Catholic bishops to ‘reflect’ on Minister’s request for land for housing

Primate to discuss Darragh O’Brien’s letter at bishops’ meeting next month

Archbishop Eamon Martin will ‘consider its content carefully’. Photograph: Tom Honan

Archbishop Eamon Martin will ‘consider its content carefully’. Photograph: Tom Honan

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The Catholic Primate, Archbishop Eamon Martin, has responded to a letter from Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien asking the church to identify property it owns that could potentially be used for housing.

He told the Minister he would “consider its content carefully and will, in consultation with his brother bishops, reflect on it during the autumn general meeting of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in October”.

Mr O’Brien had said he was hopeful the church would provide land for the State to build homes in the future as he confirmed sending the letter last week.

The letter acknowledged the independence of the church in managing its property portfolio and noted that addressing the housing crisis was primarily the State’s duty, but asked the church to identify land or vacant buildings that could be considered as part of a wider solution to the problem.

It is understood the Minister had sent the letter to the Bishops’ Conference secretariat in Maynooth rather than to Archbishop Martin in Armagh. It had not been forwarded to him before its details were made public, prompting the archbishop to initially state that he had not received it.

Some figures in the church have privately queried the timing of the Minister’s letter, just a few days before the Government’s Housing for All strategy was published.

The Minister said the purpose of the letter was to “open up a discussion” with the church about it supporting the State in building housing.

“They have significant land holdings across the State,” the Minister said on Monday last week. “Some local authorities have been dealing with churches in different parishes, and land holdings have been freed up for housing.”

Separate entities

Ownership of church property is complicated by the fact that every parish is a separate legal entity in civil and canon law, as is each school in civil law. Religious congregations are also separate independent entities in civil and canon law and, generally, are responsible to superiors in Ireland rather than bishops.

It is also the case that many church properties are controlled by trusts, which limit their use to educational or healthcare uses.

Meanwhile, Mr O’Brien has said implementation of the housing plan will require an additional 27,000 workers in the construction sector.

“We need to work on that now on the apprenticeship side,” he said. “We’ve got to build a sustainable system. I think there will be people who will be coming back home. We have seen some of that. We lost about 8 per cent of the workforce ... through Covid because some went to work in continental Europe or in Britain.”

He said some had already returned and the Government would look at campaigns to attract others.

“This isn’t a short-term fix in relation to skills. I have been on some sites where the average age of the sites could be in their 50s and you don’t see too many people coming up.”

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