Miriam Lord: Angry homeowners gather at Government’s shining edifice

Rural TDs warn of crumbling support for parties unless mica redress issue dealt with

Thousands of people demonstrated in Dublin city today, seeking full compensation for repairs to homes affected by mica. Under the current scheme, the State covers 90 per cent of repair costs, while homeowners must pay the remaining 10 per cent.

 

Blink and you would have missed it in the waving forest of placards and flags.

A plastic bag attached to a tube with green and yellow electrical tape – the Donegal colours. What was inside it didn’t amount to much, just some dirty-looking handfuls of damp grey grit and bits of pebble.

Protesters bring all sorts of things on marches to get their point across. Taps as hats at the water protests. Hospital trollies at health service demos. Greyhounds. Samba drums. Inflatable Donald Trumps.

“This is the gable end of my house,” said Vicky Doherty from Sleadrin, a townland outside Buncrana. “I just put my hand into the wall and this is what came out. That’s what our house is built on.”

The grandeur of TDs' temporary lodgings was not lost on the marchers massed behind the barriers

Vicky and her husband, Frank, built their new home in the countryside in 2002. When cracks began to appear in one wall they pulled it down and tried to build it up again. “But nobody told us what it was. We just thought we got a bad batch of blocks. But the whole house is just cracking everywhere now – the walls, the sheds, everything. And the whole town of Buncrana, all the sites that they built, they kept building and building and nobody was ever told what it was.”

The couple left what is left of their home on Tuesday morning to board a bus at 7am for the long journey to Dublin. Thousands of their fellow countymen and women did the same, along with householders from other counties in the northwest whose homes were constructed using concrete blocks riddled with an absorbent mineral called mica and are now falling apart.

In the blazing sunshine of a June afternoon, with the River Liffey on one side and the Royal Canal on another, they marched together in their thousands until they reached the towering modern building which has been a home to Dáil Éireann for the last few months.

When TDs need to move due to Covid-19 concerns they get a glass-fronted, steel-framed and stone-clad architectural landmark to expensively accommodate the handful of deputies who turn up for sittings in its near-empty auditorium.

Grandeur

The grandeur of their temporary lodgings was not lost on the marchers massed behind the barriers, many of whom are worried sick about paying for alternative accommodation when they inevitably have to move while their homes are rebuilt.

“Twenty five thousand a day it’s costing to have them in there. Did you know that? Twenty five thousand,” said a woman to a steward in a high-vis vest.

“Aye, they know how to look themselves all right,” he replied.

A cherry-picker was set up for the speeches in the green space at the side of the Convention Centre. They were due to start half an hour before the resumption of Dáil business. As the time neared, a few TDs and Senators began drifting out from their sanctuary.

There was a solid mustering of Sinn Féin TDs and Senators along with members of People Before Profit/Solidarity and members of the Rural Independents group. Labour’s Alan Kelly came out briefly too. Members of the Government parties were slower to emerge.

First to the microphone was Kerry’s Michael Healy-Rae. A tough act to follow, he roared out a barnstorming speech in support of the protesters who want “100 per cent redress” for any losses suffered as a result of the mica damage.

“Any politician, be they Fianna Fáil, Fyne [sic] Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin or the Greens, if they ignore you they’ll ignore you at their peril... all I want to say is: I’m not with ye 90 per cent, I’m not with ye 100 per cent, I’m with ye 120 per cent here today!”

Noisy support

Most of the TDs who spoke were from Donegal or Mayo. There was noisy support for Sinn Féin’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Independent Thomas Pringle.

Fine Gael’s Michael Ring, part of the last government, which agreed the existing redress scheme, bellowed his full support for the cause in a do-or-die political pledge to back the householders – no matter what. Former minister Joe McHugh declared there wasn’t “anybody more disappointed” than himself that the existing compensation scheme hasn’t worked out.

Up next was Aontú’s Meath West TD Peadar Tóibín, who declared: “If this was in Dublin, it would have been fixed yonks ago.”

Fianna Fáil fielded a councillor from Donegal. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get a great reception given that his first task was to pass on local Minister Charlie McConalogue’s apologies. “Deputy McConalogue can’t be here today because he’s in Lisbon for the CAP.”

There was a mild outbreak of booing.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald came out later to accept a letter from the Donegal Mica Action Group. She pressed the Taoiseach in the Dáil to give an absolute commitment that the people in Donegal, Mayo, Clare and elsewhere will get “100 per cent redress”. She wanted this “guarantee” from Micheál Martin.

We had to wait for years to save up the money – save it, save it and save it and now we know the house is just not going to stand up

But he responded by saying the issue was far from simple but it would be addressed at a cost of over €1 billion. “The Government is absolutely committed to doing the right thing and will provide exceptional resources to make these homes liveable again.”

The Taoiseach told Pringle – who described Donegal as “the forgotten county” – that he believes in solutions “and not just showboating on issues”. But while the householders needed every assistance, he has a problem with “certain people” involved in the building process, from the financial to the supply end, who “walked off the pitch” and sidestepped any responsibility for what happened.

“The State can’t forever be held accountable alone ... for actions where others fell short, be it in the private sector or elsewhere.”

‘Constructive’

The Taoiseach indicated a six-week deadline for action. Meanwhile, after the march moved across the river to Government Buildings, the Mica action group met the Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien, for a meeting which they described as “constructive”.

Meanwhile, Vicky and Frank Doherty, who have five children, are hoping the solution will come quickly.

“We’re can’t move unless we get help,” said Vicky. “We spent our whole lives building up our home. When we moved in we hadn’t even got a kitchen, only a plank to put a basin in and we got a lend of an oven. We got secondhand furniture and gradually went from living in one bedroom with three children to where we have our house nearly finished now.

“We had to wait for years to save up the money – save it, save it and save it and now we know the house is just not going to stand up.”

Her view was echoed by Kevin and Liz Loftus from Carndonagh, who were at the protest with their nine children, aged from 19 down, “and another on the way”.

“We built the house in 2015 and now it’s just crumbling away. The cracks started to appear in the walls. We thought they were just settling cracks. But it never stopped, they just got bigger and bigger,” said Kevin.

It’s a big house.

“I’ve bought a mobile home, three bedrooms, I don’t know where we’re going to put everyone,” said Kevin. “But the house is not safe at the minute. It’s stressful.”

They came to Dublin in their VW transporter on Monday and took the family to the zoo.

Kristin, Sukura, Dushenka, Lucius-Tai, Zahara Saoirse, Diaz, Cheylah, Averee Esme and baby Alysia.

Liz didn’t want them to have boring names.

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