The decision of the Dáil to reject the Sinn Féin motion extending the ban on evictions was about more than housing: it was about the continued viability of the Government and even its prospects of retaining power after the next election. On that score it didn’t do at all badly, winning the crucial Dáil division by a very comfortable 83 votes to 68, despite losing rebellious Green TD Neasa Hourigan overboard for a second time.
Whatever about the short-term negative publicity arising from ending the ban on evictions, introduced last October to ensure that people would not lose their homes during winter, the vote indicated that the Government is in a comfortable position to continue in office for the next two years if it so desires.
Of course, the Coalition only survived by such a comfortable margin because a number of TDs from the Regional Independents group supported it. They did so following the acceptance by the Government that a number of amendments designed to increase the supply of rented accommodation would be included in the counter motion to Sinn Féin.
The run-up to the vote was dominated by speculation that the decision of Hourigan to vote with Sinn Féin could prompt other Green TDs to panic and bring the Coalition crashing down with two years of its life still left. There was never a chance of that happening but the intervention of the Regional Independents ensured that the Coalition would not be troubled.
The noteworthy things about the demands of the Regional Independents is that they reflect a very different approach to the housing crisis than that adopted by Sinn Féin and the various left-wing parties in the Dáil. The group emphasised the need to incentivise landlords rather than imposing even more restrictions of the kind that have already driven many of them out of the market.
Continuing with a policy which would inevitably have made the housing crisis even worse in the longer term would ultimately have been counterproductive as well as foolish
The amendments proposed by the group were carried by an overwhelming majority of 93 votes to 56, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil as well as a variety of Independents rowing in with support. Sinn Féin, Labour, the Social Democrats and the hard left joined forces to vote against the Regional Independents.
While a number of Independents of various hues subsequently went against the Government on the final vote, when it was clearly safe to do so, the wide margin of victory on the initial vote reflects a real divide in the current Dáil.
The emergence of the Regional Independents as a relatively cohesive group who are actually interested in influencing Government policy, rather than grandstanding on an emotive issue, is a significant development. If the group manages to hold its current number of seats or even add to them at the next election, it could be an important player when it comes to the formation of the next Government.
Had to resist
From the outset, Coalition Ministers knew they had to resist the Sinn Féin move to make the eviction ban permanent, even if it cost them in publicity terms. Continuing with a policy which would inevitably have made the housing crisis even worse in the longer term would ultimately have been counterproductive as well as foolish.
The other important factor is that nobody in the Dáil, with the exception of Sinn Féin, actually wanted to bring down the Government at this stage. With salaries of €104,000 a year, plus generous expenses and the bonus of being able to hire two or even three staff, often family members, most TDs are far too comfortable to risk losing what for many of them is a highly profitable family business.
Fine Gael Minister Peter Burke cited figures last weekend which showed that Sinn Féin had tried to block the building of at least 11,687 homes in the capital since 2018
Smaller parties such as Labour and the Social Democrats have a serious job of rebuilding to do if they are to have any chance of surviving the expected Sinn Féin wave at the next election so, despite their rhetoric this week, will be feeling relieved that they don’t have to face an election for the present. Labour’s motion of no confidence in the Government should be taken with a grain of salt, as it is the party that can least afford an early election.
Sinn Féin is the obvious exception to this as the party would relish a chance to try to turn its impressive opinion poll figures into votes at the earliest opportunity. The fact that the party’s stance on housing is riddled with contradictions, not to say hypocrisy, doesn’t appear to have done it any harm.
[ Pat Leahy: Ending the eviction ban could be this Government’s worst mistake ]
The party’s appeal to the young is largely based on the claim that if in power it will dramatically boost housing supply, yet its TDs and councillors have systematically objected to and voted down numerous construction projects across Dublin. Fine Gael Minister Peter Burke cited figures last weekend which showed that Sinn Féin had tried to block the building of at least 11,687 homes in the capital since 2018.
Of course Sinn Féin hypocrisy reflects the public mood. Quite often the people who decry the Government’s failures on housing are the very ones who object to housing developments in their own areas. Maybe the Dáil vote this week might prompt the beginning of a more rational public debate about how to improve housing supply and really tackle the housing crisis.