Fintan O’Toole: The shift back towards landlordism didn’t happen by accident

We’ve had a transformation in official policy with very deep consequences for how Irish people live their lives

Rent used to be a bad word in Ireland, so bad that it was usually pronounced as the more savage-sounding “rint”. As in an old anti-landlord ballad: “Like Egypt’s king he’ll not relint/ The gintleman that takes the rint.”

Bad memories of this gintleman shaped Irish attitudes to property. Being a tenant was associated, not just with personal insecurity, but with national humiliation.

The drive to get out from under the sway of that gintleman was one of the great forces that shaped Ireland in the 20th century. The end of tenancy was, at the level of ordinary families, the equivalent of the achievement of statehood — both were declarations of independence.

What’s remarkable about this movement, though, is that it did not stop with its original goal of allowing small farmers to become owners of the land they worked. Much more quietly and less dramatically, it became an urban phenomenon too.

After the second World War the private landlord began to disappear from Irish towns and cities. In 1946, 26 per cent of Irish households were renting their homes from a private owner. By 1991 that figure was down to just 8 per cent.

The gintleman that takes the rint was a dying breed. Most people who paid rent for their homes did so to their local authority, benefiting from regulation and security. More and more people, meanwhile, were taking out mortgages to buy their own homes.

Thirty years ago it could be said that Irish people had pretty much managed to do something they had been trying for centuries, in one way or another, to achieve. They had rid themselves of landlords. More than 90 per cent of Irish households were no longer beholden to a rentier class.

It might not be too much of an exaggeration, indeed, to say that Irish modernity could be traced through these two phases of liberation from private rent — first, the revolution in land holding that created the Ireland of small farmers; then, the gradual emergence of a large urban middle class that could realistically aspire to home ownership.

No political party ever ran for election on the promise to bring back the landlords. None of our leaders ever said that the problem with late 20th century Ireland was that too few people were paying rent

But now the gintleman is back. One of the biggest social changes in Ireland in the 21st century is the return of the rentier.

The number of households living in rented accommodation has more than doubled, from 220,000 in 2000 to 545,000 in 2020. The number of these households who are pure private renters (not in social housing or in receipt of State rent supports) has tripled over the same period.

There are all sorts of things to say about this reversal, but one of the interesting ones is that it is surely countercultural. It goes against the grain of what Irish people have been trying to achieve for hundreds of years.

Leave aside for a moment whether we think this return of landlordism is a good or a bad thing. It is surely a very powerful example of democratic failure — the people getting what they do not want.

No political party ever ran for election on the promise to bring back the landlords. None of our leaders ever said that the problem with late 20th century Ireland was that too few people were paying rent.

And yet, this shift back towards landlordism didn’t happen by accident. It has been engineered by the State and partly paid for by the taxpayer.

It is the State that created and shaped this change. It pays all or most of the rent to landlords for 113,000 households. Between 2001 and 2020 governments have spent €12.5 billion to support the private rental market.

We’ve had, over the course of this century, a transformation in official policy with very deep consequences for how Irish people live their lives

The consequent shift is a remarkable exercise in social engineering. Renting has been made more and more “normal” for each succeeding generation.

A recent ESRI report tells us that fewer than 20 per cent of Irish people born in the 1950s or 1960s lived in rented accommodation in their mid-thirties. For those born in the 1970s this rises to just over 30 per cent. For those born in the 1980s it’s over 40 per cent.

These figures are, naturally, mirrored on the other side by a dramatic decline in home ownership among young people. In 2004, 60 per cent of those aged 25-44 owned their own homes. By 2015 that had halved to 30 per cent.

Everybody knows the economic and social problems associated with this shift. But there is also a profound political problem: it is a hugely significant transformation for which governments have never sought, let alone received, democratic consent.

This is why the housing question is even more than an urgent practical issue. It does of course matter in a very immediate way to huge numbers of citizens. It also matters, though, because it shows those citizens how wide a gap there is between what people want and what their governments have been doing.

We’ve had, over the course of this century, a transformation in official policy with very deep consequences for how Irish people live their lives. But it has been done without even being articulated as a policy.

Yet it has been very effectively accomplished. Without electoral mandates, without official announcements, without open decisions, the gintleman that takes the rint was brought back into Irish life.