From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan; Bryan Wall
The government’s policies regarding housing continue to deliver dividends. Not dividends in the social sense in which people will benefit from affordable social housing.
If someone is unable to afford a home, or even unable to afford to continue living in their home, then so be it. The market has spoken and its vagaries must be followed otherwise the very economic principles upon which our society is built will collapse.
At least, that’s the story that stalwart neo-liberals such as Leo Varadkar and members of his cabinet tell us.
They may put on a show of caring for the average person who struggles to pay their bills and afford their rent or mortgage payments, but him and his ilk are completely removed from the reality of everyday existence.
It is bad enough to have to see the poor on the streets from a distance. God forbid that they might have to see them up close and be forced to pretend to care about them.
Despite the rampant propaganda machine that the government utilises on a daily basis, it is clear to see what they really think about economic and social justice in Ireland.
Before Christmas Leo Varadkar suggested that any property tax that is paid should stay in the area in which it is paid. Obviously the consequences of this would be the further immiseration of less affluent areas of the country whilst the more well-to-do areas would see a boost in their services; and this all overseen by the government.
A policy such as this, regardless of the aforementioned propaganda campaign which tries to push the image of a caring and compassionate Taoiseach on us, shows a clear distinction in terms of politically, who matters and who does not.
In more recent comments the Taoiseach reiterated his position, stating that the idea of the wealthy keeping their property taxes in their own area “makes sense to me.”
Going one step further, however, is his Minister for Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan.
Apparently attempting to outflank him from even further to the Right, she has suggested that the wealthy should pay less property tax. She stated that she “would like to see a lower rate in areas with the highest house prices.”
People living in these areas “should be entitled to reliefs as they could be most affected.” With the average price of house in TD Madigan’s constituency currently sitting at just over €600,000, it quickly becomes apparent what any quid pro quo would be if her suggestion is put into practice.
Like her boss, she is cut from the same cloth. She comes from a privileged background and, like Leo Varadkar, was privately educated.
We often scoff at the politicians across the Irish Sea who were educated in Eton, and the ideological indoctrination which takes place there. Apparently we are unaware the same practices are replicated in the Irish context.
So, the intention is for all of this to pay dividends in the form of re-election when the time comes or, in the short-term, the success of their fellow party members in the coming local elections.
Advocacy of and for the middle and upper classes is a requisite for their electoral success. In terms of market orthodoxy, those who can pay for it can lead a good life, in part by ensuring the appropriate political party, and the appropriate people, are in charge of policymaking.
Those who can’t ensure this simply have to count themselves lucky that they do not suffer even more. After all, this is an economically prosperous country we live in.
Our housing policies have been left in the hands of those whose idea of economic misfortune is the creation of massive profits as opposed to obscene profits. How housing affects the majority of people is a non-issue given that it is so beyond the realm of the limits of their empathy.
Others have had to take it upon themselves to try and combat this lack of compassion on the part of the government.
David Hall, for example, the CEO of the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation, has stated that the government consists of “vulture lovers”, a reference to the various vulture funds that have bought mortgages from a number of Irish banks over the past few months.
The government, he says, has been “cosying up to vultures” instead of ensuring a more equitable housing policy that isn’t dictated by the unwavering pursuit of profit.
Mr Hall has set up a non-profit called i-Care Housing, which aims to keep people who are in arrears in their homes by purchasing them at current market values and then renting them back to the owners.
Thus far nineteen families have been saved from eviction under the scheme, with another 571 having been given granted approval to have their mortgages bought by i-Care.
I recently spoke to Mr Hall regarding the government’s policies on housing. When asked if he thought the government could tackle the housing crisis given its current make-up and the comments made by both Leo Varadkar and Josepha Madigan, he was quite clear.
There is, he said, “No chance they can tackle it.”
Furthermore, the property tax comments show exactly what the government thinks.
Mr Hall said:
“When the most senior politician says money should stay locally and a minister moves to protect the wealthiest it’s game over.”
Like Mr Hall, the housing activists around the country are aware of the same facts and comments as he is. Connolly Youth in Cork are also taking matters into their own hands given the government’s lack of action or accountability.
In August last year the group took over a vacant building in the city. They cleaned and renovated it as best they could, rechristening it as Connolly Barracks.
When I spoke to Alex Homits, the General Secretary of Connolly Youth, he told me that the comments made by Varadkar and Madigan are “merely further flavour and evidence for us to demonstrate that Ireland is run for a certain socio-economic grouping of people; a slim minority.”
Regarding solutions to the housing and homelessness crisis, I suggested that perhaps direct action in terms of occupying vacant or abandoned properties could present a more egalitarian way of providing housing.
Mr Homits told me that this would not be a long-term solution. However, he added:
“direct action serves the purpose of highlighting the housing crisis and challenging private landlords and the state”
It would also serve another purpose: That of “providing short-term housing solutions to those desperately in need.” The only permanent solution, he told me, would be “mass appropriation” and/or “construction of universally acceptable public housing.”
For everyone concerned then, despite the protests and commentary over the last year, the government continues to ignore the issue and instead clampdown on protest and dissent.
Leo Varadkar and his government are very well aware of the anger engendered by them because of their policies and consistent moves to protect the wealthy, the banks, and the vulture funds.
Accordingly, the need for the infliction of violence on their behalf by mercenaries, the Gardaí, or both, is more or less assured.
The evictions at Frederick Street in September and Roscommon in December are just the physical manifestation of economic policies designed to immiserate the many in order to further augment the coffers of the wealthy. To those unable to keep a roof over their heads it is obvious whom the government serve.
Given the current structure of mainstream Irish politics, radical change is unlikely to appear. That is because it would mean challenging the accepted narratives of capitalism and the free market. It would mean that politicians would be held accountable for policies which result in the suffering and sometimes death of their constituents.
Radical change, therefore, is only ever likely to come from the ground up, especially once people realise that they can take their lives and futures into their own hands and out of the hands of those who care naught for them. It will never appear in the hallowed halls of The King’s Hospital or Mount Anville.
A fight for the basic necessities, such as the right to have a roof over one’s head, puts the government and their patrons on the defensive. From here we can position ourselves to tackle even greater injustices in our society.
And when the government responds, all it will ensure is that “The stones they throw will fall at their own feet.”