Una Mullally: Home Sweet Home is the real ‘New Politics’

People take action on homelessness because the Government has failed to act

Apollo House, a vacant Nama-owned property in Dublin city centre has been taken over by “concerned citizens”, including high-profile personalities and is being used to accommodate homeless people. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

“New Politics” is a meaningless phrase really, a political PR term that has no basis in invention or change. Our parliaments seem to be consistently made up of mostly conservative politicians who often retreat to local concerns. They rarely offer big ideas or underpin their processes with anything other than reactive firefighting.

Political journalists are very often process-focused when it comes to how things operate on Kildare Street, examining the workings of political systems as one-part theatre, one-part complex machine. Much analysis is done on which cogs are turning and which actors are on the stage. The public remains outcome-focused, that is to say people want to know what is actually being done about the issues they are facing, and impatiently desire results.

Politicians themselves seem to remain resolutely self-focused, the intellectual collateral damage of being an elected official, always looking to how they can take credit or slam the competition or bolster their position to get re-elected.

Last Thursday, journalist and lecturer Harry Browne and I spoke on RTÉ’s Late Debate about the politics at work outside of the Dáil; the grassroots movements, the people power, the protests, the campaigns. This is where the “politics” of our day is happening, online and off.

Politics and activism

We didn’t know that, as we were talking about the housing crisis and how the public were taking politics and activism into their own hands, a group was occupying Apollo House, a Nama building on Tara Street in Dublin. This is the real “New Politics”.

The Home Sweet Home volunteers and the Irish Housing Network and leaders such as Rosie Leonard took over the Apollo House office block and began moving people in. On social media, they called for volunteers. The event was bolstered by celebrity support from musicians. These people will be praised, and they will also be called naive and idealistic. Those characteristics are preferable to cynicism and defeatism.

Dublin has a dereliction crisis, but such dereliction also offers a solution. Thousands more people could be living in the city centre between the canals if there was any sort of political will for it, if there was any sense of urgency from politicians, if there was any proper strategy to tackle dereliction, if there was any sort of creativity or invention at all coming from government. But our elected officials don’t want to upset the landlords and landowners. Remember, many of them are of that class themselves. They don’t want to get on the wrong side of developers or upset “the market”.

The dawdling by the Government and local authorities on this issue is scandalous. Even now, when supposed “action” is being taken on vacant sites and derelict properties, the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015 which introduced the vacant site levy, won’t make that levy payable until 2019. When Dublin City Council audited vacant or derelict sites in the central Dublin, the 282 sites counted made up 61 hectares of land. That’s nearly seven times the size of St Stephen’s Green park. We have two more years of landowners being allowed to leave sites empty in prime locations across our capital without any repercussions while people queue outside houses with scraped-together deposits bulging in their pockets and families sleep in cars. While children study on top of one another in hotel rooms. While families move into B&Bs. While people languish in Direct Provision accommodation. While homeless people die on the streets. While people are evicted. While students sleep on couches. While greedy landlords pack rooms with bunkbeds and charge rent by the mattress. And crucially while the Government hums and haws about social housing.

People power

If the official channels are failing to provide for our people, then of course citizens are going to start doing things themselves. At this point, we really have to ask how has government failed so badly on housing policy that citizens have to take matters into their own hands. How has this crisis, so blatant for so long, not been addressed with a multitude of actions by the Government? How come citizens are showing more leadership on this than our actual official “leaders”? How come groups of people have more ideas, show more invention, are more organised and effective and dynamic in asserting themselves on this issue than government itself? The Irish people demanded leadership on our multifaceted housing crisis. It was not forthcoming. Is it any wonder that the next step is citizens taking over buildings?

Housing and homelessness and emergency accommodation services are unbelievably stretched. There’s a reason moments like Apollo House are happening. If there’s a vacant building owned by Nama (which actually means that it’s owned by us, the taxpayers and citizens of this country) that could be utilised to safely accommodate people, short-term or long-term, the people of Ireland are entitled to take it over. Why not? What possible moral objection could anyone have to that? It’s ours. People need a roof over their heads. This is of course messy and “unofficial”, but it’s not wrong. More power to them.

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