The Irish Times view on the politics of the housing crisis: Fine Gael is right to be rattled
The Government has not shown the urgency or the competence to deal with the problem
Protesters during a ‘Raise the Roof’ rally highlighting the housing crisis on Molesworth Street in Dublin on Wednesday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The Government is clearly rattled by the potential of the housing crisis to undermine its prospects of being elected for another term. Tense exchanges in the Dáil and a large protest outside the gates of Leinster House in recent days have brought home to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Cabinet colleagues the political damage that the ongoing crisis is doing.
Addressing the Fine Gael parliamentary party on Wednesday night, Varadkar told his TDs and Senators that contrary to what was being said by the Opposition and repeated in the media, the party had no ideological objection to the State providing social housing.
He is clearly aware of the harm this narrative is doing to Fine Gael. During Dáil exchanges earlier he acknowledged that there was a housing emergency, saying that was the reason the Government was spending €60 million a year to put people up in emergency accommodation. He added that 20,000 houses would be built this year, up 5,000 on last year, and 50,000 or 60,000 people would get the key to a new home.
Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy also claimed the Government had no ideological position on housing, telling the Dáil he wanted to see houses being built in the right locations for all of the people and that he would not oppose any local authority buying or leasing homes to get families out of homelessness more quickly.
Varadkar and Murphy have not only been stung by the criticism of their record on housing; they are clearly aware of the political damage that may be done to Fine Gael if the charge being made by their political opponents that they are not really serious about dealing with the crisis, becomes widely accepted. They will need to do more, however, than simply protest their innocence of the charge. The proof of their commitment will be in the results – or lack of them – and their record to date is not encouraging.
It is not just Fine Gael’s left-wing critics who are doubtful about its approach. Former Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan, writing in The Irish Times today, says that so far Government measures to improve housing have produced more noise than results. He accepts that this partly reflects an implementation lag but says it can also be attributed to the Government’s reluctance until recently to go much beyond the use of subsidies to encourage residential construction.
Honohan shares the view of many of the Government’s critics that they have been unwilling or unable to get back into the business of directly providing social housing for those who cannot afford market prices. The State’s local authorities have to share some of the responsibility for this failure but the buck stops with the Government and so far it has not demonstrated the urgency or the competence to deal adequately with the problem. The political price may be heavy.