In 2016, Edmund Honohan, Master of the High Court, offered a solution to the growing homelessness crisis in an open letter to the then environment minister, Alan Kelly, who had called for a debate about property rights as defined in the constitution.
As I understand it, there seemed to be a belief at the time that the question of property rights guarded against the government acting to acquire property in the interests of the constitutional “common good”.
Mr Honohan wrote:
“The Constitution in effect provides that the State may expropriate private property if the Oireachtas decides that to do so is for the ‘common good’. Road widening is a good example… At the moment there are long waiting lists for housing and the private rental market is unable to provide dwellings at affordable rents…Consequently, if the Oireachtas is of the view that the State should itself (or its local authorities) provide public housing ‘in the Common Good’, the State can (and probably, legally, should) decide not to wait the two/three years needed to build social housing but instead to immediately acquire houses now in private hands.”
So that’s that clarified. Honohan anticipated that the response to his suggestion would be to make it a football and kick it back to the supreme court to decide.
But it seemed the supreme court had already decided, in 2000, that “the provision of affordable housing is an objective which is ‘socially just and required by the common good’.”
So, there was no grey area. No humming and hawing, no debate required. It was quite clear. The government had constitutional leeway to provide social housing, and that any failure to do so, according to Honohan, would be a political decision.
As we know, it was decided by government to ignore this solution and to allow the homelessness crisis to fester, in a move seen by many as engineering social neglect to generate profit for certain sectors.
But legally, according to Edmund Honohan, there was no reason why those families should have been left in private hotels in the years of government inaction that have since passed.
Since then Honohan continued to be a vocal opponent on behalf of people adversely affected by the housing and mortgage crises.
The Journal reported that in recent years, Honohan has become known for his strong views on the treatment by financial institutions of debtors in distress.
He has been particularly vocal in relation to possession cases, often engaging in…
“…heated exchanges with barristers representing lenders…He has also written a bill sponsored by Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness, the Affordable Housing and Fair Mortgage Bill. The bill includes a number of proposals for tackling the number of households struggling with mortgage arrears…
He also recently wrote to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, reminding him that it is his job in opposition to call out the vulture funds that are buying up distressed home loans…”
In a report from June 2017, writing in a personal capacity, he outlines the significance of the effect of the growing number of repossessions.
These are coming about as a result of the banks managing to sell off accounts in arrears, many of which are the result of the sub-prime mortgage phenomenon that triggered the banking collapse. These accounts are being bought up by private agencies known as “vultures”.
Mr Honohan writes:
“The crisis is not that these people are heavily in debt, it is that when they are eventually evicted…there will still be no public housing for them…”
He conjectures that many of the loans taken out during the boom were taken out for two reasons: one, the banks were pressing money on people at that time, to the extent that it was difficult not to take out a loan; and two, there was insufficient social housing for people who may, in wiser times, have gone that route if there had been sufficient social housing.
The real sting in the tail in the report is that the tax-payer will now pick up the tab for the evictions; including policing costs, legal costs, transport costs, and so on.
Again, Honohan offers legal remedies to avoid all this pain, including ways to keep people in their houses despite the debt.
He offers comparisons with other jurisdictions and solutions to similar problems found elsewhere.
It seems though that these suggestions were also ignored, and we know from the taoiseach’s recent admonition about the term “vulture funds”, along with his more general championing of privatisation, that he largely approves of the concept of private companies re-possessing homes and evicting people who will then, in the absence of a social housing programme, be accommodated in private hotels, all paid for by the tax-payer until such time as the market can deliver sufficient housing.
Put simply, the taoiseach’s privatisation programme and reluctance to provide social housing is beginning to seem more like a gamble, not unlike the banking gambles that preceded the 2008 collapse, and, is similarly, being underwritten by the tax-payer.
The taoiseach’s gamble is that the market will deliver housing, and the chips he has set down are the homeless people in the private hotels, making of the gamble something of a neo-liberal social experiment.
Let’s rephrase that again: The taoiseach’s gamble, or neo-liberal social experiment, is to be paid for entirely by the tax-payer, with further contributory costs in the form of stunted childhoods and broken families condemned to live for years in private hotels, along with further costs paid by low-income workers priced out of an increasingly restrictive private rental market, again as the consequence of a lack of social and affordable housing.
This month, Edmund Honohan, a voice for those anonymous debtors being forced from their homes, found himself at the centre of what seemed like some kind of comical trumped-up charge of vandalism.
When his requests for ventilation in the court where he works were seemingly unheard, he broke open some small windows with a hammer to freshen the air. The ventilation he had tired of requesting was then provided.
