The governing politicians had a problem last week — they had to look like they were angry, and they had to act like they were angry, but they had to ensure that nothing much changed. Well done, lads.
If ever there was a time for courageous politicians to behave responsibly, put aside personal and party ambitions and act solely in the interests of the people, it would surely be in the course of a housing crisis, part way through a global pandemic.
But, well... sure, you know yourself.
There are times when we can almost admire the professionalism of a certain type of politician. We watch them maintain an expression of
utter sincerity, even as they change direction in mid-sentence to fiercely applaud a measure they’ve been passionately denouncing.
Or vice versa.
How can they do that? Well, it comes from a strong self-belief. You come to understand the country needs you at the helm, it needs your commitment, your skills and, above all, your unshakeable devotion to truth and justice. You love your country and its people so much there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for them.
This is a cognitive condition that allows you to keep a straight face as you engage in whatever convoluted logic the circumstances demand.
The politicians of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are excellent at that kind of thing, and it can be amusing to watch. But there are dangerous social developments under way, people are being hurt, children’s lives are being distorted.
The irresponsible wielding of economic power continues to have huge social consequences. There’s a need for something more than the usual political pantomime.
Last week, a fella on Twitter, @AnBurcach, posted what I hoped was a joke: “Turns out that now I’ve moved back in, the gang is complete. All the kids who used to play together on my road are now back living with their parents.”
Literally true or not, it sums up a bitter little truth about the way we live now.
Those who control the cost of putting a roof over our head — either buying or renting — are moulding how we live, forcing people into societal shapes they would not otherwise adopt.
People are making huge decisions — including putting off having children. Basic decisions about where and how they live are in the hands of others.
And those others make decisions based on the size of the profits for which they have an insatiable hunger.
We speak of “freedom” as though it’s an abstract thing. It’s very concrete, when it includes the freedom of people to collectively shape the texture of our own lives — the where and the how of our days and nights — and the landscape upon which that plays out.
For a long time now, that texture has been decided by the ruthlessly applied power of others.
Whole blocks of apartments are Airbnb-ed on the say-so of one or two developers. Community spaces are taken over to provide amusement for the passing tourist, as resources for the hotels at which they sleep.
A random investment decision can extinguish the character of an area or a building, slowly and lovingly created over years.
Young people lament the closure of a treasured pub or a club, places they loved passionately because they helped them become who they are.
Too often, the decisions on what opens and closes can be traced back to the financial ambitions of people who wield property and money as weapons, to indulge their need for mindless growth.
Part of the job of government is about managing such matters in a fair and socially responsible way.
To the people now in government, much of what they call “freedom” begins and ends with the freedom of the market.
“We are in the middle of a home ownership crisis in Ireland”, said Fr Peter McVerry. He demanded legislation to “prevent the bulk-buying of entire developments by investment funds, thereby freezing out first-time buyers”.
Eh, wait a moment — did I say Fr Peter McVerry? No, sorry about that, I meant Darragh O’Brien, Fianna Fáil TD.
When the occasion demands, the professional politician can adopt the appropriate attitude and vocabulary.
Darragh was addressing the Dáil on October 22, 2019, introducing a bill he said was “designed to level the playing field for first-time buyers and keep the dream of home ownership alive”.
Twelve weeks later, the Dáil was dissolved, an election was held, and when the dust settled Darragh was Minister for Housing.
Yeah, politics can be cruel.
The man who told the Dáil “We need affordable housing for working people” was now in a position to do something about that.
Here we are, a year-and-a-half later. Anger simmers among the people as the housing crisis festers. A couple of weeks back, the anger was compounded as the people discovered a vulture fund was snapping up large parts of a newly-built estate so it can jack up rents even further.
People who just want somewhere to live are competing with outfits that control hundreds of millions of euro, dinosaurs stomping through the housing market, crushing what Darragh called “the dream of home ownership”.
Suddenly, politicians were shocked, shocked, I tell you.
The impression was created that this was unprecedented.
Oh, said the Taoiseach, oh dear, this is unacceptable.
The Tánaiste was likewise shocked, shocked, I tell you. He said it was never intended for such people to enter that part of the market.
It was as though the Dáil hadn’t been informed about this when Darragh introduced his Planning and
Development (Amendment) (First-Time Buyers) Bill 2019.
It was as if the Dáil hadn’t been told about how investment funds were snapping up large portions of estates in Balbriggan and Donabate.
“They are taking over swathes of Dublin and the rest of the country,” Darragh said.
In recent weeks, all this had to be quickly forgotten. Because of anger about the Maynooth housing estate deal, the Government had to act surprised — as though it didn’t know about and tolerate this kind of thing for at least a couple of years.
And it had to pretend to be as angry as we are. And it had to appear to be doing something about it.
But it also had to be sure to — as Leo Varadkar delicately put it — do nothing “ideologically extreme”.
(That’s a posh term for “effective”.)
So, Darragh got together with Paschal Donohoe and they produced an appropriately feeble response.
On May 10, “sources” were telling the media that Darragh was in trouble. TDs were angry — because their constituents were angry about the Maynooth estate scandal. And Darragh — well, he’d done nothing to convince people to stop being angry.
Last Wednesday, Darragh, the Fianna Fáil minister, attended a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting to tell them how he and Paschal were going to calm the people with his feeble measures. As the Irish Times reported: “Mr O’Brien received universal praise during the Fine Gael parliamentary party (meeting), sources said.”
Some of the Greens were uncomfortable with the feeble response. Darragh murmured that this was “a government decision” (translation: Eamon Ryan has our backs).
Darragh’s got impeccable patter. Why, he’s asked, does Nama do just as the vultures are...
“I don’t run Nama.”
And why did you...
“Level playing field...”
“Really, what’s at issue here...”
“Decisive measures... unintended consequences...”
And, of course, he’s got “unconstitutional” in reserve.
Yeah. You really have to admire the professionalism.