President Michael D Higgins says housing crisis must be debated

‘How should construction be financed? What mix of housing tenure do we collectively believe is appropriate?’

President Michael D Higgins was speaking at the Galway International Arts Festival.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

President Michael D Higgins was speaking at the Galway International Arts Festival. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


President Michael D Higgins has called for a widening of the debate on the housing crisis, to examine “all of the constituent parts” of the housing system.

Speaking at the Galway International Arts Festival, Mr Higgins also said horizons must not be confined to a single “territorially-defined” political community.

In this “century of the immigrant” in Europe and a “reversal of the great outflow to the New World and colonies”, an international solidarity was required, he said.

This solidarity must be “shorn of national antagonisms”, and “open and willing to co-operate where we can and sacrifice where we must”, Mr Higgins said — referring to Pope Francis’s description of “our common home”.

Over 600 people attended the address by Mr Higgins at NUI Galway on Saturday morning, introducing the festival’s “first thought” talks on the theme of “home”.

Mr Higgins drew sustained applause when he paid tribute to Co Galway historian Catherine Corless, whose work on recorded deaths of almost 800 infants at the Tuam mother and babies home represented an “extraordinary act of civic virtue”, he said.

“She has demonstrated not only courage and perseverance, but a remarkable commitment to uncovering the truth, to historical truth and moral truth,”Mr Higgins said.

Her work had recognised the “home” for those placed in such institutions as a “place of incarceration, of loss, of retribution, even of invoked revenge for the breaking of an authoritarian version of birth, life, the family and society”, Mr Higgins said.

In an exploration of the definition of home, dating back to the earliest peoples, Mr Higgins referred to Neolithic farmers as being among the first humans to define a “single sedentary space”, and to degrade their environment – though “not yet cursed with the capacity to radically transform the carbon or nitrogen cycle”.

It was not a coincidence that slavery – the “most abhorrent of human institutions” — arose in those years, he noted.

Mr Higgins said he did not subscribe to the view that foundations of states relied on violence, citing Ancient Rome, Greece, and the concept held by the first Australians, the oldest surviving human culture, that people belonged to the land as much as the land belonged to the people.

“The industrial revolution inaugurated the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in world history marked by the influence of a single species — our own – on the global environment,”,he said.

He contrasted the growth of hand-spinning in 18th-century England, overwhelmingly carried out in workshops at home and “exploitative”,with its “digital age equivalent”.

“Our own national history is indeed marked by its own great dispossession, and the sustaining prejudices of the project of colonisation,”Mr Higgins said.

“If we recognise that housing is necessary for the creation of home in our society, we need to think seriously about all the constituents parts of our housing system,” he said.

“How many homes should be constructed every year? How should construction be financed? How should living spaces be designed? What mix of housing tenure do we collectively believe is appropriate? “

“What kind of ownership structures, whether it be municipal, private or collective?,”he asked, appealing for a widening of the debate and a willingness to “eschew any ideological obstacles to the widest possible range of policies”.

He referred to an ideal definite by the Swedish social democrats — the folkhemmet or the people’s home – at a time when Ireland was building local authority housing from 1933 to 1948, he said.

“It is a phrase that contains within it the idea of a home as a political community and as a set of solidaristic relationships, not unlike in their period and setting the Irish ‘clochán’, where a home was a matter of right for all the people” he said.

Mr Higgins said he not only believed the “ideal of home as a political community committed to a rights-based vision of justice can be sustained, — but that it must be sustained”.

“To do so, however, our horizons cannot simply be confined to a single territorially-defined political community,” he said.

Despite all of the promises of the Paris Climate agreement there would be “millions of people seeking refuge from environmental degradation and depletion of natural resources” and our “capacity for solidarity will be tested”, he said.

The Galway International Arts Festival programme of “first thought talks” continues tomorrow and on July 28th. The arts festival and Galway Fringe continue until July 29th/30th.