Miriam Lord: Darragh O’Brien left floundering amid mystery of the cuckoo

Sarah McInerney eats up Minister without salt as Dáil left to ponder who is turning off a housing tap

Darragh O’Brien, the  Minister for Housing, was rolled out on RTÉ radio’s Drivetime in an effort to clear things up about tax breaks for cuckoo funds. Sarah McInerney ate him without salt.  File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

Darragh O’Brien, the Minister for Housing, was rolled out on RTÉ radio’s Drivetime in an effort to clear things up about tax breaks for cuckoo funds. Sarah McInerney ate him without salt. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

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So it seems the vultures have now turned vicious and the cuckoos are menacing with ultimatums.

What’s going on? What threats did they make to force an embarrassing climb-down from the Government? Why give in?

Surely there must be a reason. It’s a real mystery.

The Taoiseach attempted to solve it in the Dáil on Wednesday. While he wants no truck with investment funds buying up houses and leasing them back to local authorities for a handsome profit, the new tax on their bulk investments has had to be re-engineered for humanitarian reasons.

This is because people will be upset, he explained.

The only thing is, it’s not entirely clear who will be upset - families facing homelessness or corporate big-hitters facing a little political resistance?

You see, if the Minister for Housing didn’t race in at the last minute with a surprise amendment to a Bill supposed to be dealing with Covid-19, which exempts vulture funds from the stamp duty if they have a deal with local councils, 2,400 families were staring at disaster.

“Two-thousand-four-hundred families should be left on the streets?” was the question Micheál Martin asked of Mary Lou McDonald when she tore strips off the controversial decision to tweak the measure.

“How would you look after those families?” he asked. These houses are in the pipeline and “you just can’t turn off the tap immediately”.

Micheál stressed this little hiccup was only a drop in the ocean of great things planned for the housing market by the Government

But who is turning off that tap? It’s not the State, so it must be the vultures and the cuckoos, presumably miffed at having to chisel open their tight bottom-line and pay a bit of tax.

We never found out despite the best efforts of socialist TDs Paul Murphy and Richard Boyd-Barrett. What prompted the U-turn, wondered Murphy. Was there lobbying afoot?

Boyd-Barrett said the Taoiseach legitimately asked if the Opposition wanted to turn off the supply of social housing. “As if that’s the choice: either we have vulture funds or we don’t get social housing.”

He declared he had the answer. Instead of incentivising corporate investors to buy up housing to lease back to the councils, “cut out the vulture middleman and get the local authority to buy it directly”.

“Which, by the way, is better value, will cost less in the long run and will mean the State will actually have an asset. And then allocate that housing for both social and affordable housing.”

Eureka!

“That’s the answer, now the question is: why aren’t you doing that? It would prevent the turning off the tap.”

Micheál stressed this little hiccup was only a drop in the ocean of great things planned for the housing market by the Government. We are going back to the days of the State building affordable homes for families. Huge investment is going in.

Are the vultures threatening to fly off and leave a nice profit behind because the mere whiff of tax makes them sick?

The Taoiseach sounds like a man determined to make a difference. The big Housing For All plan is nearly done and when it is rolled out, people will see he means business.

But for now, the situation “is in transition”. And during that transition period the 2,400 families in line to get one of those leased homes must be protected.

But why? Are the vultures threatening to fly off and leave a nice profit behind because the mere whiff of tax makes them sick? Are the cuckoos similarly complaining?

Micheál never said. Which is a pity because this small, transitional affair is taking the shine off all of his good deeds and good intentions. It’s a wonder how he ever allowed this tax adjustment to happen.

Darragh O’Brien, his Minister for Housing, was rolled out on RTÉ radio’s Drivetime in an effort to clear things up. Sarah McInerney ate him without salt.

Where did the figure of 2,400 homes at risk, if the amendment to tweak the stamp duty is not passed, come from?

Um, it’s based “on the amount that is being targeted” and the amount of leases currently in the system or “pipeline”. Whatever that was.

Why was the amendment needed?

“For the purpose of the provision of housing support,” said Darragh. Those homes would have been “in jeopardy” otherwise.

And we must bear in mind, he kept repeating, that these are “real homes for real people”. As opposed to pretend homes for imaginary people. We’re talking real progress here.

How do you know these 2,400 homes are at risk, wondered Sarah, like the rest of us. Did the vulture funds say they are pulling out?

“From research we have done,” he said.

So the Minister actually knows they won’t get those units for social housing? Darragh blustered about figures being “based on the advice of my officials within the department…”

Why can’t the local authorities step in and buy them instead, as the Opposition is suggesting? “In many cases they may,” said the Minister vaguely. Oh, but he was itching to talk about their focus on increasing the housing stock.

If climb-downs and U-turns were an Olympic sport I suspect that Paddy Power would have you at short odds for a medal in Tokyo

But Sarah kept dragging him back to the scene of the crime and all those real houses for real people which are at risk now, for some unexplained reason.

It might only be 2,400 units but buying them would be “an accounting issue”. It would require a big increase in capital funding and that would be a difficulty, said Darragh of his Government’s self-proclaimed biggest issue facing the country today.

Still, it’s only a short-term measure. “So I can see this as very much a transition.”

So this stamp duty exemption will only be in place for six months?

“No, I didn’t say that, Sarah.”

“Danger here,” as George Hamilton might say.

Darragh was floundering badly. “It’s not our preference, by the way. We have changed the dial towards building more homes than ever before.”

But it would be unwise to tinker with “the pipeline that is there for leased families”.

“The pipeline that is there for leased families.”

He sounded like a SuperValu ad gone wrong.

Real Food for Real People morphed into Real Homes for Real People. SuperValu also promotes “Real Rewards”.

So nine weeks after saying one thing, Micheál Martin was on his feet in the Dáil on Wednesday defending, for the second day in a row, his Government’s sudden decision to partially row back on their not particularly taxing levy.

A perplexed Mick Barry of Solidarity-People Before Profit was left scratching his head.

“Is your climb-down on the vulture funds the most spectacular climb-down in the lifetime of this Dáil?” he asked the Taoiseach. “If climb-downs and U-turns were an Olympic sport I suspect that Paddy Power would have you at short odds for a medal in Tokyo.”

You’d have been lucky to get Micheál at evens after this puzzling reversal of engines. A podium placement in Japan in the bag.

It was quite the mystery.

Real Homes. Real People. Real Rewards.

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