Sunday 26 May 2019

Oh, what fun we had, with homelessness

Politicians preside over suffering, the Dail plays with pain... welcome to the New Politics Show

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

This happened last Thursday. It's on the official record of the Dail - page 15, for November 24, 2016 Leaders' Questions. If you can stomach it. You think they've learned, you hope they've learned, and then you look at what's happening - and you know that for them it's not about achieving things; it's about keeping the show going.

The nights have taken a turn, but nothing like as cold as it's going to get. A good time, you might think, for politicians to look frankly at homelessness.

What, they might ask, will the long-term effects be, for hundreds of children on whom the B&B culture is inflicted, through no fault of their parents?

What, they might ask, are the odds of another homeless person dying while sleeping in the open?

The city centre doorways are filling up; there are tents along the Luas line. These are homeless people who fear the drugs and the needles and the knives in the crowded hostels.

It's important for politicians that no one dies (as opposed to developing life-shortening illness). Because that would be embarrassing, it would make citizens feel uncomfortable, so close to Christmas.

So, you'd think the politicians might make an effort - to cover their arses properly, if not to actually do something about homelessness.

Enda was busy fixing the Brexit problem, so Frances Fitzgerald, the Fine Gael Tanaiste, took the questions.

Fianna Fail, wearing its concerned face, put the latest figures on the record: the 1,026 families homeless, the 2,110 children homeless in Dublin. There was a 35pc jump in homelessness in October, and a 48pc jump on the same month last year.

A "slight increase", Frances Fitzgerald responded.

She thinks 35pc is "slight".

She was happy to note that there was a "slowdown in the rate of increase".

So, things are getting worse, but not as fast as before.

"This time last year", Barry Cowen reminded the Tanaiste, "500 rapid-build modular units were promised, of which only 22 have been built".

They spoke of the Central Bank changes to borrowing rules - an excuse to do nothing about homelessness. It's sacred doctrine of FG/FF that the State must not Interfere With the Market. It may merely increase the price of new houses - which is what these changes will do - in the hope that a larger profit for builders will persuade them to build more.

And then, this.

Fitzgerald proudly told the Dail: "Already this year, 320 rapid-built units have been provided."

According to the Dail record, Fianna Fail's Robert Troy chipped in: "Some 320 have been provided." Is that pride, Bob?

Perhaps Mr Troy got momentarily confused about whether he's a government supporter or in opposition, whether he should be insulting Fitzgerald or supporting her. The New Politics will do that to you.

At which point Fitzgerald was asked where these (pathetically inadequate) 320 homes have been "provided".

And. She. Said.

"Construction will have started by year end."

"Started?"

"Yes, on 350 units."

The houses already "provided" will all have started construction by the end of the year.

Once the sod has been turned it seems, or it will be in the near future, politicians can tell us the finished homes have been "provided".

Shortly after this, Eoin O Broin of Sinn Fein asked about the Special Committee on Water Charges, about to be launched (it's an attempt to get water charges off FG/FF's back).

There's a Special Committee on Health and one on Housing, and each elected its own chair. For some reason, however, the FG/FF regime decided to appoint a chair to the committee on water charges.

"Ministers," said O Broin, "do not have the right to hand-pick the chairmen of Oireachtas committees, yet that is exactly what is happening."

Guess how FG responded?

"Who elected Gerry Adams," piped up FG's John Deasy.

Now, as it happens, it was the electorate of West Belfast that elected Adams between 1997 and 2011; and the electorate of Louth that elected him since.

But Mr Deasy wasn't curious about such matters. What Mr Deasy was doing, in my opinion, was saying: Hey, lads, all this water charges shit, and this homelessness stuff, it's all very grim and it does FG/FF no credit. So, let's talk about whether Gerry Adams was in the IRA, right, lads? Yay!

Or words to that effect.

O Broin spoke some more about how FG/FF, "for the first time in decades", decided to impose its own senator to chair a special committee.

You might wonder: What's so sensitive about water charges?

But by now Fitzgerald was ready to run with the John Deasy option. The Dail will vote to set up the committee, she said, and the motion will name the chairperson.

And FG/FF have the numbers to push it through.

Fitzgerald: "I assume Deputy Eoin O Broin will accept its democratic will when the vote is taken."

The issue was being changed, away from the strange need to impose a chairperson on the committee - gratuitously raising instead the democratic legitimacy of Sinn Fein.

Fitzgerald: "The question is why Deputy Eoin O Broin is afraid of the democratic process in which we are involved."

And the other kids were on to the game. "Sinn Fein never really did take to democracy," said FG's Patrick O'Donovan.

Fitzgerald: "Why can Sinn Fein not accept a democratic vote in the Dail?"

Simon Coveney: "Sinn Fein Members do not seem to want to vote on it."

Fitzgerald: "Why can Sinn Fein not accept the results of a democratic vote in the Dail?"

Now, it's not my job to defend Sinn Fein, they can fight their own corner. But this isn't about their rights - it's about our rights; to a functioning, adult parliament that will deal with our social problems.

Those of us who dissent from the status quo say FG/FF should stop fetishising the free market and, like governments in the past, urgently build municipal housing. And control rents. There are urgent human needs that should have precedence over the need of investors to make a profit.

(By the way, a PWC report for investors happily notes a "shift of opportunistic capital" into "the UK, Ireland and Spain". A Propertywire report says, "Ireland has the highest rental yield for buy-to-let property in Europe at 6.54pc, moving from tenth place to top of the sector league table." The homeless suffer, but the inviolate market ensures investors make a killing.)

FG/FF is entitled to its belief that the market is sacred, and to put the needs of investors first. But its members won't openly argue that and put it before the voters. Instead, they play games, and when in trouble they jeer Gerry Adams.

Frances Fitzgerald told the Dail that Fianna Fail's "catastrophic handling of the economy" left FG with terrible problems.

That was almost six years ago. When FF return to office, perhaps in 2017, it will blame its failures on the incompetent FG years. Because that's what "the New Politics" is about: ensuring that the old politics survives through this difficult period of public unease.

This requires delegitimising any political choice outside the FG/FF cartel. Warn citizens of reds under the beds, of "militant" aliens, of "populists" stirring up innocent citizens who should be perfectly happy with FG/FF's parliamentary games.

The nights have taken a turn, but nothing like as cold as it's going to get.

Sunday Independent

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