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Home truths: Grangegorman and Gorse Hill

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Gorse Hill

Gorse Hill

Gorse Hill

YEARS ago student leaders I knew would despair at the ability of hardline political groups with tiny memberships to "hijack" well-attended student protest events with just a handful of their members.

They did this by identifying the TV news camera crew covering the event and clustered around it with their large boldly printed placards.

The impression given to television viewing audiences at home was that the march or protest was dominated by the minority hardliners and by default, the cause - be it student grants, abortion issues, spending cuts or lack of student housing - often lost credibility.

In recent times housing and eviction has followed water to become a street protest issue which is now starting to generate marches (albeit small events) in Dublin. At the same time highly publicised protests such as those by the new Land League have been taking place for some time.

This hasn't happened since the 1960s when Dublin was also experiencing a housing crisis that became a marching issue for students.

The austerity of the 1950s had cut the amount of social housing being built while city centre slums were being pulled down (some fell down with fatalities). The population had exploded and there weren't enough affordable homes to go around.

The protests were spearheaded by the Dublin Housing Action Committee (DHAC).

DHAC called for a state housing emergency to be declared and for a halt to investment in big prestigious corporate office blocks while the crisis was tackled. It's most famous cause celebre was the eviction of squatting families from two long empty houses opposite the American Embassy in Ballsbridge.

On that day a substantial force of gardai waded in to evict families who had moved into the empty homes on the grounds of having nowhere else to live.

It was the first occasion at which gardai deployed with riot shields. The political establishment and many among the media made the mistake of dismissing the DHAC cause simply because hardline left-wingers featured among its leadership.

In the process, it was missed that hardline minority groups spearhead causes precisely because they have popular appeal and political gain can be made. In this case, the cause was entirely legitimate, and what's more, it had widespread support among Dubliners incensed at banks leaving homes empty while so many were losing theirs.

The term "squatting" has not been heard much since the DHAC Ballsbridge evictions - until this week.

Gardai and squatters jostled and scuffled on Monday at Grangegorman as representatives of a private security firm (supported by the gardai) moved into a site involving two houses and warehouse space in Dublin 7.

The gardai arrived to the scene in force at 6.30am on Monday morning.

Over a period of a year-and-a-half 30 people had occupied the two houses and made adjoining warehouses.

They appear to have taken good care of the buildings and this week the Lord Mayor of Dublin commended them for their community food garden, for their creativity and for "turning a derelict site into something positive." They had hosted a range of social cultural events on the site which have proven popular locally. It could be argued that without the squatters to take care of these buildings, they might have succumbed to vandalism and fire.

But like those families who occupied in Ballsbridge in the 1960s, good care of the buildings does not excuse the Grangegorman squatters from breaking the law.

However, like the 1960s Ballsbridge occupiers, the Grangegorman squatters and their aims are symptomatic of a housing shortage which has seen record numbers of people pushed out of over-expensive accommodation on to the streets. At the same time, thousands of buildings in the capital stand useless and unoccupied.

In the same week, it was revealed that AIB, a bank the taxpayer had to bail out at the cost of €21bn (also an instigator of repossessions) plans to invest €3m in upgrading its Balslbridge HQ.

This week we have seen two court actions focus on alleged trespass cases with evictions sought - Grangegorman where the receiver has brought an application preventing trespass against "persons unknown" (the 30 squatters) and the Gorse Hill case, where a solicitor who owes €70m in variously unpaid property loans, has just obtained a stay of another month in residence at a luxury home and grounds with a swimming pool.

The public will certainly be watching to compare how the two sets of parties are treated as events roll out.

But in the bigger picture, as with DHAC, it would be a mistake for Government to underestimate widespread concerns about the housing crisis simply because hardline wonks are at the vanguard of its protests.

The housing crisis affects all of us. And we're all watching how events unfold.

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