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'Perhaps that wasn't the question': Taoiseach may have misunderstood homelessness question

In the past week the government claimed that the context of a question on homelessness was left out – it wasn’t.

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar answer questions from the media.
Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar answer questions from the media.
Image: Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has defended the answer he gave to a question on homelessness at the Fine Gael conference earlier this month – although he has conceded he may have been answering a different question to the one he was asked.

Varadkar’s response to the initial question from TheJournal.ie’s reporter Christina Finn provoked widespread criticism last week – veteran campaigner Fr Peter McVerry amongst those taking issue with the answer.

She had asked the Taoiseach about Ireland having one of the highest homelessness figures “to date”.

“I can certainly say that that statement is incorrect,” Varadkar responded. “Ireland has one of the lowest levels of homelessness. We’re actually a country by international standards compared with our peers that has a low level of homelessness.”

Asked to back up his statement, the Taoiseach responded:

They’re the stats and we can provide them for you and that of course is a good thing. It’s a good thing that in Ireland we’ve a low level of homelessness compared to our peer countries.
But what’s better than that is that we don’t think that’s good enough and we want to continue to reduce homelessness in the years ahead.
Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The Government later provided an OECD report which it said the Taoiseach was referencing. However, a TheJournal.ie FactCheck published last Wednesday night - based on the OECD report and other international statistics – returned a verdict of “unproven” on the Taoiseach’s claims about how Ireland’s homeless rate measures up internationally.

In recent days, the Government has come under sharp criticism for comments made by the Taoiseach, with senior Government figures speaking publicly to defend the Taoiseach’s remarks.

The Taoiseach himself tweeted out a statement saying that “context matters” in relation to the question he was asked, saying that he had been asked a question “about Ireland having one of the highest homelessness levels”.

That claim was repeated again yesterday. Speaking to Aine Lawlor on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said:

The context of the question was about international comparisons.

Junior Minister at the Department of Housing, Damien English, also referenced the claim again in the Dáil last Tuesday, adding that media coverage of the homelessness crisis is “damaging to Ireland’s international reputation”.

BUILDING 720_90529898 Pictured: 84 new social homes being built in Clongriffin in Dublin. Source: Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

Varadkar – along with Murphy – was in Clongriffin in north Dublin this morning to unveil the foundation stone for 84 new social homes (which fell and smashed moments after being unveiled).

At the event, it was pointed out to the Taoiseach that the government was claiming that the initial question asked was about international standards, when it was about the level of homelessness here in Ireland.

Asked why the media was now being told that he had been asked a question about “international comparisons”, when in fact that was not the question, Varadkar said:

The question as I understood it was, and I think…  if I’m quoting correctly, was that homelessness in Ireland was one of the highest, and I understood that to mean one of the highest in an international context.
Perhaps that wasn’t the question. But it’s not for me to explain what someone’s question was, I can only explain the answer and defend the answers that I give.

While the Taoiseach acknowledges that he may have misunderstood the question posed at the Fine Gael conference, this isn’t the first time the Government has compared Ireland’s rate of homelessness to international figures.

Announcing the housing budget on 10 October, Murphy said Ireland’s rate of homelessness was “low by international standards, which is a good thing”.

That same month, Varadkar said in a speech that homelessness in Ireland is “low by international standards”. A week before the Fine Gael conference, Murphy made a similar statement at the launch of the Peter McVerry Trust’s annual report.

DSC_1116 Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Clongriffin earlier today. Source: Gráinne Ní Aodha

At today’s unveiling, the Taoiseach said that “to some people, these new apartments that are being built don’t exist and don’t count, and they will never count or exist because they’re not a direct build by a local authority”.

“It’s being done by a different model which is a longterm lease involving an approved housing body in this case the Iveagh Trust. But they do exist, they will be completed around this time next year and will provide longterm secure housing for 85 individuals and their families.”

He added that the Clongriffin Town Centre development would be part of a programme that will involve almost 7,000 public homes next year, about half directly built by local authorities and another half provided through other mechanisms “including long-term leases”.

- With reporting from Daragh Brophy

Read: Martin says government surprised by scale of anger levelled against them this week

FactCheck: Does Ireland really have a low rate of homelessness by international standards?

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