Let us stop repeating the lie that Irish people do not protest
The legacy of Apollo House is that the public now knows change can occur
Apollo House should embolden not just activists in other sectors, but people inspired by activism. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
After Apollo House, after a large protest movement forced the Government to roll back on charging people for water, as the movement for women’s reproductive rights grows bigger and bigger, after a grassroots movement brought marriage equality from a fringe aspiration to constitutional change, perhaps we can finally stop repeating the lie that Irish people don’t protest.
Apollo House created a feeling that should make Government nervous but one that should also create a new dialogue between a people dissatisfied by a lack of logic being applied to an issue, and politicians who have the authority and means to change things. Above all else, that feeling is one of personal power. It is a sense that things do not have to be as they are, and “that’s the why” isn’t a good enough reason for stasis. It is also a realisation that if a small group of highly motivate, prepared and passionate people want to take something on, they can, and not only that, they can make a huge difference too. Apollo House is both avatar and meme, a representation of something bigger, and a system that can be passed on. So, what’s next?
With Government constantly crowing about recovery while what so many people see is inequality, the spin is wearing thin. Apollo House was about taking control of truth in an atmosphere of obfuscating PR. What does a recovery mean if month on month more families are becoming homeless? What does it mean if people’s debt is being passed on to vulture funds? If even people with decent incomes cannot afford to rent where they want to live? If destitute people are begging on our streets in such great numbers? Fine Gael’s sense of “recovery” is meaningless to so many people when the reality of struggle and inequality is so obvious and visible.
Apollo House should embolden not just activists in other sectors, but people inspired by activism. A person upset by how things are is just an activist in waiting. One of the most frustrating states for a person to inhabit (and a handy one for those in control) is a state of inertia. A feeling of helplessness and a lack of control, poses the question “but what can I do?” and assumes the answer is “nothing”. This inertia and paralysis was particularly evident in the aftermath of the initial economic crash especially when disaster capitalism was primed to fill the vacuum that followed with misguided policies, pools of debt impossible to fill and disproportionate austerity.
This austerity was constantly explained to the Irish people, also a discombobulating tactic that pretended those in charge knew what they were doing and that all of this was for the best. As Milton Friedman wrote to Augusto Pinochet in 1975, as detailed by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: “If this shock approach were adopted, I believe that it should be announced publicly in great detail, to take effect at a very close date. The more fully the public is informed, the more will its reactions facilitate the adjustment.” Information is, however, different to logic.
Once the fog cleared around that initial obfuscation, the public started to ask simple questions again and wonder why simple answers were not forthcoming. The lack of common sense coming from Government on housing and homelessness is what makes the average person realise that the game is rigged. The key word constantly repeated in an Irish context when it comes to housing is “supply” (even though, in Dublin at least, one of the main problems is not supply of new housing but dereliction of usable housing). This supply, we are told, can only be met by “the market”. But that’s not true. Providing housing to people is not just a market issue. The market assumes most people can buy, but many cannot.
As Apollo House was vacated, its biggest – and ongoing – legacy will be a reminder to the Irish public that change can occur and national conversations can start if a few people take it upon themselves to bring an issue to light. The frustration that politicians and other authorities express when campaigns such as this take hold is that such demands are unrealistic or overly simplistic. Politicians have a tendency to talk down, not talk to. People are not stupid. They know that there are simple answers to a housing shortage, and one of those very obvious ones is for the State to provide social housing en masse to those who will never be able to afford mortgage deposits or massive monthly rent in the private market.
The majority of people being evicted from homes, being housed in emergency accommodation, sleeping in hotel rooms, hostels, cars, or on cardboard, will never be able to buy their own homes. The market is not going to change that. The reason such a housing shortage exists for these people is because the State stopped building social housing.
The State reneged on its responsibility to house its citizens, and continues to frame the housing crisis around private and commercial interests, not the public interest. Government positions questions of supply around how we can give developers and builders enough treats to guarantee suitable profits so that they will build. None of this has to do with housing the most vulnerable people in our society, and all of it has to do with those who stand to make profit from building.