O’Brien latest to find poetic policies tested
Darragh O’Brien has only himself to blame for introducing analogies with wheeler-dealer wideboys into the debate on housing.
When he was Fianna Fáil’s housing spokesman, the now Housing Minister decried the Land Development Agency for offering “a three-wheeled Del Boy van” version of housing provision rather than a “Mercedes-style delivery”.
Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin reminded him of the Only Fools and Horses comparison this week and brought in Minder too.
“The minister is increasingly looking like Arthur Daley, trying to sell a clapped-out second-hand Fine Gael car with a lick of paint but with the same dodgy engine.”
These days, Mr Trotter is more famous than Mr Daley, so the Del Boy nickname stuck to the Fianna Fáil minister and aspirant future party leader.
Mr O’Brien’s slow start in the poisoned chalice of housing has sped up in the past week as he attempts to introduce his flagship plan for affordable housing, containing the shared-equity scheme. To help people buy their home, the scheme would see the State paying for up to 30pc of the cost of new houses in return for a stake, with the homeowner taking out a mortgage for the rest.
The Holy Trinity of the civil service, economists and regulators are all saying it will actually push up prices.
Like his Fianna Fáil Cabinet ministerial predecessor in north Co Dublin, Ray Burke, Mr O’Brien has redoubtable confidence. Compared to Rambo – before his political career ended in the disgrace of corruption – the Malahide man has an all-action, get up and go style, always moving forward.
Within the Fianna Fáil ranks, he has his strong supporters, and there is admiration for his robust, defensive and aggressive responses to criticism. At times, this borders on the belligerent and patronising.
“Mary, you may not have heard, I mean this, I would encourage you and others to actually look at what happened at the committee hearing yesterday,” he retorted to RTÉ’s Mary Wilson midweek, as she questioned why he was pushing ahead with the shared-equity scheme, despite the warnings it would push up prices. Previously, Mr O’Brien has also developed an unfortunate habit of blatantly denying statements he had clearly made, particularly around the vexed question of whether to go into power with Sinn Féin. Yet he has always remained loyal to Micheál Martin and hasn’t been found wanting in standing by the leader publicly.
Mr O’Brien’s scheme being under threat is bad news for Micheál Martin. Fianna Fáil took on the key social polices of health, education and housing.
Stephen Donnelly is stuck in his own ego and Norma Foley is bogged down in education bureaucracy,
Now Fianna Fáil’s hopes of showing it can fix the housing crisis are under severe scrutiny. Instead, the Celtic Tiger lesson that giving homebuyers more money just pushes the price up more is in danger of repeating itself. The country’s leading thinktank, the ESRI, says because housing supply is “so constrained” that increasing purchasing power through a shared-equity scheme would hike costs.
Officials in the Department of Public Expenditure think it would “push up prices in a supply-constrained environment, most likely at a time when prices are starting to rise anyway”, with former secretary general Robert Watt noting: “The property industry want an equity scheme because it will increase prices.”
The Central Bank is also warning of the nightmare scenario of a “damaging credit-driven house price spiral”, saying a shared-equity scheme could “impact on prices” and therefore “increasing levels of personal debt”. Still smarting from allowing the housing market to run out of control during the early 2000s, contributing heavily to the economic crash, the Central Bank now sees itself post-crash as the guardian of stability in the banking and housing sectors. It is also increasingly looking to assert itself as a protection of consumers who would fall into unmanageable debt.
It’s not the first time a flagship policy sounded good in campaign poetry but bad in the prose of reality.
Mr O’Brien has only to look to another north Dublin predecessor, Fine Gael’s James Reilly, to see a much-vaunted proposal go down in flames – and with it the credibility of the minister. Fine Gael’s universal health insurance was once going to revolutionise the health service. It never got off the ground.
Mr O’Brien’s affordable housing plan is getting a savaging at the moment and the Opposition can smell blood. Unlike Reilly’s masterplan, Mr O’Brien’s shared-equity scheme wasn’t actually concocted in opposition. This particular shared-equity scheme has emerged largely since the general election, with the specifics still being worked out. Mr Martin’s general manifesto had vague commitments around delivering 200,000 homes, including 50,000 affordable homes, within five years. “Fianna Fáil is the party that builds homes”: the ambitious boast was that the party would solve the supply and affordability issues. Supply is already being hit by Covid-19 stoppage of building.
Likewise, Mr O’Brien’s future prospects as a leadership contender are on the line. Given that most people think Mr Martin will step down as leader once his stint as Taoiseach is up, Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath and backbencher-in-chief Jim O’Callaghan are the frontrunners. Both are notably better than Mr O’Brien at engaging with the backbench TDs and Senators. McGrath listens to concerns and reverts back, Mr O’Callaghan agrees with the whinges. Mr O’Brien will have to up his game too to garner support within the party beyond Dublin.
The Housing Minister is insisting he will plough on with his plans. Mr O’Brien has less than two years to implement his policies and show they are the solution.