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Justine McCarthy: Housing policy incompetence has opened door to far-right

People feel hard done by when their house is swamped with the stuck-at-home generation

Woebegone wags used to joke during the 1980s emigration haemorrhage that a sign should be hung on the country asking the last person to leave Ireland to turn off the lights. How soon we forget those bleak days when rural villages could not muster sufficient numbers to form GAA teams because all the young people were gone.

These days, the preferred sign says “Ireland is full”, according to the Facebook page of the exceedingly right-wing Irish Freedom Party, which churns out anti-immigration rhetoric. The faction wallows in the Trumpish chant of “get them out” and has dubbed the State’s asylum measures as “the new plantation of Ireland”. Clearly, it’s the Irish Freedom Party and its ilk who should be told to take a hike.

But that is not what is happening. Though their candidates bombed in the last Dáil elections, attracting only about 2 per cent of first-preference votes, virulent mé féin-ism is enjoying a fillip in the public square thanks to the Government’s inadequate provision of housing for all. The misconceived notion that Ireland is full to bursting point is gaining ever wider traction. Broadcast interviewers are even posing the question: “Can we take any more?”

One does not have to be an Irexiteer or a Nimby to wonder if, amid steep inflation and a rise in immigration, this country can afford to continue receiving new arrivals from abroad. The answer is that yes, of course, it can. Ireland is a relatively lightly populated and well-to-do country with a big heart. Its own history of poverty and emigration sensitises many of its people to the plight of others in the same situation. The majority would be repulsed by the ideology expressed by Hermann Kelly, the Irish Freedom Party’s leader, in a recent interview with Breitbart Europe about the protests, when he said that residents “worry about the safety of their children and how the taxpayer will pay for all this Free Stuff largesse,” adding that “Ireland is full, and we have no duty to be anybody’s colony.”*


Opinion polls and the kindness of individuals and communities around the country say otherwise. The villagers of Geashill in Co Offaly raised €50,000 to buy three mobile homes for Ukrainian families fleeing the Russian invasion. Like other voluntary groups, they took the task upon themselves because the State machinery has been too slow to respond.

Public administration

Ireland may be a world leader at diplomatic-schmoozing and donating to good causes but its incompetence in public administration is utterly demoralising. Whether it’s building hospitals, providing public transport, regulating the banking business or cleaning up the planning system, the mission statement seems to be “What’s your hurry?” There has been a severe shortage of homes for most of the past decade, a situation described by President Michael D Higgins as “a disaster” and a “great, great, great failure”. And still, with almost 11,000 people relying on emergency accommodation, Official Ireland says, “Wait, it’ll get better.”

Into this vacuum has landed the far-right, operating on the precept that no crisis should go unexploited. In Dublin’s multicultural neighbourhood of East Wall, they have been stoking them-versus-us sentiments since news broke of a plan to house 380 asylum seekers in a converted five-floor former ESB office block. Many local residents have genuine concerns about inadequate services in their neighbourhood to cater for the new arrivals but there is another element whose objection is that Irish natives deserve to be housed first. Any natural sense of grievance residents may have is vulnerable to aggravation by nasty references to “strangers” and “unvetted men [of] military age” being “dumped on their doorstep”. Since when has it been a requirement that anyone taking up residence in a new area must have Garda clearance?

It is as easy to play on people’s fears in an administrative vacuum as it is to shoot fish in a barrel. That this vacuum exists is the State’s great shame. Anyone would be tempted to feel hard done by when they haven’t elbow room to open a can of beans because their house is swamped with the stuck-at-home generations.

Hostile reception

On the night of this year’s census, there were 166,752 vacant dwellings in Ireland. Construction approval has been granted for a further 17,000 new homes in what are regarded as dormant planning permissions. At the same time, numerous individuals and families who offered accommodation to Ukrainians immediately after the invasion on February 24th have given up waiting for the authorities to process their offers. Meanwhile, adults and children who have experienced the terror of war and seen people being killed are being shunted from one centre to another, uprooting them from their new schools and neighbours. The last thing they need is a hostile reception.

Central to this chaos is the unwieldy composition of the Government department in charge of catering for refugees, Roderic O’Gorman’s Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Originally conceived as an adjunct to the Department of Health, with which it shares offices in Dublin’s Miesian Plaza, the erstwhile Department of Children has spawned more tentacles than the ocean. O’Gorman is a hard-working Minister but his numerous portfolios bring the concept of multitasking to a new level. He is currently dealing with some of the most complex matters of government, including the controversy about child abuse in Spiritans’ schools, the dismantling of the direct provision system for asylum seekers and implementing the recommendations of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. It is downright bad management to expect his officials, in addition to that workload, to expediently provide homes and a welcome on the mat for traumatised refugees.

As the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste prepare to switch roles next month, there is much conjecture about which department Micheál Martin will choose for himself in what is expected to be a mini Cabinet reshuffle. Eamon Ryan, the Green Party leader, has said his Ministers will remain in their current positions but that does not mean those positions cannot be reconfigured. Co-ordinating health, education and accommodation services is crucial for the integration of new arrivals in this country. The Cabinet reshuffle presents a timely opportunity to arrange that by creating a Department of Refugees, as has been repeatedly recommended by voluntary organisations.

Government politicians sing the mantra that the centre must hold in order to ward off extremism but, for the centre to hold, the centre must work for everyone.

*This article was edited on Friday, November 25th, 2022 to more accurately reflect a quote given by Hermann Kelly to the Breitbart website.