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Opinion: TDs should be prohibited from being landlords

As a general principle, politicians should not engage in any activity where they would do better from the State doing worse, writes Conor Crummey.

Conor Crummey

LAST MONTH, THE people of Ireland were treated to the disturbing spectacle of police officers supporting a non-State group in forcibly removing members of the Take Back the City protest group from a building that they had occupied as a protest against the ongoing homelessness crisis.

As Una Mullally wrote in the Irish Times, this visual seemed to provide a stark image of the State conspiring against the people. But there is another way in which the State demonstrates complicity in the rental crisis, or at least raises doubts about the sincerity of its efforts to ease it.

This is the practice of members of the Dáil acting as landlords.

The 2017 Dáil Declaration of Interests Report revealed that one in four representatives in the Dáil act as landlords, including four out of 15 Cabinet ministers. This situation is deeply unjust as a matter of political morality.

When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, much of the ensuing commentary focussed on whether he would divest his vast cache of business holdings. This concern reflects a widely held belief about political morality: that holders of public office should make political decisions based on principles of justice and judgments about what is in the best interests of the country, and not on what would be of greatest personal benefit to them.

In fact, they shouldn’t even be in a position to be able to make decisions based on personal financial benefit.

Yet this is precisely the position that one in four TDs are currently in.

Fr Peter McVerry, a long-time homelessness campaigner, has rightly pointed to the danger of ‘groupthink’ among a political class whose financial interests are directly opposed to resolving the current crisis.

TDs are less likely to enact a rent freeze, for instance, if they stand to lose financially. But the problem is not simply one of over-representation of landlords. If this was the case, the issue could be resolved through somehow increasing tenant representation in the Dáil.

The problem, however, is deeper than this. If the State exists, as many think it does, to benefit its members, then it is intrinsically wrong for any politician to participate in an activity in which they do better from the State doing worse.

This point is not special to landlords.

It applies to any instance in which a holder of public office profits from the commodification of a social need.

Politicians should not run a private medical practice, practice as lawyers in private firms, or take ownership in private schools while they hold office. Aside from the fact that these enterprises take time away from carrying out the duties they were elected to fulfil, they may also compromise the ability of politicians to act justly in creating public policy.

Every TD that benefits from the private commodification of housing profits directly from unjust arrangements that force families to live in tents on the streets of Dublin, that force thousands to emigrate, and that ensure that the majority of a generation of people will never be able to afford to own their own homes.

The deepening homelessness crisis, and the spiralling rental prices that underpin it, are national scandals, and 25% of officials elected to the highest legislative body in the country personally benefit from them every day that they go unaddressed.

Some may argue that the liberty to engage in any business venture is an important part of personal freedom. The simple retort is that such a sacrifice is morally required of those entering (handsomely paid) public office.

Various roles in life come with special moral obligations. When one becomes a parent, the freedom to pursue one’s social life may be curtailed by moral obligations of child caring.

Similarly, when rulers acquire public office, they acquire special responsibilities. One of these responsibilities is not to profit from activities that are unjust towards the people who elected them.

As a general principle, politicians should not engage in any activity where they would do better from the State doing worse. This includes profiting from industries that compete with State services (like healthcare and education), and profiting from activities that cause a deficit in justice in the State.

Landlordism in a system where rental prices are high enough to exacerbate a homelessness crisis falls within both categories. Refraining from this sort of activity should be the cost of entry to political office. This will not by itself fix the catastrophic injustices that we face, but it will at least allow us to believe with more confidence that our politicians want to fix them.

You can find out if your TD also acts as a landlord here.

Conor Crummey is a PhD candidate in University College London, where he is researching in legal and philosophy and constitutional theory.

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Conor Crummey

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