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Una Mullally: Leo Varadkar is gaslighting the victims of the housing crisis

When a crisis becomes this acute it doesn’t stay in its lane: it bleeds out in all sorts of ways

“You’re not going to find rents are lower in New York, or it’s easier to buy a house in Sydney. It might be the case if you go to a very rural area, or a third- or fourth-tier city. That can be true in Ireland too. So, you know, sometimes the grass looks greener. It’s not the case that more Irish people are leaving Ireland than are coming home. Actually, more Irish citizens are coming home. The grass can look greener. Considering emigration is not the same as doing it, and many do come back.”

There are plenty of examples of Leo Varadkar’s “well, actually” style of callousness, but I thought a recent interview he did with Gavan Reilly on Newstalk was frankly alarming. How could anyone spin that line in this context, while young people are being forced to leave the country because Irish rents are out of control?

Reilly put it to him that the vast majority of those aged under 25 in Ireland are considering emigrating because they would have a better standard of living and more affordable housing elsewhere. These young people are experiencing and reacting to a reality, and they will not be comforted by Varadkar’s fantasy that they are somehow misguided, that they are only imagining rent is cheaper elsewhere, and that they should hang about and suffer. It’s very easy to splice and dice things to bolster one’s ideology. But this reflex denies reality. It might sound smart in party meetings, and to the graph-boys of Twitter, but to everyone else it is cold, mean gaslighting.

Varadkar’s use of examples of New York (one of the most expensive places to rent in the world, but still easier to find a place to live than it is in Dublin, often at comparative prices), and Sydney (where property is totally overvalued, making it one of the hardest cities globally to buy a home) was strategic and also telling. He could have cited countless other cities young Irish people are leaving for every day – London, Manchester, Glasgow, Berlin, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Lisbon, Hamburg, Brussels, on and on we go – but that wouldn’t have served his shoddy argument and his schoolboy debate-level “point of information” approach to a crisis that is causing untold suffering.


The thing about the housing crisis in Ireland is that when a crisis becomes this acute it doesn’t stay in its lane. It bleeds out in all sorts of ways. The housing crisis is causing resentment around the refugee crisis, and plenty of nefarious people are using it as leverage to stoke racism. The housing crisis causes and exacerbates a national mental health crisis. It leaves people in states of stress and distress, angry and hopeless. It diminishes people’s confidence and sense of self-worth. The housing crisis causes an existential issue for people who work hard but still can’t afford to live in the place they were reared. It makes people feel as though they have failed at life. That is a terrible thing to do to people. The housing crisis causes familial tension, with adults well into their 30s forced to move home. The housing crisis exacerbates fertility issues, as young couples delay having families because they have no place to raise a child.

Listening to people’s stories is not irrelevant. It is human. Perhaps if the victims of terrible housing policies were listened to, things would be different

The housing crisis puts pressure on the urban education system, because young teachers cannot afford to live in Irish cities, and either emigrate or move to rural areas. The housing crisis wears down students in colleges and universities, who arrive to lectures exhausted from long commutes. The housing crisis makes young people feel rejected by their own country. These are people who want to make a life here but are forced to emigrate because they can’t afford to rent a room.

This breaks community ties and disconnects groups of friends. The housing crisis puts pressure on our health system because young nurses can’t afford to live close to hospitals. The housing crisis has shattered the social contract. The feeling at protests is of course anger, but it’s also sadness. The crisis has led to a sort of social depression hanging over the country.

Varadkar said in the interview: “I think we should base our opinions on official figures, not on stories.” I think that speaks to a reluctance to acknowledge the human cost of what is happening. What is so wrong with expressing sympathy and empathy towards those who are suffering? Listening to people’s stories is not irrelevant. It is human. Perhaps if the victims of terrible housing policies were listened to, things would be different. What a privilege to view the housing crisis as simply academic, merely a matter of figures, graphs and reports, and not of real lives.

Last week saw the worst homelessness figures ever, including nearly 3,500 children who will spend Christmas in emergency accommodation. This is a catastrophe. It is a humanitarian emergency. Last Friday night, when the country gathered to watch the Late Late Toy Show, I thought of those children in crowded hotel rooms and hostels, sleeping on couches or in shared beds. Stop telling people their experiences aren’t real. The people living the housing crisis aren’t the ones imagining things. It’s the version of events from government that’s the fantasy.