Monday 16 December 2019

Home truths: Could housing be the rallying call to oust Fine Gael?

The big view on Ireland's property market

Put-upon pair: Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and Health Minister Simon Harris
Put-upon pair: Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and Health Minister Simon Harris
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Could housing turn out to be the Achilles heel that ultimately takes Fine Gael out of Government?

It might seem fanciful to say this as the party and its leader ride high in the polls, but a few rumblings among the opposition parties this week may provide some early signs that the housing crisis provides a most obvious assembly point and rallying banner for Fine Gael's ejection from office.

Earlier this week Fianna Fáil took an unusual solo run in tabling a Bill to ensure that one third of new homes are ring-fenced for first-time buyers. The idea is to clamp down on the rampant vulture funds' ability to hoover up new housing stock and nudge the first-time buyer out.

This was followed by another surprise from the Social Democrats, who tabled a no-confidence motion in housing minister Eoghan Murphy, to be voted on Tuesday. Sinn Féin's September attempt on Murphy was defeated 59 votes to 49 after Fianna Fáil pointedly abstained.

But could the SDs provoke Fianna Fáil support this time around? It's a prescient move by the SDs and as much a red rag to Fianna Fáil as it is to Fine Gael. The former needs to start showing that it has some teeth and soon if it wants to extract itself from the never-ending Groundhog Day in which it is now mired.

And while Fine Gael might be smug about recent polls showing a high rate of satisfaction for the party, the Taoiseach and the handling ofBrexit and the economy, it would do well to remember that 70pc of the Irish electorate will likely not vote Fine Gael. And that most of the country is downright angry with its long-term approach to housing and health.

While some measures taken by Murphy through the past two years have ensured that housing output has risen notably (the Help to Buy scheme in particular), the action has been slow to come. And many argue that it has favoured the private sector heavily, particularly the big funds which have moved in to profit from the housing crisis and at favourable tax rates on their rental incomes.

While the latest polls show Fine Gael is still the biggest party in the country with 30pc of the vote, this is obviously a position that requires indirect support or complacency from Fianna Fáil (24pc).

And even within Fine Gael supporters, what percentage really condones the current leadership's approach to housing and health - positions which perhaps closer equate to what we'd expect from the British Conservative Party than from a purportedly mid-ground outfit whose supporters are usually only slightly right of centre in their outlook?

With urbane upper-crust city-based party members running the FG show, we now have farmers up in arms and rural Ireland complaining that it is withering on the vine. So what way will Fine Gael's traditionally staunch rural rump vote in an election, particularly if the opposition pushes rural affairs to the fore alongside housing and health?

Fine Gael has long conquered based on division and on the fact that the other parties refuse to link up in any form in order to challenge the status quo. So we get a government and a housing policy that likely at least two-thirds of voters don't want.

Housing and health are the matters which worst affect the widest range of voters across the divides and Murphy, along with Health Minister Simon Harris have similarly proven to be the weakest links and most criticised members of the Fine Gael cabinet.

Voters on the left and in the centre will be aggrieved by what they see as a blatant favouring by government of big funds in the provision of housing in recent years. They despair that increasing numbers of new homes are being snapped up by funds ahead of first-time buyers, only to re-emerge as expensive rentals for the same people who have been nudged out. The high price of housing and rental is now a universal concern.

Market-led voters who are normally supportive of a strong private rental sector may also no longer be in favour of pushing big-fund profits in the housing crisis ahead of small landlords, who are also rapidly being pushed out.

While the left wing has always demanded state-built social housing in numbers, the right of centre might be coming to that argument too on the basis that eternally increasing rents and more big-fund involvement has led to the tax payer increasingly shelling out more rent to the private sector in social housing payments. State built and held social housing could be a better option commercially.

Even the utterly market-motivated are starting to wonder why the tax payer is paying out to profit landlords. And against this background, state-built and owned housing stock is starting to look like an investment. Those who run their own businesses, are also realising that ever-increasing rents also means less money spent in their businesses. The youngest voters, many who live at home with mum and dad, have shown that the environment is on top of their list of concerns; but as time goes on, more will become increasingly aggrieved about soaring rents and property prices.

So shared opposition to housing policy is probably the only factor that unites all the opposition parties versus the status quo. It is reasonable to state that most Irish people want big funds curtailed to some extent, a greater supply of saleable and rented homes overall, cheaper housing and more traditional social housing stock constructed in numbers and held by the State.

But all depends on the Fianna Fáil dog in the manger. Its party members are becoming increasingly concerned that compliance with government policy is sucking the life blood out of the party. The older ones remember the 'Tallaght Strategy' of 1987 which saw Fine Gael cease resistance against the Fianna Fáil-led government on certain fronts, for the common interest overall. But in the 1989 election Fine Gael gained only four extra seats. The strategy had damaged them. If Fianna Fáil truly wants to get into power, a leadership putsch might have to happen this side of an election. At the very least, the party needs to show it has some bite left in it and do so soon.

Housing policy is the most obvious attack point that could help pull like-minded support from other parties. Alongside health, rural affairs and the environment, it becomes the obvious rallying point for new alliances.

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