A new urban quarter on Bull Island? Time to learn from the Dutch

The Netherlands just gets on and solves problems like housing

President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina Coyne greet King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands as they arrive for a wreath laying ceremony at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin during the royal couple’s visit to Ireland. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

For the Irishman in Europe from the 1970s to the 1990s, these were familiar experiences: Ireland was mainly seen through the twin prisms of terrorism and tourism. In some countries, though, like Germany and France, Ireland sometimes also had an aura of Celtic mysticism, music, poetry, rebellion - an image which could be clearly traced back to the Romantic revolution in the 19th century. But any Irishman attempting to sell that shtick in the Netherlands would soon be disillusioned. The Romantic revolution seemed to have passed the country by, and the longer I lived there the more the two countries seemed to be opposite extremes which did not attract.

As I learned to speak Dutch and became more familiar with the culture, I realised that in the Netherlands, Ireland was generally regarded as an extremely backward and marginal country, dominated by the Catholic Church. When people learned I was Irish they were quick to repeat the remark attributed to Otto van Bismarck: that if the Dutch lived in Ireland, it would be the garden of Europe, but if the Irish lived in the Netherlands, it would be underwater. I could see their point. But part of the negative image of Ireland seemed to be related to a kind of low level anti-Catholicism deeply ingrained in Dutch culture.

Later on I took great delight in pointing out that whereas England had emancipated its Catholics in 1829, the Dutch, those bastions of tolerance, had waited until 1853 for full emancipation, and discrimination against Catholics had continued into the 20th century. They were equally slow in dealing with the legacy of slavery, which had so enriched Dutch society, a process which has really only got underway in recent years.

The lack of mutual sympathy has something to do with our different origins. The Netherlands began not as a coherent ethnic group, but as a coalition of Protestant provinces fighting against Spanish, and Catholic, domination. Above all, to understand the Dutch, you have to understand that the Netherlands is a self-made land, its character marked by the battle to reclaim land from the sea and defend it from floods, a process ongoing since medieval times.


This needed complex cooperation, which bred the consensus-seeking and social organisation which are still the best characteristics of Dutch society. The polder landscape, flat and without horizon, seemed to abhor hierarchy, and encourage a sturdy egalitarianism.

The Netherlands today has its problems: the unimaginable rise of the far right, like Geert Wilders, and society has strained to integrate its Islamic immigrants. But twenty years living in the Netherlands left me impressed, above all, by the concept which the Dutch call maakbaarheid, which can be translated as makeability: that is to say, the idea that the reality around you can be constructed.

This is what the Dutch have done. Confronted with a problem you analyse it, and then fix it. It is an attitude that we in Ireland have much to learn from. I can attest from personal experience that the health system, while it’s not perfect, is streets ahead of ours. Education is overwhelmingly free and public. But it is above all in the area of housing that Ireland needs to learn from the Dutch.

The Dutch believe that everyone has a right to decent housing. In the 1990s it became clear that the country would need an extra million homes in the near future. Their solution was to acquire the land, plan new neighbourhoods, commission architects, then build the homes. The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated parts of Europe and land is always at a premium, so in some cases the Dutch did what they have always done - they created new land for housing.

In Amsterdam they reused derelict parts of the Amsterdam harbour and sandy islands to build tens of thousands of homes. Imagine building a whole new urban quarter, including high-rise apartments, on the Bull Island! It is the kind of imaginative thinking and action which we need to study carefully and learn from. This week, King Willem-Alexander visits Ireland accompanied by a high-powered political and economic delegation. It has been suggested they are here to explore deeper economic cooperation, but perhaps Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy might find time for a short Dutch lesson.

Michael O’Loughlin is a poet and critic who lived in the Netherlands for 20 years.