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Fianna Fáil's message to itself: Deliver housing now or face extinction at the next election

The FF parliamentary party meeting was told that the party was “drowning in the shadows of Fine Gael housing policy”.

Now that Fianna Fáil is in leading party in government, party members believe they have to make their mark, or else.
Now that Fianna Fáil is in leading party in government, party members believe they have to make their mark, or else.
Image: Shutterstock

IF FIANNA FÁIL fails to make progress with the housing crisis, it is game over for the party. 

A number of TDs and senators in the party believe that a “radical” plan is needed, or they face permanent expulsion from the political scene. 

Earlier in the week, Dublin South West TD John Lahart told his parliamentary party meeting that Fianna Fáil is “drowning in the shadows of Fine Gael housing policy”. 

Speaking to The Journal, he stands by his remarks.

Now is “not the time” for Fianna Fáil to be “cosy” with its coalition partners, he said.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have policy differences when it comes to housing and it is time his party stood its ground, he added. 

“If the ideal is that people own their own home, you can’t always compromise with your political opponents at the expense of our constituents,” he said. 

“What is the worst thing that can happen?” said Lahart. 

“What can Fine Gael do pull the plug? Good luck with that.”

Fine Gael spent many years in government decrying the legacy problems they were left by Fianna Fáil and a similar tactic is being deployed in the opposite direction now. 

Micheál Martin’s deputies want fingers pointed at the tax incentives of Michael Noonan’s era, and it made clear that the the action required to undo them is being blocked currently by his successor Paschal Donohoe. 

Concerns raised at party meeting

MEP Billy Kelleher and TD James O’Connor also spoke up at the meeting this week, with the fallout from Round Hill Capital buying 135 homes at a new development in Maynooth, Co Kildare firmly placing housing back on the political agenda.

While the focus has been on investment funds, O’Connor is understood to have said the credit lending policies of Irish banks is “crippling” and “makes no sense”.

He said there was a need to place responsibility on the current Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe.

He told his colleagues of a need to put the blame about tax incentive policies “at their feet” – the ‘their’ being Fine Gael. He argued that a perfect storm had been created while they were in government, and it has now spiralled out of control. 

In the last government, through the confidence and supply arrangement between the two parties, Fianna Fáil was seen by many to be “propping up” Fine Gael, and its housing policies along with it. 

Now that Fianna Fáil is the leading party in government, members believe they have to make their mark or suffer electoral disaster. 

‘Vote out FFG’ is a common swipe used on social media by the parties’ detractors. 

Ruffling the feathers of Fine Gael is not something the housing minister, or Taoiseach should shy away from, sources state.

Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien said this week that there is only so much change he can do with planning laws, indicating that the issue of taxation of investment funds lies at Donohoe’s door. 

The pair are understood to be discussing the issues.

“This is not a time for weak leadership. This is a time to be brave and disruptive and courageous,” said Lahart.

He added that Fianna Fáil must get uncomfortable now with Fine Gael as they come at this problem from different perspectives.

Mayo senator Lisa Chambers believes that the housing issue is a make-or-break issue for her party.

“I think that’s a fair assessment. If we don’t do a good job on housing and people don’t see us delivering on housing, and that’s not just on Darragh’s [O'Brien's] plate, all of the parliamentary party feed into party policy… it is on all of us in the party to make this work.

“There is a feeling that we pay the price at the polls next time, if we don’t see a radical shift in housing policy. I do think that is accepted by everybody in the party and it is not just on Darragh’s shoulders – it is on all of us.”

‘We need to make our mark’

Another Fianna Fáiler vehemently agrees:

Yes, it is. If we fuck this one up, it’s all over. We need to make our mark.

“I think for us we made such an issue out of housing in the last term. Genuinely, within the Fianna Fáil party it is a core priority and belief that home ownership is something you should be able to aspire to, realistically,” said Chambers.

“So it is a core value for us – owning your own home and we’ve kind of said to ourselves, if we don’t deliver on that and if we don’t make our mark on housing and be radical in our approach, then we will have stepped away from one of our core values,” she said.

She agrees with the housing minister that the Department of Finance needs to “step up” and ensure that it is no longer lucrative for investment funds to buy up estates and block first-time buyers.

The law needs to change so that one purchaser can only buy one property, she said.

Her colleague, and tipped as the front-runner as the next leader of Fianna Fáil, Dublin Bay South TD Jim O’Callaghan agrees. 

He told The Journal the practice of institutional funds coming in and buying up completed units “is not only disheartening to young people trying to get on the housing ladder but is also contrary to the government’s objective of increasing homeownership”.

“We should change our law to prohibit this practice,” he said.

“Why that hasn’t been done before now, I don’t know,” Chambers added.

“I think is inexcusable actually. That should have been in the last term. It was a problem in the last term,” she said.

The party prides itself on its house building record of the past, but Chambers said there is no use harking on about the 1950s or 1980s and how many houses the party built as that is not what today’s generation wants or needs to hear.

Time is a worry

Chambers said there is a belief in the party that they can deliver on their promises, but added: 

“There is a genuine fear and I would have this fear. Do we have enough time. Will we be given enough time to do it. Fast forward 12 months, hopefully the pandemic will be a thing of the past, and will have forgotten that construction had been closed, and people will be asking, where are the houses?”

“Covid has masked this issue,” said Lahart, but he said the issue never went away.

Two days after the easing of some of the restrictions, he said the emails on housing started to trickle back from his constituents. 

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Lahart voted against the programme for government over the Strategic Housing Development (SHD) scheme, which allows developers to bypass local authorities and apply directly to An Bord Pleanála for planning permission.

He said the SHDs in his constituency are mainly build-to-rent developments, in an area where thousands of young adults are being forced to return to the family home because they couldn’t afford rents in Dublin, he said.

“Fianna Fáil is not the party of big landlord. This is a fight of a generation, who are embarrassed and humiliated that they have to return home to their parents.”

Not only are young buyers competing with each other and investment funds, but also local authorities which are buying stock for social housing, though at a smaller scale, he acknowledged.

While he said he didn’t want to be trite, he believed this is a case of large landlords having control over small tenants again, only this time it is families in six-storey apartments.

Fianna Fáil needs to show it has a separate identity to Fine Gael when it comes to housing, he said.

If Fine Gael’s viewpoint is that there should be no State intervention, that there should be tax breaks for investors, “then they need to own that”, he said.  

“It is about opening up opportunities for builders here… that is a point of difference between us and them and the public need to see it,” said Lahart.

Lahart wants a taskforce – similar to when the National Public Health Emergency Team was drafted in for Covid- for the public housing emergency.

“We need a bigger bang and we need a bigger plan,” he said.

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