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Interview: Brendan Howlin on green housing, the SocDems and Labour's 'rough time' in government

Howlin gave a lukewarm verdict on the recent local elections, so what next?

Howlin outside a new housing development in Wexford town.
Howlin outside a new housing development in Wexford town.
Image: TheJournal.ie

LABOUR LEADER BRENDAN Howlin has a key message he wants to get across. 

He says his party is the party of “do-ers” who “want to get things done” but that it perhaps hasn’t always got the credit. 

It’s a mantra he repeats several times during an hour-long chat at a new development in Wexford town.

It’s a NZEB development, which stands for ‘Nearly Zero Energy Building’, a standard that now applies to all public housing.

From the end of next year it will apply to all new buildings full stop. 

In the future, Howlin says a huge government-supported programme of residential retrofitting is needed to, if not reach that standard, get existing housing close to it. 

It’s about, he says, brining houses up to a standard that benefits Ireland environmentally as well as people’s pockets. 

He says the real advantage to householders is reduced running costs, which are minimal due to energy savings.

“You start with from the ground with insulation,” he says. 

“There’s massive insulation in the frame of the house and in the foundations of the house. Huge insulation, you’re talking up to your knees in insulation in these rooms. The windows are triple-glazed and sealed and solar-powered as well.

The running cost to the tenancies, these are local authority tenants who are to get these houses, will be in the order of €200-a-year for all their heating and hot water supply.

The 10-unit development is located in the Slippery Green area of the town and will soon be home to families currently on the local housing list. 

Bawn Developments is behind the project and say the houses also have a heat recovery ventilation system that pulls the air from the moist areas and recirculates it. It also heats the cold air coming in. 

The build is an example of the sustainable development that Howlin says Wexford is becoming a leader in. A UN Centre of Excellence in sustainable energy building is to be built in nearby Enniscorthy, one of only three in the world. 

“It’s not normal for me to be mentioning Enniscorthy in the same breath as New York and Vancouver,” Howlin says. 

On the wider issue of housing, the Labour leader says the current crisis is the “single biggest issue” politicians are facing and that what’s needed is “a huge programme of affordable house building”. 

Howlin says this could be done on public land and he credits Labour for keeping this available.

“Labour in government kept a lot of public land in public ownership. And there was an awful lot of pressure on us to sell it off, as happened in places like Greece.

So we have sufficient public-owned land, we have the capacity in terms of money to spend. What we say is €16 billion over the next five years to build 80,000 affordable houses. That would solve the housing problem in this country and bring supply well back into balance again.

“Not all of that will be social housing, some that will be affordable housing, because one of the problems we have right now, for a huge number of people, is those who would expect to buy their own house they can’t, because it’s unaffordable, it’s a multiple of their income, even the combined income of a husband and wife or a couple.

“We have always built local authority houses when we’re in government. And we want to get back to doing that sort of thing again, where there would be a natural flow once we solve the crisis.”

20190722_143826 Paddy Berry of Bawn Development's and Howlin in one of the new homes. Source: TheJournal.ie

Howlin speaks about his party’s most-recent period in government, when he had unenviable task of finding savings as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform during the era of ‘The Troika’

He describes it as “a very rough time” when his party tried to “protect public services when we had no money”. He adds that it was similarly difficult for all bailout countries. 

It was rough to say the least.

Not only did the party lose well over half of its council seats in the 2014 local elections, but at one point TheJournal.ie was keeping a running total of the number of Labour councillors who were resigning.

Howlin said it felt like being in government was an impossible job and that many party members were “traumatised” by the electoral retribution they received.

“We made the best choices we could, protecting the most vulnerable but didn’t make the right choices always, because it’s like a fire brigade putting out a fire,” he says.

And I know that a lot of people were seared by in the party, were seared by the result of that. And we need to, of course, regain our own confidence that we are the people who will deliver quality public services for people who need them. We steadied the ship in the worst of times, but now we have a vision for a fairer Ireland. 

Thinking green

Labour won 57 seats in May’s local elections, six more than 2014. Howlin delivered a lukewarm verdict on the party’s performance, saying he was “not at all disappointed” by the results

He hopes to build on them into the next general election with a focus on health and housing. 

Howlin argues that helping people in the form of tax breaks is insufficient because it doesn’t address structural problems like waiting lists and homelessness and does nothing to improve society as a whole.

20190722_151737 The 10-unit development is located on St Aidan's Road. Source: TheJournal.ie

His party is proposing a programme of construction on publicly owned land that could be funded with the help of the European Investment Bank. It’s a route also mentioned by Green Party leader Eamon Ryan when he spoke to TheJournal.ie last week.

So does he see differences between the Greens and Labour on green issues?

