Lenihan's double blunder
Finance minister Brian Lenihan appeared to officially mark the end of the property boom yesterday, bluntly declaring it had come to a "shuddering end".
He also risked massive controversy within his own Fianna Fail party by referring to the work of tribunals as investigating "corrupt politicians".
Speaking at a conference of Europe's construction leaders in Dublin Castle, where the Mahon Tribunal also sits, Mr Lenihan then lamented his "misfortune" of becoming a minister during a slowdown.
His remarks did little to ease housing fears, on a day when figures showed a 10pc drop in planning permission for new homes.
And, as revealed by the Irish Independent yesterday, estate agent Lisney has imposed a 10pc pay cut on all of its 170 staff, including top directors.
It also emerged that the Construction Industry Federation is in detailed talks with the minister over measures to encourage reluctant buyers back to the housing market.
But any pretence a recovery is in sight was shattered by Mr Lenihan, who said an over-heated market was to blame for the slump in house prices.
He said: "We have had a building boom going on in Ireland in the 1990s and I had the misfortune to become minister for finance a few weeks ago as the building boom is coming to a shuddering end."
Later, Mr Lenihan tried to clarify his remarks, claiming there was still healthy demand in the market, despite strong evidence to the contrary. He added: "I believe, in time, we will return to a sustainable level of construction-led growth."
But Fine Gael attacked the minister, with finance spokesman Richard Bruton asking: "Where has he been for the last six months? Throughout that period all the indicators have pointed towards a collapse in the construction industry.
"It's a bit late for minister Lenihan to wake up and smell the coffee, particularly when he is supposed to be maintaining vigilance on the economy."
Environment minister John Gormley defended Mr Lenihan: "I think he is simply stating what is a fact and the fact is that at the moment the construction industry is not doing as well as it was previously."
CIF director-general Tom Parlon said the housing peak in 2006, when 90,000 homes were built, will never happen again in this country.
"We need to get to a sustainable level of housing, which the experts would say is about 50,000 houses a year. We have a stock of houses at the moment and there is a very substantial amount of VAT tied up in these houses that is important to the exchequer."
Mr Parlon said the CIF had discussed with Mr Lenihan incentives to encourage people who are "sitting on the fence" over buying houses. A paper will be be delivered to him before the budget. Figures yesterday showed the number of planning permissions for new homes in the first three months of this year was down almost 10pc compared with a year earlier.
The Central Statistics Office said 18,582 new homes were approved, down 9.5pc from a year earlier.