There was a time when the Irish had no problem with building stuff. We were so good at it that we sent generations of our offspring to help the British and the Americans build their cities. Now we have a crisis — we haven’t enough dwellings for our people to lay down their heads in at the end of the day.
People come here in need of shelter and work, just as our families went to other places down through the generations. But we’re so bad at building things these days that we cram new arrivals into overcrowded huts. Céad míle fáilte.
In the 1930s and 1940s — when the dwelling houses left behind by the oul’ gentry were falling down around us — we built the great Dublin estates and moved armies of people into them. Those estates were the foundation on which modern Ireland was built.
We’ve had this current housing problem for a decade, but in recent days Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are panicking. They see anger growing.
It’s not the housing crisis that’s animating the FF/FG alliance, it’s fear they’ll pay a political price for their behaviour.
Their obsession with market ideology has seriously damaged this country. They’re now frantically searching for sticking plasters to cover the wound.
Over the past decade, one Housing Minister followed another, each committed to the ideology of The Market is God, each as lippy as the next, boasting about how they were going to do the devil and all.
In turn, they shuffled off to the next point on their career curve, job undone.
You’d almost imagine we lost the knack of how to build things. Of course, that’s not the case. It’s just that these days we arrange things differently. Here’s a clue.
It’s my second-favourite quote of our first 21st century housing crisis, and it’s from one of those corporate vulture landlords. “It’s a great market,” he said. “We’ve never seen rental increases like this in any jurisdiction that we’re aware of.”
Never in the field of human commerce have so few made so much profit out of so many mugs.
But it’s worse than being ripped off. FF/FG have broken their own model of capitalism.
In recent days, growing numbers of people began to realise they’ll never be able to afford to buy a house.
Many have begun to realise they can’t afford to rent anything much bigger than a glorified wheelie bin.
A small class of ruthless greed merchants are raking in a fortune and increasing numbers of our people are living in states of desperation.
Here’s the amazing thing — there was nothing hidden.
It’s not like in the bad old days, when Fianna Fáil politicians hid their bribes in offshore accounts and Fine Gael politicians were quietly proud when developers needed a vote fixed and one of their lads demanded multiples of what the FF lads accepted.
None of that hole-and-corner stuff these days.
Over the past decade, the corporate landlords gave interviews about what they were doing. They’re the kind of people who take pride in making money — they wanted people to know how clever they are and how easy it was.
Which brings me to my Number One quote of our first 21st century housing crisis.
Meet Stephen Schwarzman, top trump at Blackstone Group, the American vulture — a chap who has made a bob or two (or a billion or two) from our problems.
After the 2008 crash and the 2010 takeover by the Troika, Ireland was a basket case, one of many in Europe. Steve told a Goldman Sachs seminar: “We’re basically waiting to see how beaten up people’s psyches get and where they’re willing to sell assets.”
That’s not my favourite quote — my favourite quote is the next line from Steve: “You want to wait until there’s really blood in the street.” Nice guy, Steve.
At that stage, we were being drained. We paid billions we didn’t owe, to bondholders who had backed the wrong horse. The Government set up Nama to handle the debts run up by overpaid bankers who knew damn all about banking.
Steve had his eye on Nama, which held a vast property portfolio. He wasn’t impressed. “They barely know what they own,” he told the Goldman Sachs seminar.
Steve brought Blackstone in, they had their way with us and they departed. Even as it was happening, in March 2016, Brid Smith of People Before Profit was telling the Dáil about it.
“What we’re witnessing is the corporatisation of landlordism in this country,” she said. “We have evidence through freedom of information that government officials met vulture funds no fewer than 65 times in 2013 and 2014.”
Taoiseach Enda Kenny met Steve, as did Minister for Finance Michael Noonan. And, yeah, Steve was impressed. “You have great leadership,” he told the Irish people.
Some folks tell me Steve’s tongue was in his left cheek when he said that, some say his right. Where the tongues of Mr Kenny and Mr Noonan were at the time is something on which I’d rather not express an opinion.
The vultures keep coming. They are organised cohorts of rich people. By acting together, their vast amounts of money apply such bullying power to the market that no one else has a chance. Ninety per cent of Nama assets were sold to US private equity funds.
The vultures came, fed off us and they’re still arriving to have their fill.
The recent upsurge in public anger resulted from a corporate vulture buying up almost a whole housing estate, robbing individuals of any chance of buying a house there.
In March 2019, a United Nations working group wrote to the Government “to express our concern with respect to your Government’s practice of adopting laws and policies which treat housing as a commodity”.
These policies “disconnected housing from its core social purpose of providing people with a place to live in with security and dignity”.
All this “has been making housing in Ireland significantly unaffordable. This is made worse by land hoarding: investors sit on vacant land to restrict supply and thus increase demand and value. In Dublin, rents have increased by 42pc in the past six years, and a person with an average salary renting the average property now has to allocate 86.3pc of their earnings on rent”.
The letter pointed out that the Housing Agency defined housing in Ireland as “moderately unaffordable”, with Dublin being described as “seriously unaffordable”.
Corporate landlords, it said, “have openly discussed policies of introducing the highest rents possible in order to increase returns for shareholders”.
The Government issued the standard rejection of such criticism — blandly repeating its shibboleths in the face of the truth.
Fianna Fáil is irrevocably wed to its “incentivise the developer” ideology. Fine Gael cannot budge from its class-based opposition to affordable housing.
It’s as though they and their highly-paid “advisers” can do nothing but repeat half-remembered phrases they picked up from a dinner party attended by a convivial economist who once, in the heyday of the Progressive Democrats, had lunch with Michael McDowell.
Neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael have enough support to govern alone. Together, they cling to office, tied to ideological positions that have failed and failed and failed again.
There are tents on the streets, children eating on the streets, despairing parents queuing at food banks, young adults living with their parents, couples putting off having families, trying to get a mortgage, the old worrying about the young, the young worrying about their future.
They’ve got us into serious trouble once more, these FF/FG class warriors of the Profits Before People Alliance — just as their predecessors got us into serious trouble in 2008.