Tuesday 24 October 2017

Home truths: Left with the right to housing?

Garda Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy, who founded the Blueshirts
Garda Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy, who founded the Blueshirts
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

A British left-winger I was friendly with came to live and work in Ireland in the 1990s. Whenever we were out for pints, the red-headed one bellyached about Ireland's "flawed" party politics. The life-long Labour Party Bennite would fume: "The main political parties are the same! And the Irish Labour Party isn't left enough to be left! At least in Britain you know where you stand - with the Tories on the right and Labour on the left."

Of course he was totally flummoxed by the concept of Fianna Fail: "If you ask them what they stand for, their answer is: 'Well what do you want us to stand for? And we're all for that.' What's that all about?"

This was before he returned to Blighty to find Blair and Major pulling both British parties to the centre, which must have really gotten his goatee.

But that leftie was completely right.

By global standards, 'right wing' in Ireland means slightly right of centre and 'left wing' means a smidgen left of the compass point. Despite a turbulent recent past, we Irish are, for the most part, pretty united in our overall centrist political outlook. Unlike other European countries such as Britain, France, the Netherlands, along with the USA, where right-wing movements are coming to the fore, we've got little or no time for it.

Our own failed fascist experiment in the 1930s saw a few thousand blueshirts stomping about for a year before they realised fascism wasn't about being Catholic and holy - and almost all gave it up as a bad lot. They simply didn't think it was right. The few hundred of O'Duffy's people who did fight for Franco (on religious grounds) ended up going into battle in error against Canarian Falangists on the same side who misidentified their green uniforms. So they still managed to do the Republic a favour.

Nor do we have much time for far left politics as determined by the miserable electoral results continually turned in by ultra red factions here.

This has advantages. I would proffer to my British leftie: "Why elect a party which has one single platform when you can elect one that changes its views to suit the whims of the electorate all the way through the term? Surely, in many ways, this is more immediately democratic than being stuck with Tory ultra free marketeering or full scale State intervention?"

I told my British Trot that as a nation with monochromed "that's grand" centrist views, we tended not to smash up our streets and shops for protests when we shout: "Down with this sort of thing." It brings a stable political environment overall, which is attractive to foreign business looking in. We Irish are unified in what we believe the State should be involved in and what we think it should stay out of. As 40 shades of social democrat, we believe in the free market (to a degree), but also that the State should ensure a smattering of basic civic rights. Most of us - from the leftest leaning right wingers to the rightest left wingers - believe the State should provide:

• a comprehensive public healthcare package for all, with a choice in what we pay for after that;

• free access to education for all and a choice in what we pay for after that;

• a reasonable State pension in old age for all and a choice of private pensions after that;

• a proper welfare net for those who are genuinely unemployed or disabled;

• an entitlement to basic State housing and a choice in what we pay for after that.

We differ in degrees to the level at which the state should provide these, but the above tally would be acceptable to 90pc of us. However, when it comes to one facet of the traditional Irish civic contract - housing - that once unified view has been polarising. In the past, State-provided social housing worked because so few took advantage of it. It was ghettoised and the accommodation was basic to the degree that you just wouldn't want to live in it unless you had to. The State built kitchen sink estates and all the socially housed went in to them together.

Through the 90s, new policy confused matters by selling old social housing to their owners - hence gentrifying social housing estates in better locations. At the same time, the State embarked on the new provision of social housing by renting private housing in privately bought locations.

In this way, someone working and straining to pay a mortgage ended up living next door to someone who got their housing provided free and perhaps didn't work at all. Against this backdrop in the thick of the housing crisis, the privately and publicly housed are now pitched against one another to fight cheek by jowl for the very same accommodation and in fast-diminishing amounts. We see the privately housed fighting harder to hold on to ownership amidst increasing financial pressures. With the high cost of housing, we also see those who never would have been on housing lists - the salary earners - looking to be accommodated by the State, while those on the bottom rung are falling off.

As discussion boards online show, it has generated bad cess between both camps a la traditional British Labour/Tory views. The "they get everything for free" and "the State needs to do more" views are becoming more shrill. And housing is splitting our centre.

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