Success on housing in North could be Sinn Féin’s route to government in South

Party on serious manoeuvres as its Minister outlines social housing reform in Stormont

Housing associations, which provided most new social housing over the past 25 years, will be able to continue borrowing and building. File photograph: The Irish Times

Housing associations, which provided most new social housing over the past 25 years, will be able to continue borrowing and building. File photograph: The Irish Times

 

February’s general election was about housing, not about Sinn Féin’s all-Ireland political agenda.

But what if the republican party can bring those two issues together by making a success of housing policy in the North?

The question arises after Sinn Féin’s Stormont housing minister Carál Ní Chuilín delivered a landmark statement in the Assembly.

The reform programme she set out was wide ranging and well received across the political spectrum. Its headline aim is to convert the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the region’s overarching social landlord, into a mutual or co-operative society. This will allow it to borrow outside the public sector and resume building houses, which it has not done since the mid-1990s.

Housing associations, which provided most new social housing over the past quarter century, will be able to continue borrowing and building as well.

The intention is to double social housing starts to the 3,000 a year required to meet demand. The construction industry was among the first to welcome the statement.

Social housing comprises about 15 per cent of Northern Ireland’s housing stock. Private landlords provide another 20 per cent and Ní Chuilín has promised to regulate them more closely. All tenancies should benefit from higher standards, lower rents and better security.

The Minister also wants to expand homeownership schemes without selling off social housing – objectives that tend to clash.

This is where her proposals reach straight into the private sector and private aspiration. The models of co-ownership, buy to rent and “intermediate rent” Ní Chuilín intends to consider each effectively subsidise the purchase of private property.

It would be easy to downplay Tuesday’s statement. All its policies have been in the works at Stormont for years and were listed in January’s New Decade, New Approach deal to restore devolution. Ní Chuilín still does not anticipate getting them through the Assembly before 2022, despite cross-party and UK government support.

The flagship changes at the housing executive could be seen as just tweaking the accounts to keep debt off Stormont’s books and to restore a house-building function lost in a previous public sector accounting trick.

Private borrowing will be secured against rents, almost half of which are paid through the UK welfare system, which is not part of Stormont’s budget.

However, the lightness of Ní Chuilín’s programme is why it is likely to succeed. A few changes to rules and structures should release new streams of money and increase the supply of all housing, public and private. This should be noticeable in availability, price and the physical fact of appearing before everyone’s eyes.

On almost every measure, Northern Ireland has better housing figures than the Republic

You can view the whole history of housing in Northern Ireland as a fraught generational cycle of success and failure. Inevitable shortages have a toxic effect in a divided society, driving urgent reforms, which gradually unravel as shortages recur.

It is well known the housing executive was set up in 1971 for this reason.

Less known is that it replaced the Northern Ireland housing trust, set up in 1945 for the same reason and equally admired for decades.

The housing executive was stripped of powers in the mid-1990s by a Conservative direct-rule government. Twenty years later, the DUP at Stormont marked it for de facto privatisation, while being accused of discrimination in housing policy.

On Tuesday, Ní Chuilín did not revisit those accusations or muse on Northern Ireland’s history. There was no grandstanding about Tory ideology or unionist sectarianism. She mentioned she was “exploring issues” with “colleagues” in the British government on debt forgiveness and tax exemptions, then warmly agreed with the DUP on tackling problems with landlords and developers in inner Belfast. Referring to proposed regulation, she began: “I recognise that landlords run a business.”

Tactical manoeuvres

This was Sinn Féin at its most responsible and restrained. It is on serious manoeuvres.

The party clearly feels it can win votes in the Republic with abstract housing promises, judging by the prominence given to TD Eoin Ó Broin’s thoughts on the subject – thoughts compatible with most of Stormont’s new policies.

Other southern parties clearly believe the North is relevant. In February’s main televised election debate, then taoiseach Leo Varadkar tried to attack Sinn Féin for high homelessness statistics in Northern Ireland. The comparison was false, as was quickly pointed out, because homelessness is defined differently North and South.

On almost every measure, Northern Ireland has better housing figures than the Republic, so rivals making cross-Border comparisons are giving Sinn Féin a relatively easy problem to address.

Stormont’s interminable tardiness should also serve republican purposes. There is an Assembly election in 2022, when Sinn Féin can seek to retain or pass on the housing portfolio, depending on how it wants to calibrate credit, blame and the appearance of cross-community coalition.

By the next Irish general election in 2025, Ní Chuilín’s plans might even be delivering. If so, there would only be one response open to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens: they would have to point to better delivery in the Republic.

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