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Larry Donnelly: The message to Irish politicians this week was 'It's housing, stupid'

Our columnist takes a look at a return to Irish politics as we knew it this week, with housing again front and centre.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

IN FEBRUARY OF 2020 – if you can remember those halcyon days – there was a general election in this country that produced some seismic results and engendered serious probing as to whether it signified a permanent change to the contours of politics as we had known it here.

Mere weeks later, however, speculation about an altered landscape was overwhelmed by the arrival of Covid-19 and the Government’s ongoing attempt to respond to this unprecedented public health crisis and the economic fallout from it.

A long pause

Irish politics has been in what I would describe as a state of “suspended animation” for 15 months. The usual fault lines and areas of dissonance were side-lined appropriately in the name of trying to keep the citizenry safe and secure. Now that more and more people are being vaccinated and the things that we formerly took for granted in our daily lives are returning, there are indications that some semblance of normal politics is making a comeback.

That said, the pandemic appears destined to have a major impact in this sphere both in the immediate and the longer term. As an initial aside, one wonders what the repercussions of the colossal expenditure by the state on payments to individuals and businesses in order to keep them afloat will be.

There have been billions in additional spending. The size of the final cost is uncertain, but it is safe to assume that it is enormous. Eventually, there will have to be a financial reckoning of sorts. And there will be political consequences arising therefrom.

At the moment, the resignation of former Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy means that a by-election in the Dublin Bay South constituency will take place in the coming months. Starved of oxygen for so long, political journalists and junkies collectively rejoiced at the news.

There is no lack of intrigue: the rifts over candidate selection within Fine Gael and the Green Party; questions over sitting TD Jim O’Callaghan’s capacity to deliver a respectable vote for the Fianna Fáil party he aspires to lead; whether Sinn Féin will choose a councillor in the constituency or parachute in a higher profile politician like Senator Lynn Boylan; if this could be the time for the Labour stalwart, Senator Ivana Bacik, to take the Dáil seat she has so long desired; and myriad other known unknowns.

A new kind of constituency battle

Of course, the by-election is a unique political species. Moreover, it will be very interesting to get a sense of how many people vote based on how they feel the Government has tackled coronavirus and who they thus gravitate to.

Further, the dynamics of a campaign waged in a climate that is not conducive to knocking on doors or close contact will be fascinating to observe. Facebook and Twitter will be vital tools.

Cynics have unsurprisingly retorted that this local election in D4 and D6, the heartland of the capital’s media and intelligentsia, will receive disproportionate coverage and attention, even though it cannot be counted on as a reliable barometer of the broader mood. In this vein, it will be a straight uphill climb for Sinn Féin to win the by-election – the party’s Chris Andrews is already a Dublin Bay South TD – and it could well come down to a fight between Fine Gael and the Greens.

But I expect Sinn Féin, running neck and neck with Fine Gael at the top of the opinion surveys, to play to a national audience in a Dublin contest that will be next to impossible for anyone in the country to avoid as polling day approaches. As its leader, Mary Lou McDonald has said, “when it is held, this by-election will be all about housing.” The party would be wise to bang that drum incessantly.

Housing crisis raging on

Rage at the fact that private investment funds have bought up entire housing estates and apartment blocks was palpable and widespread this past week. It is not alone the young and those desperately trying to purchase a home for the first time who are furious. Nor are the aggrieved necessarily on the left of the ideological spectrum.

Older women and men – some of whom are affluent and have faithfully supported Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael – are fearful for their children and grandchildren, as well as for young people with whom they have no ties except that they instinctively sympathise with their plight.

The refrain I have heard repeated on numerous occasions goes roughly like this: “We may have had little when we got married, but we could buy our own home. Now I have children educated beyond what we could have dreamed of and in good jobs. But they can’t afford anything and are paying massive rents. It’s terrible.”

So angry are they at this stage that I think many would concur with the headline above Dr Rory Hearne’s piece on this site on Wednesday: “The Government does not want you to be able to afford a home.”

A key question, politically speaking, is as follows. Will some of these voters put aside their natural, often deep enmity for Sinn Féin – whose representatives have been extremely vocal and critical of the Government on housing policy – and give the IRA’s erstwhile political wing a high preference the next time they have a ballot in their hands?

There is evidently a view within Government that there was, and still may be, a role for private investment funds in expanding the supply of housing – apartments especially. That may be objectively true, yet current political imperatives render it effectively moot. The Government needs to move aggressively on this front and has signalled that it will do so imminently, once it has determined what can be legislated for constitutionally.

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In short, the prevalent zeitgeist is that the State must intervene on a grand scale to address an increasingly intractable problem. Regardless of how they feel about Sinn Féin, my suspicion is that many listen to party spokesman Eoin Ó Broin advocate for this course of action and agree.

As Irish politics emerges from “suspended animation,” it is crystal clear what the number one issue is. For the foreseeable future, special advisers might find themselves paraphrasing James Carville’s 1992 mantra to his boss, Bill Clinton, and other Democrats: “It’s housing, stupid.”

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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