Mary McAleese says ‘safe, affordable’ home should be a right for everyone

Ex-president tells UN 150% rise in homelessness after 2013 pledge to resolve problem ‘hard to credit’

Former president Mary McAleese has told a UN conference that "it is hard to credit" that homelessness in Ireland grew by 150 per cent in the four year period that followed a 2013 pledge by the then government to resolve the problem.

In a keynote address at the UN Commission for Social Development in New York, Mrs McAleese said “in the month before the national election held last week, for the first time, the homelessness figures showed a slight drop”.

However, she said “it would be a brave person who would claim as in 2013 that we are now on top of the situation and can look forward soon to an end to homelessness”.

Mrs McAleese said she took heart from the fact that during the election campaign “successive opinion polls showed that the public sees the provision of affordable and adequate housing along with the ending of homelessness as top priorities for government action”.


“We can be under no illusion that this is difficult to a serious degree and will involve tough decisions as various basic civic needs like health and education compete for finite local and national funds,” she said.

“A safe, affordable and adequate home should be the right and the experience of each human being. It is a prerequisite of human flourishing, a basic element of healthy, holistic human development.”

Mrs McAleese described Ireland as “in some ways a microcosm of today’s global crisis in housing and homelessness which has long been a feature of developing and unstable jurisdictions but is today impacting wealthy developed countries.”

Third world memory

She recalled how she once described Ireland as “a first world country with a third world memory. That memory and the visible evidence around us of a housing problem means we are not a Pollyanna people. There is a tangible determination that homelessness cannot, will not, mean unending hopelessness.”

The Irish people were “proud that we have managed to emerge from the recent nightmare of economic collapse and austerity thanks to a significant level of social solidarity and forbearance”.

However there was “a growing insistence that homelessness is soluble and avoidable, that provision of affordable and adequate housing is doable but if we have learnt anything over these years of turmoil in the housing system it is that neither the NGO sector, the private, nor the state sector can solve these problems alone.”

She recalled how almost 50 years ago she herself experienced homelessness. "I was the oldest of nine children, the youngest of whom was three-years-old when sectarian paramilitary thugs machine-gunned us from our lovely comfortable and happy home in Belfast. "

They “were never able to return to it. Along with our parents we sofa surfed for weeks distributed in ones and twos around family and friends.”

It was two years “before my parents were able to provide an affordable permanent home for us,” she said.


Her husband Martin and his family “had also been violently evicted from their Belfast home shortly before us”.

The “careless official system of the day” moved them “thoughtlessly into an even worse area and a vicious sectarian attack on his youngest brother forced them to flee for their lives a second time,” she said.

“Such memories lock in an empathy with all those today whose lives are so catastrophically interrupted whether by conflict or other circumstances that they have no place to call home.”

It also “locks in a memory of the trauma of even short-term homelessness for that trauma often has a long shelf life that plays and preys on the many shades of human vulnerability.”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times