Miriam Lord: Even the dog in the street knows housing policy is broken
For TDs, 10,000 protesters outside Dáil bring housing crisis uncomfortably close to home
Every so often, when the crowd cheered, a siren went off near the head of the crowd.
Whoop-whoop! But not too loud.
That was the fire fighters.
“I read you in The Irish Times this morning,” said a woman. “What are those Dragons’ Den lads up to at all?”
That was one of the teachers.
There were lots of teachers.
Young public servants and people old enough to be the anxious parents of young public servants joined the housing march. There were men in suits and men in Snickers work trousers. Women in office shoes and sensible skirts and women wearing white chef’s jackets under their regular jackets. Office workers, shop workers, construction workers. Retired people. Students. A huge amount of students.
People. Just people who want people to have homes.
More than 10,000 of them converged on Leinster House demanding Government action on the housing crisis. Politicians in the Dáil were well insulated from the noise outside, but they didn’t need to hear the people to know they are angry.
During Leaders’ Questions, the only topic under discussion was housing.
Some TDs chose to forsake the chamber for the streets by joining the rally. Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, the Greens and People Before Profit turned up with party flags flying. The Labour Party – a brave group – mustered under their flags too, but shipped considerable abuse from other protesters when they arrived. They stood their ground.
Nobody in Fianna Fáil was stupid enough to venture into the crowd under a party banner, although a handful of TDs and Senators stood silently and safely to one side of the stage, on a ramp behind an iron railing leading to the escape doors of Buswells Hotel. They weren’t noticed and they didn’t try to rectify that.
Fine Gael, sensibly, stayed away. But we saw a few staffers, anonymous on the margins, taking in the scene. As was likely the case with Fianna Fáil’s shrinking violets, the diverse nature of the attendance won’t have gone unnoticed by them either.
The turnout was discussed in the carpark as chants drifted across Kildare Street. “It wasn’t just the usual suspects,” remarked a Government backbencher, looking troubled.
'Of course it is an emergency. If it was not an emergency, we would not be spending €60 million a year to put people up in emergency accommodation'
More than 10,000 protesters turning up for a midweek rally at lunchtime. There is talk of a follow-up event, but this time on a Saturday. The politicians know the turnout for this will be even bigger, because housing is coming up on the doorsteps in their constituencies.
Housing is getting uncomfortably close to home.
The word used most in the Dáil was “emergency”. Micheál Martin, the Fianna Fail leader, used it four times in his opening question. And then some more in his follow up.
He said the handling of the crisis has been farcical.
“Delivery has not matched the high-flown rhetoric of ministerial announcements,” he declared, asking the Taoiseach to accept that the situation is now an emergency.
“It is an emergency,” said Leo Varadkar. Sure hasn’t he been saying it since the start of the year, if not earlier?
“Of course it is an emergency. If it was not an emergency, we would not be spending €60 million a year to put people up in emergency accommodation, we would not have brought in rent caps in urban areas and we would not have brought about fast-track planning. They were all emergency measures brought in because this is an emergency. Calling it an emergency does not actually solve the problem.”
He then got embroiled in the usual spat with Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, where she roars at him and he attacks her.
She urged him “to officially declare the housing crisis as an emergency . . . He should accept that we face an emergency and then he should act accordingly”.
Varadkar countered that the act of declaring something doesn’t build any houses. He then attacked Sinn Féin’s credibility over the homeless crisis in Northern Ireland and questioned the record of councillors “voting down social and affordable housing proposals in city councils, including South Dublin”.
Mary Lou wanted to take the fight outside. She challenged him to go out to the gates with her and meet the protesters. Then he’d find out who has the problem with credibility.
As the crowd gathered outside, there were exchanges about ideology inside. Fine Gael was the “landlords’ lackeys” clinging to the belief that the market is the solution for everything.
The Taoiseach said that unlike the parties of the left, his Government isn’t ideologically “wedded to particular political philosophies” and simply wants to build new homes as quickly as possible and by any mechanism available.
But it’s difficult. “There is only so much concrete in the country.”
'The private rental sector is part of the problem, not part of the solution'
Opposition leaders blew holes in his numbers for newly-built social homes. Varadkar said there are different ways of reaching the figures for numbers housed, but people have been housed.
“I’ve been there to hand out the keys.” One statement not in dispute – we’ve all seen the pictures.
However, clever use of existing housing stock doesn’t build more houses.
Back outside, Damian Dempsey sang “Where is our James Connolly” and the crowd cheered when he pointed to them and shouted “he’s here!”
The final speaker was homelessness campaigner Fr Peter McVerry. He took to the stand with Tiny, an elderly Jack Russell terrier. “We’re both here to fight for housing – me and my dog.” To a chorus of youthful cheers from the students and a few blasts on the siren from the fire fighters he said “the private rental sector is part of the problem, not part of the solution”.
And to loud applause, he reminded the crowd that an election is coming and politicians need to know “we are going to vote homelessness out”.
Will the protest make any difference?
“I think it will. It’s a massive crowd,” said Fr McVerry. “I think it has to put pressure on Fine Gael in particular to look at housing policy again and to accept the fact that a huge number of people do not think their policies are working.”
Tiny, rather like her owner, is a terrier not to be trifled with. She’s a rescue dog, around 10 years old and awful cranky.
“Don’t even think of petting her. She’ll take the hand off you.”
Sounds like she could have a big future in property.