Shifting the conversation on housing

Misdirected and neglectful political and media treatment of the housing protest signal a government without scruples

Much of the public and media reaction to the recent occupation of city centre properties, and the subsequent law enforcement response, has been deeply disappointing. Commentators are too fixated on whether the protest was “legitimate”. There is an inordinate amount of scrutinising fixed on activists as individuals, which occasionally descends into total harassment. Whether this has occurred naturally or by design, this has shifted the discussion away from the issue at hand.

This is a time when we should be doing deep soul-searching about how a housing crisis, which has affected thousands of lives, was allowed to develop. Instead we have government ministers taking to our television screens to demand people be nicer to Gardaí, specifically those who use batons and violence against peaceful protesters.

Minister Charlie Flanagan’s proposal to ban filming of Gardaí is a clear affront to democracy, and he deserves to be politically condemned as result. Officers who routinely disguise their identities for purposes other than counter-terrorism operations are similarly dangerous. Increased scrutiny of police forces performing their duties results in less violence, not more.

Criticism of the legitimacy of protest and direct action is ultimately beside the point. It is ridiculous to demand that protests be quiet, entirely within any and all legal boundaries, and totally without disruption. Protesting is disruptive by nature and that is the means by which it calls immediate attention to urgent issues. Otherwise it is not a protest, but just a discussion. People resort to protest when they are being ignored.

All social movements ever have been criticised using the exact same script. It is an age old tactic to discredit social movements of all kinds, and it is despicable. Indeed, the ostracisation of Colin Kaepernick by American right-wing politicians shows us that even the gentlest of demonstrations will face huge backlash. You cannot win, and it is designed to be that way.

Protests are meant to be disruptive, but as protests go this one was well-targeted and respectful.

It is not as if the activists actually caused any real damage. Protests are meant to be disruptive, but as protests go this one was well-targeted and respectful. The organisers peacefully occupied a vacant, dilapidated property owned by a wealthy landlord in order to demand action on a devastating national crisis. For their trouble, they were forcibly removed by private security guards, whose conduct on the day violated no less than three separate laws, if we are concerned about law breaking. They were backed up by masked Gardaí, who used force against both the protesters and against observing members of the public, several of whom were hospitalised. To engage in such a protest in the first place, and to vow continued and emboldened action after such a disproportionate and violent response, is an act of civic heroism and patriotism.

The point has been missed. While I cannot speak for the motivations of media figures, this is absolutely no accident on the part of the government, but blatant misdirection. This event has proved that when a national discussion occurs on an individual protest or an individual activist group, and not the deep and systemic issues that made people angry enough to protest, the government are off the hook. There is less scrutiny of the complete failure of successive governments to fulfil their duty to the most vulnerable people in the country, if people are distracted by the minutiae of one incident. I suspect that Flanagan’s inflammatory comments were calculated in this way.
They came, consciously or unconsciously, less from a place of actually wanting to implement any proposal, and more jumping on the opportunity to talk about anything other than the deeply rooted classism of his own party.

The government and local authorities have time and time again chosen to sit on their hands.

The housing crisis was no mistake. It was not just a product of economic circumstance that no one could have foreseen or helped. This was, at best, horrific negligence and, at worst, a deliberate policy of social vandalism. We know numerous ways to ease housing crisis, and Fine Gael, and to a lesser extent Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, have chosen to use their positions of power to implement none of them, for reasons known only to themselves.

At no point since 2011 has construction of social housing in this country been even a quarter of what it was in 2009. The practice of providing government-run “cost rental” housing, common across Europe for decades, has been implemented exactly zero times in Ireland to date. The government and local authorities have time and time again chosen to sit on their hands and allow dozens of new hotels to be built and properties to be rented short-term, such as the essentially unregulated company AirBnB, in the midst of record-breaking demand for housing and skyrocketing rents. There has been absolutely nothing done to regulate the practice of leaving vacant large swathes of properties by developers or to incentivise turning said properties into accommodation, nor has there been meaningful effort to return vacant state-owned land to the housing supply.

Every media outlet, talking head, and political figure who tried to make this an argument about peaceful protest should be absolutely ashamed of themselves.

Indeed huge amounts of NAMA properties have been sold into private hands, and the tax structure of the sales actually encouraged buyers to do nothing with their purchases except wait for them to appreciate. Even the new Land Development Agency, the government has just announced it will use an abysmal 30% of its land for affordable housing and 10% for social housing. The rest will be sold no-strings-attached to private developers to use as they wish. Evidence thus far suggests they usually wish to either leave the land vacant to acquire value, build hotels, or develop “luxury student accommodation”.
Every media outlet, talking head, and political figure who tried to make this an argument about peaceful protest should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. There is something deeply and systemically broken in this country and the people we elected to fix such things are either deliberately, or through sheer stupidity, doing nothing about it.

People are being evicted from rental accommodation they have lived in for years, students are paying €800 a month to live in literal cupboards, and the number of families without homes has increased by a factor of five in the last four years alone. But, go on. Tell me more about how the protesters were “trespassing”.