This might seem like a trivial matter, but shortly after this incident he was relieved of his duties in hearing debt cases.
Maybe it was felt he was too strongly opinionated in his opposition to the banks and the political class to offer unbiased service. Maybe he was punished for breaking windows? Or maybe he was simply politically silenced.
Who knows? No doubt that will be debated too, at length, sometime, somewhere. But David Hall of iCare Housing said that the decision was a bad day for debtors.
He added that Honohan was…
“…one of the few officials who have spoken the truth about banks’ behaviour and has tried to help those crippled with debt”.
Around the same time, in RTE, Noel Edmonds, the UK DJ who lost a fortune to the HBOS, a subsidiary of Lloyds bank, was telling Ray D’Arcy his story.
Mr Edmonds is seeking compensation from Lloyds. His combination of public figure status and his criticism of the bank has made him into a controversial figure.
Mr Edmonds claims that a whistleblower overheard the chief executive of Lloyds say that the bank would have to “crush” Edmonds to deter any other claims for damages.
At the mention of bank trouble, the audience seemed to murmur in approval, but Ray D’Arcy, seemingly keen to control the moment, said that it was different in Ireland. No Ray, it’s different for girls; but banks, like cars and neo-liberals, tend to be the same the world over.
Mr Edmonds pushed ahead and when he talked about jailing a few bankers, the Irish audience burst into loud applause. Mr Edmonds told of how the experience of losing his home, his marriage and 300,000 GBP in savings brought him to the brink of suicide.
When Edmonds mentions being driven to the brink of suicide, D’Arcy seems to murmur doubtfully.
This is quite a common response. I suppose it is assumed that if a person had tried to commit suicide and had done it “properly”, they would have succeeded, in which case sympathy would then be extended.
Too late, granted, but there you are. It’s an imperfect world. A world where a sympathetic ear is not available for anything less than a successful suicide, after which, the same people will no doubt say, if I had only known…
But the mention of suicide brought the conversation to more politically comfortable waters, where the issue of an alleged cheating and vindictive bank could be nicely diverted into a discussion of personal victimhood.
This type of thinking is everywhere. The move from the big picture to the small. From the general to the particular, as an academic might say. But when invoked to evade political questions or discussions of social injustice, it becomes a form of victim blaming.
Whatever the social injustice or corporate bollockdom under scrutiny, the emphasis is always to focus on the individual, to demonstrate flaws in their character or mental capacity that brought the regrettable situation down upon their poor unfortunate heads.
Like the subtle mechanisms of classical Greek tragedy where the “blame” is found in an individual’s character defect.
Poisoned by toxic noxious by-products of corporate manufacturing? You should have known better. You’ve only yourself to blame. In fact, you are so responsible for your own poisoning that I’m afraid we have to sue you for suggesting that we had any part in it.
In this Kafkaesque reality that we call normal life, cigarettes don’t cause cancer, smokers do. Corporations don’t cause plastic pollution, litterbugs do. Rampant gush-up capitalism doesn’t cause poverty, the feckless poor do. Lack of houses doesn’t cause homelessness, the homeless do, and so on.
And some of the servants of this capital-driven sleight-of-hand are TV anchors chasing “human interest” angles, neatly collapsing larger political pictures into some kind of harmless individual idiosyncrasy that could be solved if Joe Public would simply cop-on to his own foibles.
The following day Noel Edmonds appeared on social media in a self-made video saying that the RTE player did not contain the clip of him talking about the banks. It seemed the piece about the banks had been removed.
To Edmonds, who has by now been fighting for years with a bank in Britain, it must have seemed as if the banks were omniscient, our very own Big Brother, with an eye in every corner of its global empire, even finding time and resources to spy on the Ray D’Arcy show in boggy old Ireland.
But was the piece censored? Or was it some kind of editing accident? Maybe RTE are a bit scared of the bank as well, and someone just nipped the clip out to be on the safe side. In case RTE got sued and had to increase the license fee to get the public to foot the bill.
It’s all up for debate. In today’s reality we really can’t be quite sure about anything, because the elephant in the living room keeps shitting on the newspaper.
But somewhere in Ireland that evening, a man had decided to record the Ray D’Arcy show, proving that while there may be no accounting for taste there is always somebody awake and watching.
The following day he posted the censored clip to twitter where lots of people saw it, not only because it was so riveting, but because it had been censored by RTE and seemed to suggest that RTE was on the side of the banks, the same banks who were being criticised by Edmund Honohan for their maltreatment of people in debt to them.
The same banks that Noel Edmonds routinely calls liars. The same banks that Ray D’Darcy’s audience expressed such enthusiasm for jailing.
