Friday 23 August 2019

Housing Minister could learn a thing or two from indomitable campaigner Rita Fagan

Rita Fagan and members of the Family Resource Centre from St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore protest at Leinster House over Budget cuts. Photo: Tom Burke
Rita Fagan and members of the Family Resource Centre from St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore protest at Leinster House over Budget cuts. Photo: Tom Burke

Ellen O'Malley-Dunlop

We must beware of repeating the mistakes of the past when it comes to how the current housing crisis is addressed. The Home Sweet Home response in taking over Apollo House this Christmas is laudable. But we need a sound Government with long-term, thought-through policies and actions if we are really serious about addressing the problems of more people becoming homeless, and of housing those that are homeless.

In response to a housing crisis in the 1960s we saw the construction of flat complexes like Ballymun and St Michael's Estate in Inchicore in Dublin and similar complexes in Cork, Limerick and Galway.

These proved to be, over time, unsuitable responses to the then housing crisis.

In the 1980s St Michael's Estate residents set up an action group seeking refurbishment and not demolition of the flats, but nothing was done.

When conditions worsened in the late 1980s and 1990s owing to an escalation of a heroin epidemic, the majority of the residents wanted the estate levelled and rebuilt.

Since then the residents have been brought from pillar to post, with grand plans for construction.

First it was 170 local authority houses, 80 affordable houses and 70 private homes.

This plan was rejected in 2003 by the then environment minister Martin Cullen, who favoured a public-private partnership plan.

Then it was to be 850 homes, 80 of which were to be social housing. But the city councillors and residents rejected this plan in 2004.

In 2005 plans were revealed for a €160m project comprising 575 houses, made up of 150 for social housing, 70 affordable houses and 355 private houses. Nothing happened.

Two years later the developer Bernard McNamara struck yet another deal, this time for 720 houses, 165 of which were to be for social housing at a cost of €265m. But this deal also collapsed owing to the property crash.

You might well ask what was happening to the residents of St Michael's Estate during all this time.

Women residents like Caroline McNulty, Natasha Farrell and Nicky Fahey, with the support of community worker Rita Fagan, continually made themselves available to take part in all of the talks and consultations but one plan they totally objected to was the public-private partnership.

As time passed, many families moved on and more and more flats became derelict.

This was not a fitting place for families to grow and thrive but the spirit of the people endured and there is one woman who epitomises this spirit.

She is the indomitable Rita Fagan.

I use the word indomitable to describe a woman I had the privilege of meeting a little over 10 years ago.

Indomitable, because this woman's spirit is unstoppable. She says it as it is and 10 years on from our first meeting she is still making a huge difference for so many in her own community.

I have never met anyone with so much energy and who will not be vanquished. She has facilitated other women in St Michael's Estate, through her work in the Family Resource Centre, to be empowered and to stand up for their rights. As a result of the long journey that the residents of St Michael's Estate have endured, in 2014 Thornton Heights, a €12m scheme of 75 houses and apartments, was handed over to its residents.

Sadly, not all were from the former St Michael's community as many of the estate's residents had moved elsewhere. However, it took 16 years for the project to finally be ready for its residents and Rita Fagan was there with the women all the way.

One would hope that Housing Minister Simon Coveney will learn from the lessons of the past, and will listen to the Rita Fagans when he is planning how he will solve the current housing and homeless problems in our society.

One has to ask what would have happened if the residents of St Michael's Estate had been listened to in the first instance.

Ellen O'Malley-Dunlop is Adjunct Professor at the UL School of Law

Irish Independent

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