Sunday 24 February 2019

Mark Keenan: Black September for housing crisis is now history

Balaclavas required: Housing protesters at Frederick Street.
Photo: Tony Gavin
Balaclavas required: Housing protesters at Frederick Street. Photo: Tony Gavin
1969 protester/occupier/student Marian Finucane comes out of an occupied house on Stephen's Green in to talk to RTE
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

September was a black month for the housing crisis. We were shocked to see masked heavies, protected by Irish state police (also in balaclavas and with sticks and dogs), manhandle and forcibly evict protesters occupying a disused house in Dublin. The heavies arrived in an unmarked van with no front number plate nor visible tax disc. Protesters said they had no proper identifications. The heavies broke into the house and got stuck in.

Protesters injured at the incident: “under the watchful eye of the garda public order unit” as they put it, were taken to hospital where the emergency department at the Mater informed them that staff shortages meant those needing wounds stitched up would have to wait at least 13 hours. Garda representatives reacted to the furore by calling for a change in the law: to make it illegal to film officers on duty with smart phones.

September was the month in which we heard Ireland’s largest farming organisation, the generally conservative IFA, state unequivocally that it will “strongly support” farmers who are facing forced sales by vulture funds — the statement was issued after a 100-strong protest at the McCann farm in Trim, Co Meath, which had been placed for sale by a vulture fund “with vacant possession” even though it was being actively farmed by the family.

The IFA placed posters around the McCann farm warning that buyers of farms for sale in these circumstances would “not have the goodwill of the wider community” — in essence a boycott of the sort deployed more commonly during the Land War. Meantime we read that thousands of farms are among loans recently transferred, or soon to be transferred, to vulture funds.

1969 protester/occupier/student Marian Finucane comes out of an occupied house on Stephen's Green in to talk to RTE
1969 protester/occupier/student Marian Finucane comes out of an occupied house on Stephen's Green in to talk to RTE

September was the month in which we saw (after an attempted no confidence motion against the housing minister), the State once again accused of cooking the numbers on the latest homeless data thanks to a “reclassification” of 1,606 people including 981 children formerly on the list. The “reclassification” kept the numbers of homeless in Ireland just south of 10,000. Otherwise it would be 11,133. We heard more accusations that the State’s own house construction figures are massaged. We were also told why it takes five years for an Irish local authority to build a social housing unit.

September was the month in which marchers of all hues brought the capital to a halt with a sit down protest against homelessness, the housing crisis and Government inaction. They included women with buggies, people in wheelchairs, old and young.

The protest was bizarrely blighted by a filmed incident involving a gang of foul mouthed Englishmen in brightly coloured trousers who marched aggressively among seated protesters shouting obscenities at them while one of their number threw a severed and bloody pigeon head at one seated group.

Boycotts and police-supervised evictions? Ten/eleven thousand homeless amidst the ascending precedence of overseas landlords and vulture funds? Acrimonious Brits marching about? Is it 2018 or 1870?

Moreover, how on earth is it that the key personalities who run our Government have not yet osmosed the fact that these protesters — holding up the streets, pledging to respond to land evictions and to occupy empty buildings — are not just a fringe group of wayward lefties this time? That sympathy for the protesters and their aims is widespread?

How have they not grasped that these legions are a growing popular grassroots movement also comprised of well respected homeless groups, of middle class students, of elected TDs, of elderly grandparents who want affordable homes for their grandchildren, of trade unionists, of hard working honest Irish farmers and office professionals in their 20s and 30’s who are being rack rented.

They are defence force members who can’t afford to buy or rent a home. They are the panic stricken near-homeless whose future is precariously balanced on the bottom rung — in hostels, hotels, on friends’ sofas and in so-called “family hubs”. They are us.

Is this cabinet, individual by individual, simply just too posh to realise what’s going on? Is it that their perceptory receivers are socially ill-engineered by background to pick up that those on the streets represent the popular view? Do those who owned yachts, who campaigned against traveller housing, who are sons of SCs, who devote inordinate energy to tweeting, who tell young people to “get money off their parents” for homes; do they truly not realise what is happening here?

Almost 50 years ago, in 1969, students, heritage groups and housing protesters also occupied empty houses in Dublin at St Stephen’s Green and Hume Street.

The heavies were sent in then as now, but the gardai brought neither dogs nor balaclavas and watched over the conduct of all. There were no hospitalisations. The finance minister sent a hamper to occupiers. Another Government minister attempted to mediate a solution between both sides.

If it happened in September 2018, the list of 1969 occupiers/protesters risking hospitalisation by heavies as masked police stood by, would include such firebrand radicals as one Marian Finucane, one Mary Bourke (later Robinson), one Dr Garret FitzGerald, one Dr Noel Browne and one Proinsias De Rossa, to name but a few of them.

Perhaps there’s a good reason why this Government has been keen to take history off the school curriculum.

The month that was: September 2018.

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