare this afternoon. Photograph: Colin Keegan/ Collins Dublin

President Michael D Higgins has condemned the housing crisis as “our great, great, great failure,” saying that it could no longer be considered a crisis but “a disaster”.

Mr Higgins addressed the housing crisis in a forceful and emotional speech at the official opening of a new facility for young homeless people near Naas in Co Kildare.

Praising the redevelopment of Jigginstown Manor, a former residential home, into the Tiglin facility for homeless youth, the President used the event to question local and national policies to provide more homes for people and better facilities for the Travelling community.

Mr Higgins also strongly condemned the speculative nature of investment in housing, questioning the Republic that has been created 100 years on since the foundation of the State.

READ MORE

“How republican is what we created? And isn’t sometimes very much closer to the poor law system that we thought we were departing from. That is a real challenge,” he said.

In off-script remarks, Mr Higgins said he had taken to “speaking ever more frankly in relation to housing because I think it is our great, great, great failure”.

“It isn’t a crisis any more; it is a disaster and I think we have to really think about meeting the basic needs of people in a republic, be it about food and shelter and education,” he said.

The President said there had been a sharp increase in homelessness among young people and that the outlook was “getting darker” for the “middle parts of our population”.

Mr Higgins singled out builder John Cradock, chairman of Homeless Care, the charity that identified the derelict Jigginstown House as a potential homeless facility, and other engineers.

“They were people who built homes and building homes is what is important; it is not to be a star performer for the speculative sector internationally or anything else,” he said.

Condemning the market-driven investment in homebuilding, Mr Higgins said that housing and the basic needs of society “should never have been left to the marketplace”.

“It is the mad speculative money that is destroying our country, which we are welcoming, which we shouldn’t be,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is: let’s house our people, let’s educate our people, let’s show that no one is going hungry, let’s show that there is no one excluded from any part of our society.”

Mr Higgins said there were “so many derelict buildings, so many abandoned buildings” and “half-empty villages”, questioning why more could not be refurbished into homes.

He appealed directly to local authority managers questioning why they weren’t doing more and taking on similar refurbishment projects in their counties.

“Let all the county managers and director of services all over the country have a good long look at what is happening in Wicklow and Kildare and ask themselves the question before their next monthly meeting: why aren’t we doing something similar? What is stopping us?” he said.

The President spoke about homes being more than “bricks and mortar” or “even about shelter” but about being an address and about providing people with dignity.

Mr Higgins spoke about his frustration about celebrating Ireland’s membership of the United Nations Security Council or the Council of Europe only to have to visit a halting site in Galway next to a rubbish dump that remains “as bad as it was 50 years ago”.

He challenged the prevailing view that he heard over the years, that it was “difficult” to provide electricity or clean water to the halting site.

“It is immoral, wrong, irresponsible to leave people in the conditions we have left some of our Travelling people,” he said.

Mr Higgins said the centenary of the foundation of the State this year should be celebrated by saying: “We are going to be an inclusive society for people of all circumstances and then we will be able to go abroad and we will be able to boast.”

People were “very good” for opening their “hearts and homes” to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion “but we shouldn’t have to wait for that to open our hearts and homes, and more important, our policies ― local and national ― to look after the people we have watched on, that we have neglected.”

The President also condemned the language around the property market.

“Even language suffers when you are involved in this bogus kind of living about properties described as having come to market, as if they are having a conversation with each other to come down the street,” he said.

“It is the last straw when the language doesn’t mean anything anymore. There is a powerful word: home.”

Reacting to the comments, a spokesperson for Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien said “the Minister is very aware of the many challenges which exist in housing”.

“Increasing supply of all types of housing – social, affordable purchase, cost rental and private is at the heart of the Housing for All policy. We’re thankfully seeing some very positive trends with housing commencements, completions and planning permissions all rising significantly.

“Huge challenges remain, the Minister does not underestimate these challenges, but is working with his Department, with NGOs and Stakeholders to address them.”

Separately, a Coalition insider said the President’s comments were “not just close to the line, it’s like an ardfheis speech” or “like someone going for election”, adding that “these things are getting more frequent again”.

Dr Laura Cahillane, a constitutional law expert in the department of law in University of Limerick, said that questions on the President and the appropriateness of his comments “seem to be arising more and more frequently lately”.

She said the Constitution sets out the duties of the President without stating explicitly that he must remain politically neutral – but that “it is clearly set up to ensure that there will not be a conflict between the president and government of the day”, she said, pointing to article 13.9 which requires the President to perform his duties “on the advice of the Government”.

While the role of the president had evolved in recent years, she argued that there are boundaries which “while they may be pushed, should not be crossed”, including for the president to openly criticise Government policy. “Some of President Higgins’ speeches have come close to this - arguably the speech today could have been taken as critical of government policy but mostly the speech was aspirational and based on values rather than policy”.

She said that in theory the President must seek approval before addressing a message to the nation. “With modern media and social media, any occasion can turn into an address to the Nation and President Higgins has not shied away from this”.

Speaking generally, former Taoiseach John Bruton - who had not seen the comments - said the president is bound to act within the constitution whereby he acts with the advice and on the advice of the Government. “It’s important everyone acts in accordance with the constitution, it’s not an impossible document to read, it is reasonably clear what the functions of the president are, his independent functions or his functions where he must act with the advice of Government”.

Labour Party housing spokeswoman Rebecca Moynihan said the President had not criticised housing policy, but rather the housing situation. “He is right, it is a disaster, and we need to build more homes,” she said.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times