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'No one should have to stand up in the Dáil and talk about their daughter's death to bring about change'

In a wide-ranging interview, Richard Boyd Barrett talks about the rise of the left, tragic housing stories and his personal experience with fatal foetal abnormalities.

6/7/2011 Enough Campaigns Richard Boyd Barrett TD joined 30 activists of the Enough Campaign demonstrating outside the Irish Department of Finance in 2011. Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

MEGAPHONE IN ONE hand, placards all around him. Search the web for a picture of Richard Boyd Barrett and that would seem to be the standard set-up.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance – People Before Profit TD has been involved in countless protests and awareness campaigns over his years in local and national politics.

Since his election to Dáil Éireann, he’s also developed a reputation for getting into heated debates on issues as diverse as social housing, bank bailouts, worker rights and Irish Water.

Boyd Barrett has served as a TD since 2011. Prior to that he was on Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown council.

Sitting down for an interview with TheJournal.ie this week, he said he believed things are changing swiftly in Ireland, but that those serving in government were slow to acknowledge those changes:

I think the parliament always lags behind.

There is a new confidence among working people, among women, among the new communities, to express their concerns and aspirations and the injustices they face.

The mobilisation of those communities, particularly under the landscape of austerity, has reflected itself politically with the rise of the new left forces.

I think that has changed the political equation, not enough, but I still think there is some way to go – but the stranglehold of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour has been broken and they no longer have it all their own way.

22/9/2009. Second Lisbon Treaty Campaigns Boyd Barrett at the UNITE trade union offices in Dublin in 2009. Source: /Photocall Ireland

‘Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil no longer have their way’

He insisted the government has been forced to concede on a number of issues due to pressure placed on them by the opposition parties.

Now … they don’t always give us what we want, but they have been forced to roll back on water charges.

We forced to them to roll back on their plan to privatise the forests. I think we have forced them to at least acknowledge that there is a housing crisis, something they denied for five years.

I think on Repeal the Eighth [Amendment] I would be very confident that the political establishment [which has] resisted women’s rights for 25 or 30 years – [that] they will be forced to concede that in the relatively near future.

14/11/2012. United Left Alliance Protests Boyd Barrett protesting outside the Central Bank in 2012. Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Left-wing TDs have been bringing up the issue of a lack of social housing for years, he said.

Housing is the issue that has preoccupied me for most of the time that I have been an elected representative and that predates even the crash, but it has got dramatically worse since 2008, since the housing programmes were butchered.

‘The stuff you would hear would be more incredible than any fiction’

Day in, day out, Boyd Barrett says locals come to his constituency office asking for help with housing issues.

He says the failure to address the issue up till now will have repercussions for generations.

People are just desperate most of the time. They’re desperate.

You could write a book every week, literally. The stuff you would hear would be more incredible than any fiction, usually, in its tragedy and hardship. Situations where people are very, very ill, disabled, in appalling unacceptable situations; families in terrible situations, families broken up because they have to split themselves up between emergency accommodation and family members; people that are fearful they are going to be made homeless; those facing eviction notices because landlords want to put up rent, you name it, I’ve seen it.

13/4/2013 National Protests against Austerity Measures National protests against austerity in 2013. Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

So, what does Boyd Barrett think of the government’s new Housing Action Plan? Will it help?

I think it is essentially a re-heated version of the [Alan] Kelly plan. I don’t see any marked change.

He thinks the plan is over reliant on private developers to deliver low cost housing for communities.

The private sector is in housing for profit and it builds when it can make a profit and it doesn’t when it doesn’t and that is why we had a bubble and a crash.

So, the idea that people who are in something for profit will build not-for-profit housing is just preposterous

Boyd Barrett believes there are two possible outcomes.

Either they won’t build not-for-profit housing or B, they will build them and it will cost the State an absolute fortune. A lot more than it would if the State had built the houses themselves. I think it is crazy.

17/6/2014 Housing Bill Protests

When asked why he believes the State does not want to build its own social housing units, Boyd Barrett said:

There is a fundamental assault going on in this country led by both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil for many years … to smash up the idea of State provision of public services.

It is an agenda they have pursuing since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and I don’t see any let-up at all in that agenda.

Going down the route of private developers building social housing means “dancing to the tune of those developers and the banks behind them,” he said.

8/10/2015 New Political Party Registered Source: Leah Farrell

The rise of water charge protests

The Dun Laoghaire TD was one of the driving forces behind the Right2Water campaign, which protested water charges. He said the mobilisation of the people against water charges was a changing point for society and one he hopes can be built upon.

I think we are winning on that battle … The reason why I am optimistic is because once people get up off their knees and feel a little bit like they have the power to influence … once they feel they make a difference, it is a problem for an establishment trying to row back on that.

The commission on water charges, set up by Fine Gael under pressure from Fianna Fáil in the wake of the election, is simply kicking the can down the road, he says.

At the moment they don’t have the courage to do what they want to do and go back to the water charges agenda and the privatisation agenda, but I think they still harbour the hope that at one point they will be able to do that.

27/2/2011 Counting the votes in the general electi Boyd Barrett celebrates with his family after the 2011 election. Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

‘Ella was a daughter we desperately wanted’

Another issue close to his heart is the issue of repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution – which guarantees the right to life of the unborn, equating it with the mother’s right to life.

Last year, he stood up in the Dáil and spoke about his own personal tragedy – when he had to bury his daughter Ella, who had a fatal foetal abnormality.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

“Occasionally you have to talk about something of which you have direct personal experience,” he told the Dáil.

Ella was a daughter we desperately wanted … but it was an absolute certainty that she would not live.

He says it was not right that people should have to air their own, deeply traumatic experiences in order to bring about change.

“I regret that people – not just me, I am almost irrelevant in this – who are going through this on a daily basis have to stand up or even consider standing up to talk about their private and personal and intimate things,” he said.

No one should have to do that.
They are going through such terrible hardship and they shouldn’t have to, but it’s because the State refuses to act and acknowledge the issue. I think it is just shocking.

He said the treatment of women in Ireland has been “pretty barbaric for generations”.

The failure of a political establishment, that frankly knows better, has been really deeply cynical and hypocritical. There is such cowardice involved in it.

Criticising the establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly, which the government has tasked to debate and make recommendations on the contentious issue, he said:

The Citizens’ Assembly we need on this issue is a referendum, that is what we need.

That is the best assembly to resolve this issue. I think it is obvious why they are doing this. They hope to avoid this for as long as possible as it might politically damage Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – that is essentially what they are doing.

Boyd Barrett is not the only one to speak out in the Dáil about his personal experience with fatal foetal abnormalities. This year, Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell also gave an emotional account in the chamber.

Boyd Barrett said he hopes those in Fine Gael who support repealing the Eighth Amendment campaign from within the party.

I hope all of those people, the so-called liberal wing of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will stand up and be counted when the time comes. So far they haven’t.

There has been a certain ‘two-facedness’ in the last five years which we also saw with the Labour Party who publicly stated it supported women’s rights and then when it came to voting on it, voted for no change or limited form of change … I urge people who are concerned about these issues to keep mobilising, it is the only thing that pushes the progressive agenda.

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