Elsewhere on TV the Cooper/Yates Tonight Show (Virgin Media) was mulling over the mystery of cost over-runs at the new children’s hospital. No one really knows what is going on. Stephen Donnelly of FF said that the FOIs had been applied for, so everyone is waiting for a clearer picture.
Even a Fine Gael spokesman claimed that he didn’t know what was going on either, but that he was angry just the same. As I would be if I was in a party that told me nothing and yet sent me onto TV to talk about the nothing I know.
The Irish Times reported that the:
“Many errors in prices and quantities in the transition of the hospital project from €650 million to €1.443 billion bring into focus who should pay for them. Current government policy is that the errors are the responsibility of the taxpayer…”
So, all the poor workmanship in terms of quantity surveying and so on would not impact on those responsible for the errors and miscalculations. Instead, the tax-payer would pick up the tab. Nice.
The Irish Times report went on to say that the present government had been dismantling safeguards put in place after the banking collapse, safeguards designed to guard against the tax-player being landed with the bill for someone else’s mistakes, as I understand it, though I could be wrong. We’re all navigating through fog here.
“It was a mistake,” said the Irish Times, adding:
“for this Government to abolish the Economic Management Council of Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Minister for Finance and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and to abolish the separate post of minister for public expenditure. The checks and balances introduced to deal with the causes of our last recession are being discarded…”
That’s not really a mistake though, is it? That seems more like a design. That seems like evolving policy.
It is as if the 2008 decision to land the tax-payer with the bill for the banking debt is now seen in some quarters as quite a “good idea, actually”, and the government are busily creating the conditions for the taxpayer to pick up after everyone, like an overworked traditional Irish mother.
I was going to write a list of what the tax-payer pays for: the evictions; the cost overruns; the banks debts, including interest: But that would be tiresome. One word will do the job: the taxpayer pays for EVERYTHING.
That’s better. That’s clearer. Or maybe I’m seeing it all wrong. Maybe that’s another one for a long debate. One day it may all come clear to everyone.
Meanwhile we had the centenary of the first Dáil where the present Dáil put on a bit of a show in the Mansion House to commemorate our “freedom”.
One of the first items of business in the first Dáil was the ratifying of the 1916 proclamation, complete with this strangely neglected sentiment, apparently totally abandoned during austerity:
“The Republic declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally…”
Richard Boyd Barrett clearly failed to get the brief that the commemoration of the first Dáil was to be a polite, reverential, even apolitical, affair, involving people with fresh haircuts and new suits.
He pointed out, rather tiresomely for some, I’m sure, that the first Dáil had come about as a result of a social upheaval by ordinary Irish people demanding:
“an end to deprivation and poverty, to secure a right to housing for children, to share out the wealth of the nation…and to subordinate the rights of property to the needs of the people…”
As the neo-liberal said to the banker, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? He’s a hard lefter.”
Someone in the Fine Gael PR unit came up with the term “hard left” to cast people who are not neo-liberals as some form of unrealistic and intransigent pie-in-the-sky dreamers blinded by “ideology”. You know, jokers like James Connolly and George Orwell and Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and Noam Chomsky and Bernie Sanders and Michael D. Higgins. That class of eejit.
Boyd Barrett went on to say that “the modern inheritors of the Irish revolution and the democratic programme are not primarily the people in this room…” but are the people who are demanding an end to the social injustices being overseen, and often exacerbated, either by incompetence or design (another debate there) by the current government.
It was stirring stuff. But he seemed in a way like a token champion of democratic ideals; proof that the democratic process was alive and well. I mean, no one censored him, now did they?
I’m no economist or political analyst of professorial standing; or even a cheap and low-down hard-news hound with years of experience ploughing the lonely furrow of political dirt and shenanigans; but all this adds up to a situation that seems suspiciously like a country that isn’t managing – or even trying, really! – to cherish all the children of the nation equally.
As a republic, in the ideal sense of the term, this republic really doesn’t seem to tally with what it says on the tin.
But that’s debatable too, I guess. I mean, who am I, only a citizen of theoretical equal standing with the great and the good, in what often seems like an elitist free-for-all.
And if the Master of the High Court can be shushed, I guess the rest of us should be happy that we’re allowed to speak at all, and just shut up in gratitude for the freedom bestowed on us to silently dissent.
You can say anything you like, so long as you don’t say anything worth saying. As soon as you do, some gremlin turns the lights off.
The month ended with the Nurse’s strike, described by the taoiseach as “damaging” to the common good. Another debate needed there.
Eamonn Kelly is a freelance journalist, His column appears here monthly.