Miriam Lord: Taoiseach’s toes uncomfortably close to flames as he rejects talk of water charges

Mary Lou McDonald is mining a rich seam of public discontent and she knows it

A fire has been lit under the Government.

And the Taoiseach’s toes are uncomfortably close to the flames. This would explain why characteristically ultra cautious Micheál Martin is suddenly moving like a man who doesn’t want his feet to touch the ground.

But one thing is for sure: he won’t be throwing water on the blaze.

“We are going to continue to invest in water but water charges will not be coming back,” he informed reporters as he went into Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting at the beginning of his Coalition’s second week on the rack over housing policy.


The nightmare topic was in the news again because the OECD’s latest environmental review suggested a Government rethink on introducing domestic water charges here. After a torrid year dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and now wrestling with anger over vulture funds buying up swathes of “starter homes”, the Taoiseach wasn’t in any mood to even contemplate the subject of charging for water.

Things are bad enough with the voters without pushing them into complete uproar.

So he firmly and calmly dismissed the suggestion.

One calamity at a time, thank you very much.

To be fair to Micheál, our second-rate supply of available and affordable homes was a problem long before he became head of government. This housing crisis has been simmering beneath the surface of everyday society for more than a decade, building nothing but a demoralised generation of angry and resentful people who can’t buy a place to call their own.

Previous administrations were aware of the situation, but the early, prescient, noise came from left-wing politicians like Mick Wallace, the MEP and former TD who was a major property developer during the boom.

Mick – whatever about his subsequent political exploits – knew the business. Years ago, time and again, he told the Dáil what would happen if the Real Estate Investment Trusts (Reits) were not reined in.

He got nowhere.

People like Richard Boyd-Barrett and former Socialist TDs Joe Higgins and Ruth Coppinger would come to the chamber with stories of evictions, usually of people who had neither the means nor ability to fight them.

Rich pickings

Sometimes the politicians reacted and little tweaks were made to tax law and legislation. But nothing to curb the march of seemingly untouchable investment funds truffling for rich pickings in the Irish market.

Then two weeks ago Michael Brennan of the Business Post told us about a fund which bought up a whole estate of new houses in Kildare, dashing the dreams of first-time homebuyers unable to compete with a tax-incentivised corporate entity.

Stories quickly tumbled out of more estates and apartment complexes cornered by these global investors and suddenly disappointed buyers came forward in their legions to say how individual houses and apartments – new and second hand – were being swiped from under their noses.

Business is business. Funds need to stay funded, but not, it seems, by straying into the traditional sort of housing stock designated for owner-occupiers. Can’t blame the big companies, they follow the profits.

But this time, it was a case of the Reit time but the wrong place.

Barrage of anger

Just as the pandemic cloud was lifting, the Government was hit by the barrage of anger unleashed by thwarted buyers and cheesed-off renters and their equally outraged home-owning friends and families. The vulture funds had gone too far.

Sinn Féin’s Mary-Lou McDonald, in full flight, has been leading the charge. After a year of vaccines and viruses and quarantine and lockdowns, the Opposition is embracing this controversy with gusto. TDs gorging on the detail after enduring a long famine of normal political engagement.

The detail is enough to enrage the populace, but the novelty of something other than Covid to become worked up about is also a welcome change.

So Micheál Martin knows he has to move fast and get this situation sorted in some meaningful way as quickly as possible. He knows his deputies are getting it in the neck about the vulture funds from disgusted constituents who think it should not be beyond the capabilities of government to design a housing system which is at least fair to people who scrimp and save to get on the housing ladder.

With the Dáil back to a three-day week for the first time this year, he faced his first Leaders’ Questions for 2021 at a Tuesday sitting with the housing question still the burning political topic of the day.

Mary Lou McDonald came out fighting. Fianna Fáil started the housing crisis and then it was deepened by Fine Gael “who couldn’t wait to let the vultures loose” over the past decade.

And now Fianna Fáil is back again, still “enabling” wealthy funds to buy up family homes thanks to “cushy tax deals”.

It’s not just happening in Dublin, she told the Taoiseach, twisting the knife for Government TDs from outside the Pale. “They now plan to spread their wings across the State.”

Public discontent

McDonald is mining a rich seam of public discontent and she knows it. Not only are these vulture/cuckoo funds “robbing” houses from ordinary people, they are also pushing up the prices. Then when buyers can’t afford to buy, the funds rent the houses they wanted to purchase back to them for exorbitant costs.

She suggested ways the Government could act “to cut the legs from under the investment funds” and demanded to know what it plans to do and when it will act.

The Taoiseach can quote her chapter and verse of how much his Government has done in a very short space of time to get building going again and to put funds in place for affordable house and to assist first-time buyers. He can cite figures, while pointing out that building had to stop for much of the pandemic and argue, with justification, that his administration is undertaking the biggest “multi-annual” building programme in the history of the State.

It doesn’t matter.

He can point out to the Sinn Féin leader as many times as he wants that her party has questions to answer over “objecting to housing project after housing project for a variety of reasons”, thus preventing the construction of hundreds of homes.

It doesn’t matter.

It’s all about the cuckoo investors and the vulture funds and curbing their spread further and further into the housing market.

“I have no intention of hanging around in relation to this,” said the Taoiseach. He sounded like he meant it too. No reference to setting up taskforces or commissioning top-level reports.

He says the relevant Ministers – Donohoe, McGrath and O’Brien – are already putting together a plan. They met for two hours on Tuesday to work on it.

You can see he wants to be able to stand up in the Dáil much sooner rather than later with news of how the funds will be contained. And maybe more too, because more action is needed and will be demanded.

“The State is the now the biggest player. Repeat, the State, the Government is the biggest player now in the housing market. That is the reality,” he told Boyd-Barrett.

He can’t afford to hang around. Repeat, he can’t afford to hang around.