Thursday 16 August 2018

Murphy and Varadkar 'too elitist' to fix homes crisis

Fianna Fail's new housing spokesman launches personal attack on 'cosseted' Fine Gael figures

CRITIC: Fianna Fail’s housing spokesman Darragh O’Brien
CRITIC: Fianna Fail’s housing spokesman Darragh O’Brien
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

A Senior Fianna Fail TD has this weekend dramatically escalated political tensions with Fine Gael over the housing emergency by launching an extraordinary personal attack on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy.

Fianna Fail's newly appointed housing spokesman Darragh O'Brien has claimed Mr Varadkar and Mr Murphy are failing to resolve the housing crisis because their "elitist" and "cosseted" backgrounds prevent them from sympathising with ordinary people.

In his first interview since his appointment, Mr O'Brien said the senior Fine Gael figures believe the markets will fix the housing shortage and view people impacted by the crisis as "collateral damage for what they believe is the greater good".

"They don't feel there is a problem and maybe it's because of their own backgrounds that they don't get it," he told the Sunday Independent.

Mr O'Brien said Mr Varadkar and Mr Murphy have "rightly" been accused of "arrogance" and "aloofness" and said there is "an elitist element" to their attitude towards voters.

"I don't know them personally to be honest so I don't want to be unfair. I'm just saying in some ways they come across cosseted," he added.

Mr O'Brien's comments follow a damaging week for Fine Gael which saw double figure increases in property prices, record new homeless figures and images of people forced to queue for days in the cold to buy new homes.

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach and his Minister for Housing spent the week touring the country promoting the Government's Project 2040 initiative.

"I think their culture is that they seem to carry on in a very aloof way. They are there to govern the people but they are not part of the people," Mr O'Brien said.

"There is an elitist element that I think is there. I'm born and bred in Dublin. Four or five generations' Dublin, normal family all the way through.

"I would have bought my house in 2006. I bought a three-bedroom terrace house for €580,000. We are still in negative equity. There's loads of people like me. I have a good job but I could be out of a job at the next general election.

"What I would ask them is to get out into the real world to actually look at how this housing crisis is affecting people. Forget about the numbers and look at what is happening to families because of this," he said.

The Fianna Fail TD also revealed he plans to force the Government to introduce a raft of new measures to address the housing and homelessness emergency.

This will include abolishing the first-time buyer's grant, which has driven up house prices, and replacing it with new tax reliefs on mortgages. He will also consider an SSIA-style savings scheme for first-time buyers.

Mr O'Brien will insist on strict new rent freezes in some cities and towns, along with the inclusion of student accommodation in rent pressure zones. He will also push the Government to put a greater focus on building affordable and social housing on State-owned land.

Sinn Fein has said the party is considering a motion of no confidence in Mr Murphy because of the housing crisis.

Mr O'Brien said he would "examine" a motion of no confidence in the minister if Sinn Fein tabled it but said it will "not house one person".

The TD has met the Minister for Housing once since taking up the housing portfolio and is due to sit down with him again this week.

He was given a briefing along with Fianna Fail TDs Shane Cassells and Pat Casey by senior officials from the Department of Housing last week.

However, Mr O'Brien warned he intends to "flex his muscles" in his new position and intends to exert significant pressure on Mr Murphy.

"No minister is going to get an easy ride from me because I expect results because the people need results. I will be at his shoulder constantly and I want to see results," he said.

"This area is an absolute priority for us. We are not going to stand idly by and watch them do nothing. I mean that and I really, really mean that. We are not happy with the manner in which the Government are trying to deal with the housing situation.

"We are deeply frustrated with how things have gone in this area. Patience will run out at some stage unless we see results," he said

Mr O'Brien said the Government's "public relations battle" against homeless families was "nothing short of disgraceful". He said spin from ministerial advisers seeking to blame young people for the homelessness crisis was "nonsense".

Budget negotiations are set to be strained with the new housing spokesman insisting a dramatic overhaul of Fine Gael's policy. Scraping the Government's key housing policy, the first-time buyer's grant, is expected to cause tensions with Fine Gael.

"We told the Government at the last budget when they introduced the first-time buyer's grant, while it helps the individual in some instances, it has led to inflation in house prices," Mr O'Brien said.

He said he was shocked when Department of Housing civil servants told him it takes 59 weeks to sign off on a new social housing project even when they are being built on State-owned land.

"That's a year and one month and they think that's good - it's not," he said.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section