Saturday 19 January 2019

Philip Ryan: Problems building for minister with little wiggle room

Eoghan Murphy faces a tough fight to stave off opposition critics as an election threat looms, writes Philip Ryan

Minister Eoghan Murphy. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Minister Eoghan Murphy. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

The survival of the Government weighs on the shoulders of Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy.

Murphy's handling of the housing and homelessness crisis will determine when the next general election is called.

The decisions he makes in the next 12 months, if he gets that long, will either collapse the Government or ensure its survival into 2019 and beyond.

People worry about hospital trolleys only when they are lying on one or their loved one is.

They don't hand over the majority of their income to a bank to pay for their healthcare. That is not to say our health service isn't an utter mess - because it is. People fear the purgatory of the waiting room or the hospital corridor more than they do potentially debilitating diseases.

But housing is a catch-all issue. Everyone knows someone affected by the current crisis. A family member who moved home to save for a mortgage, a young couple in negative equity, deep in debt since the financial crash, a brother struggling to pay inflated rent or a sister priced out of the market. Or even worse, a relation forced to turn to social services because they can no longer afford or find accommodation.

The housing crisis isn't seasonal. For those affected, it hurts them all day, every day. This is especially true for rough sleepers, people in emergency accommodation and families living in cramped hotel rooms.

Murphy is acutely aware of this. He talks a good game but he's getting nowhere fast. Micheal Martin knows the Government is struggling to make inroads on housing and regularly highlights it as an area of the confidence and supply agreement where he believes there has been little progress.

Sinn Fein is also very conscious of Martin's dilemma on housing. The party accuses him of propping up a Government that is failing thousands of homeless families. It says the failure of the Government to deliver affordable homes is just as much Fianna Fail's responsibility as it is Fine Gael's. And Fianna Fail can, and does, influence Government policy. There's a section on homelessness and affordable housing in the confidence and supply agreement. "Significantly increase and expedite the delivery of social housing units, remove barriers to private housing supply and initiate an affordable housing scheme," it states.

If this is happening, it's happening very slowly. Murphy is not sitting on his hands but most of the Government's housing targets have not been met. For instance, 800 new 'rapid-build' social houses were targeted last year - 76 were constructed, according to figures compiled by Fianna Fail. The repair and leasing scheme was supposed to bring another 800 homes on to the market last year - but it produced none. Murphy is expected to release some positive statistics on housing this week.

Before Christmas, Sinn Fein housing spokesman Eoin O Broin said Murphy should resign if he does not get a handle of the housing crisis.

This is the first step in the Sinn Fein playbook. First you call for a minister's resignation and then you follow it with a motion of no confidence. Last week, O Broin said Murphy was "clearly failing to get a grip on the housing crisis". He said Sinn Fein had no plans "at this stage" to table a motion of no confidence in the minister but added "that may change if he doesn't start doing things differently".

As with all these things, it is likely that any motion of no confidence will be triggered by some awful tragedy. It could be a child dying in emergency accommodation or a young mother dying on the streets after failing to find accommodation.

It will be a human story politicised for electoral gains.

In an instance like this, Fianna Fail will find it very difficult to abstain from a vote to save the Housing Minister.

Fianna Fail hopes Sinn Fein will be too busy for the next two weeks electing a new leader and fine-tuning its position on abortion to force an election. But an election might be more palatable than finding an agreed position on abortion.

And Sinn Fein does like elections. It has taken part in four in the past two years, and what better way to bed in a new leader than go to the polls?

Fianna Fail's rhetoric on housing will be significantly ramped up in the coming weeks. In the first sign of this, Fianna Fail housing spokesman Barry Cowen told the Sunday Independent he had hoped to go into the next election having proved that Fianna Fail put the country first on housing and worked with Fine Gael but he now believes this will not happen. He said Fianna Fail housing policy "should not now only be seen as genuine offers of solutions to Government woes" but rather be "interpreted as alternatives", adding: "They must be considered in the context of Fianna Fail doing things differently, with a sense of urgency and the necessary zeal and desire." It's clearly fighting talk from Cowen who is frustrated with the lack of progress. Murphy will also fight on but it is becoming increasingly inevitable that no matter what he achieves, Fianna Fail will force an election over his handling of the housing brief.

Sunday Independent

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