For many in Fianna Fáil, the issue of housing is an acid test not only for Minister for Housing Darragh O'Brien – but for the party's wider relevance, especially in cities, as it struggles to assert itself among urban voters.
“We have one last shot at this from an urban perspective,” confides one Dublin Fianna Fáil politician. “This has to deliver. And if we don’t deliver it, my kids won’t be voting Fianna Fáil.”
O'Brien's twin Bills designed to tackle the housing crisis – the Land Development Agency Bill and the Affordable Housing Bill – have been attracting significant amounts of attention internally in the party, at all levels.
"Within the party, it is exercising a lot of members," said Senator and former TD for Wexford Malcolm Byrne, who is on the housing subcommittee. "There are hours of policy discussions going on."
There are a few reasons behind this. One is historical and ideological: Fianna Fáilers see themselves as the party of housing provision. Internal minutes of its housing subcommittee remind members that “from [the] 1930s-1980s Fianna Fáil provided working people with homes. [There is] an urgent need to return to core Fianna Fáil policy of State delivering social and affordable homes on modest incomes”.
However, there is a more pressing reality, rooted in the realpolitik of the situation facing the party in Dublin, where most recent polling has the party on 8 per cent – 23 points behind Fine Gael, and a yawning 25-point gap to Sinn Féin. It is even lower among 25- to 34-year-olds, the demographic most likely to be facing affordability issues, on 6 per cent – Sinn Féin commands a whopping 41 per cent of first-preference vote intention.
"We as a party have to reflect on this," said Dublin-based Senator Mary Fitzpatrick, the party's unsuccessful candidate for Dublin Central last year. "We see this as being a pivotal moment, not just for us politically, but for Irish society and our economy. We must make a strategic decision that is going to ensure long-term sustainable supply of affordable homes."
Privately, other Dublin representatives are blunter. “If Darragh O’Brien doesn’t deliver, it’s going to be very difficult for Government TDs to go back to their constituencies and say we have delivered,” said one TD in a marginal seat.
This has led to pressure on O’Brien’s Bills. Backbenchers want explicit commitments in the legislation on the percentage of schemes to be given over to affordable housing, private meeting minutes show. They also want a definition of affordable housing that is based on the cost of construction and average incomes, rather than a discount from market rates. Meanwhile, plans within the Bill to bypass local authorities have drawn criticism from the backbenches. Under the provisions of the LDA Bill, the sale of land by a local authority to the agency will not require the pre-consent of councillors.
However, this has caused jitters within a party that is always hyper-sensitive to its grassroots. Recent minutes of an internal party meeting note that the clause "should not be necessary". Paul McAuliffe, the Dublin West TD said the Bill should signal the intent to empower councils. "We shouldn't allow the language in there to develop the idea we're trying to take powers away from councillors."
Housing is also seen within Fianna Fáil as a way of differentiating the party from Fine Gael, whose minister for housing Eoghan Murphy became a lightning rod for criticism. "This is about leaning away from what Fine Gael did," said one TD. "A lot of this, Fine Gael would never have done in government on their own."
Fine Gael sources bridle at that suggestion, claiming most of the elements of the Bills were in train or in place before the transition, including the moves to sidestep councillors. Sources said this was recommended by Fine Gael during government formation talks.
“They’ve added one idea – the shared equity idea – and everyone says it’s a s**t idea,” remarked one Fine Gael source acidly. Undeniably, that plan, which would see the State take an ownership stake in home, has itself become a lightning rod for criticism. Fianna Fáil defends it, muddying the criticism and pointing out it’s a small part of a big budget, but it does strengthen Opposition criticisms that Fianna Fáil is willing to stoke inflationary pressures. The none-too-subtle suggestion is that it is willing to do so to benefit the developer class, a criticism that remains highly salient for many voters.
A final element to the politics of housing is O'Brien's own trajectory. He is seen, along with Michael McGrath and Jim O'Callaghan, as among those in the running to replace Micheál Martin. Doubtlessly, making a sizable dent in a major policy challenge like housing would help his case. There is a cohort of Fianna Fáil parliamentarians – younger and urban voices like Fitzpatrick, McAuliffe and Byrne, but also Cormac Devlin, Cathal Crowe, Christopher O'Sullivan and Lisa Chambers, whose success may align with success in housing, and could make for a strong support constituency for O'Brien – if he is successful.
“There is a group of young and ambitious people in the party who want a future and see a big future for themselves if they succeed,” one insider said. Meanwhile, O’Callaghan or McGrath could win the backing of those “in constituencies so far removed from urban electoral politics that they don’t get the significance of what we’re trying to achieve”.
“We have all earned our stripes in opposition, we’re hell-bent on making sure our time in Government pays off.”