CORK, Ireland — At 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday, college student Conor Reddy was sitting in the hallowed halls of Dublin’s Trinity College, at a meeting of the university’s housing rights activist group, discussing ways it could tackle Ireland’s worsening housing crisis.
Not even 30 minutes later, Reddy was lying face-down on the ground outside one of the capital’s 20,000 vacant properties with four policemen wearing balaclavas on top of him. One policeman rammed his knee into the back of the Reddy’s skull.
“Within two seconds of being on the road, four of them were on top of me,” Reddy told VICE News. “They pulled me over to the other side of the road, then pulled me behind the van. I got kneed, elbowed, and what felt like a whack of a baton.”
Reddy was taken to a police station before being released without charge a couple of hours later. After walking down the steps of the police station — where about 100 protestors had gathered — the student bent over and vomited.
He eventually went to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a concussion and injuries to his neck. Three other protesters were also hospitalized.
The images of masked policemen forcibly evicting 10 protestors has sparked outrage in Ireland and could prove a tipping point in a crisis that has been brewing for decades.
Ireland is Europe’s fastest growing economy boosted by the presence of tech giants like Apple, Facebook and Google, as well as a booming pharmaceutical industry. But this masks a shocking reality where one in ten children live in consistent poverty and almost 4,000 children are without a permanent home. Experts say government failure to build enough housing has caused the current crisis, and these tech companies have exacerbated the problem by driving up the cost of living — and failing to pay their fair share in tax.
The 23-year-old Reddy found himself face-down on the tarmac after answering a text message from a member of Take Back the City, a group of young, highly-politicized and organized protesters, who were occupying the vacant building for the past month to highlight one possible solution to the housing crisis.
Reddy arrived just after a gang of masked private security officers in an unmarked van had used a sledgehammer and angle grinders to break into a property to evict those inside. Reddy and his fellow activists responded by using a tried-and-tested method of civil disobedience: sitting on the road.
“[The protestors] are trying to counter a failure of housing policy with large-scale demonstrations, and the result of that is goons in balaclavas being guarded by police in balaclavas, which is extraordinary,” Stephen Kinsella, an economics professor at the University of Limerick, told VICE News.
A police spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about Reddy’s injuries, but told VICE News that anyone with a complaint should report the matter to the police or the independent police ombudsman.
“This is not Airbnb's fault, this is not Google's fault. They are not helping the system but the truth is that there is 30 years of housing policy behind the current collapse,” Kinsella said.
Rather than blame the tech industry for Ireland's surging house prices, Kinsella says the fault lies much deeper, with successive governments’ decisions to privatize the house sector over the course of the last two decades. This approach failed disastrously after the economic crash when the developers who were meant to build this generation’s housing were strapped with crippling debt, owning cumulative billions to the banks and the government.
Those same developers are now so risk-averse that they are still reticent to go ahead with large-scale developments.
While this is having an impact across the country, the problem is worst in Dublin and protestors are now demanding action. Tuesday’s incident may be a tipping point as large groups of disaffected and highly-politicized young people are planning to continue to show their anger by occupying some of the vacant private properties across the city in the coming weeks.
“Hoarding vacant property during a property crisis is very much like hoarding food during a famine, it should not be allowed, it is not acceptable morally or ethically,” Eoin Ó Broin, a Sinn Fein lawmaker from Dublin, told VICE News.
The result is that in Ireland today almost 10,000 people are classed as homeless, while younger people looking to get on the property ladder are facing a bleak future.
“We are the locked-out generation. We look at our futures and we see no hope really. We see low wages, we see these rents that are unaffordable, we see home ownership as a complete impossibility,” Reddy said.
Ireland in the last two decades has become known as the international home of the world’s biggest companies, with everyone from Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon establishing headquarters here.
Ireland’s educated, English-speaking population paired with easy access to the European Union are part of the attraction, but for these companies, the ultra-low 12 percent corporation tax rate is the real allure of the Emerald Isle.
While the tech companies cannot be blamed for government mismanagement of the housing stock, the companies’ perceived avoidance of paying their fair share, has led to a significant backlash.
"The cost of these companies paying no tax is that we have a huge crisis in the provision of public housing,” Richard Boyd Barrett, a lawmaker with the People Before Profit party, told VICE News. “The giant corporations are not making a fair contribution to society that sustains them and makes all that profit for them."
This is not unique to Ireland of course. An influx of tech companies has seen the cost of living in San Francisco and Northern California soar, while people are living in their cars, or sleeping in their cars in order to drive Ubers for those same techies.
In 19th century Dublin, it was Guinness who was the major employer in the city, but they took a different approach to social responsibility, building affordable housing for their workers, as well as providing amenities like parks and swimming pools.
"Guinness understood they had to make a contribution to sustain the working people in some kind of civilized existence in order to make their business function,’ Boyd Barrett said. “Whereas Google and Facebook are making enormous profits but don't think they have to make any contribution to the infrastructure of the societies where they are making all these profits.”
Cover image: People take part in a sit down protest in O'Connell Street, Dublin following an eviction from a house at 34 North Frederick St in Dublin's city centre. (Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images)