Lobby to press politicians over referendum on right to home

Home for Good says change to Constitution not a solution to housing crisis

A new advocacy group launched on Wednesday will put pressure on politicians to commit to a referendum on inserting the right to a home into the Constitution.

Home for Good, which is being fronted by former Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay, is calling for the protection of the right to property to be “balanced” by the insertion of a new provision declaring that the right of citizens to a “decent, affordable and safe home is fundamental to the common good”.

It is being launched on Wednesday morning to coincide with the general election campaign in the hope that commitments will be made by political leaders to include the referendum in a programme for government.

Mr Finlay told The Irish Times that the constitutional protection of property rights had been used to thwart at least 12 pieces of legislation in the last few years, including proposed new laws on rent controls and greater use of compulsory purchase orders.

“The fact is they have been used again and again. The advice of the AG [attorney general] has been given again and again as an excuse to shoot down change on the basis it would offend the property rights in the Constitution.

“Whether you’re talking radical or moderate, Government Ministers have argued again and again that the legal advice is such that we can’t proceed any further,” Mr Finlay said.

We will never make the progress we need to as long as the more or less unqualified right to property trumps everything

On Tuesday, Fianna Fáil said it had decided against implementing a rent freeze if elected after legal advice to the party stated that such a proposal would be unconstitutional.

The Home for Good steering group includes the Simon Community, Focus Ireland, Respond and Threshold, as well as trade union Forsa. Senator Colette Kelleher and Cork-based barrister Anne FitzGerald are also part of the steering group.

Defining issue

Mr Finlay said housing was “going to be the defining issue of this election, and everyone is in the mood for solutions. A change to the Constitution is not a solution but it is a step on the way towards a solution.”

The Constitution outlines that the right to property is mitigated by the common good, but there is no definition or explanation of what is meant by the common good. The group will ask that this right to property not be deleted from the Constitution, but that the common good be defined.

Mr Finlay said it was important to note the group’s objective was not that people without a home could demand one based on a new constitutional right. “It’s not a situation where everyone gets everything free, that’s not what we’re after,” he said.

The Social Democrats and Sinn Féin have committed to holding a referendum if they are in government, and Mr Finlay said he expected the Labour Party would do likewise. However, he said, "the issue is whether Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will; if they do, and there's a commitment in the programme for government, we can have a decent conversation about what it should entail".

He said the Government had spent almost a year meeting with lawyers and constitutional law experts, many of whom said a judge would be likely to adjudicate in favour of the common good if a test was brought in the courts. However, he said the blocking of legislation based on advice from the attorney general’s office meant a test case had not been progressed.

Focus groups

He said testing of the proposal in focus groups had found “significant support” for what he described as the “right approach”, which would not eliminate the property rights already contained in the Constitution.

The aim of the campaign, he said, was “to encourage the political system to accept the principle and work out the exact answer”.

“We will never make the progress we need to as long as the more or less unqualified right to property trumps everything.”