“Not fundamentally. I mean we work together on the All-Party Committee (on Climate Action) and the Labour Party, with Seán Sherlock, would put in a lot of the radical proposals,” Howlin says. 

I think we are practical, we’re doers, we want to see things done. For example, the Greens were in government for three years, but didn’t produce a climate change bill, we did.

“You know, there’s talking about it in theory, and the doing of it, and we’re the doers.” 

“We’re in this magnificent NZEB house, we’re going to have to build thousands of these. And we’ve to train our workforce to do that with different people with us. And that’s where the Labour Party comes in, to talk to the trade union movement, to bring the trade union movement with us by protecting their jobs and their standards of living.”

Speaking more generally about the prospect of working with the Green Party, Howlin says he’s “not sure they would be in sync with our economic views”.

He says he regards them as progressives and would encourage Labour voters to also vote for other progressives. He namechecks the Social Democrats as well, agreeing that they’d also fall under his description of Labour as “a practical party of the left”.

There’s been frequent commentary that the two parties are fishing from the same voter pool and would be better working more closely together. Howlin has suggested he’d be open to this, so what obstacles are there?

“The obstacles are historic,” he says. “There are individuals who obviously fell out with the Labour Party. But I don’t see any philosophical, ideological or policy divisions between us.”

1000 Waste Reduction Bill_90517518 Eamon Ryan (Greens), Roisin Shortall (SocDems), Brian Stanley (SF) and Brendan Howlin, pictured in 2017. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Asked about Sinn Féin, Howlin claims that the party isn’t clear about its identity. 

“The problem for Sinn Féin, is that they haven’t actually identified themselves where they are. I mean, you saw that in terms of their social policy, and they had great difficulties tackling the Eighth Amendment issue,” he says.

So, you know, they have to fix where they are, I don’t think they actually placed themselves on the political spectrum, as clearly as many of their numbers would like.

“The Labour Party is the mainstream left voice in this country, we have led on progressive politics, for the last 50 or 60 years, eventually other people catch up with us. And often, because we have been in the position for 30-40 years, those who have completely get the credit.”

The battle between the various shades of left-leaning politics is perhaps more keenly felt in the British Labour party than it is anywhere. 

Howlin campaigned for the British Labour party in the 2017 UK general election and has attended the party’s previous three conferences.

PastedImage-46765 Howlin campaigning in London during the UK's 2017 general election. Source: Twitter/CllrDuncanSmith

On Brexit, he says he argued at each of those conferences that a second referendum is needed and he adds that the UK Labour Party party now appears to be coming around to that point of view.

“I didn’t mean simply putting the same question again,” he says.

“And people say ‘oh, sure you’re Irish, you keep putting the same question again’. We never did.

When there’s a when a treaty like Lisbon or Nice that was voted down, we asked what was the issue. Sometimes the issues were extraneous issues, like the issue of abortion, or the issue of European armies, when we put in protocols to deal with those issues. That’s what we did. So my argument in terms of the second vote in Britain, for the last three years to the Labour Party was, have your three years of negotiations and then put the deal that is negotiated to the people and say: Do you want this deal, or the status quo, remaining? And let them decide on that.

Howlin says that his counterpart Jeremy Corbyn has long regarded the European Union as a “capitalist conspiracy” and adds that: “I think for most social democrats, that’s just not a fact”. 

On Boris Johnson, he feels that the new British government will likely try to ramp up the pressure on the EU and Ireland but that Leo Varadkar’s government must “hold its nerve”.

Coalition

Last week, an article in the Irish Examiner reported that Varadkar was “cosying up” to potential coalition partners by speaking to party leaders, Labour included. 

Asked about it, Howlin says it was “a long discussion, just myself and Leo” but he declined to provide more details, describing it only as “useful”.

“He said we haven’t had a detailed personal discussion for a long time, I’m sure he said something similar to Eamon Ryan.

It was useful, it didn’t solve any issues but I think he wanted to hear my perspective on everything from the future of public services, income equality, taxation, the budget. I certainly shared my view.

Howlin said he’d have a similar discussion with Micheál Martin if the Fianna Fáil leader so wished but added that the discussion with Varadkar was held in the context of the upcoming budget. 

While talk of coalitions is somewhat speculative, the idea that a general election could be around the corner certainly isn’t fanciful and Howlin thinks it should be held soon, regardless of Brexit.

“I think we need an election, I think we need an election this side of Christmas. Clear the air and, you know, I think Boris Johnson may well have an election anyway, so let’s have it at the same time and get it over with.”

TheJournal.ie was speaking to Howlin as party of a series of interviews with party leaders on the political response to the climate emergency. 

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Rónán Duffy

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