Ireland's latest economic boom – dubbed the Celtic Phoenix – has seen a surge in popularity for the country’s centre/right government. The country is headed back to the economic powerhouse of the Celtic Tiger days, this time with bright young politicians in expensive pressed suits representing the new generation of Ireland Inc.
But the feel-good factor took a hit last week when cops in balaclavas flanked private security thugs, also in balaclavas, as they forcibly evicted a group of activists occupying a vacant building in Dublin’s city centre.
The activists were part of a large network of organisations who are occupying vacant buildings across the capital to highlight Ireland’s on-going housing crises. Images of masked Irish police circulated throughout social media provoking a huge public backlash. It didn’t help that a wonderful piece of Irish eviction revenge porn, Black 47, is exploding across Irish cinemas evoking memories of Ireland’s tragic past under the boot of the British Empire.
The public backlash against the police was robust. Mammies in the countryside were shocked, workers locked out of mortgages were enraged and the activists were vindicated, dragging housing back into the public discourse.
Not that it was ever very far away. Dublin has been ranked the most expensive city in the Eurozone for expats in an annual survey by HR consultancy firm, Mercer. Rising rents, lack of public housing and inflated house prices have lead to a deluge of homelessness and people locked in miserable living conditions. Rents in the capital are out of control, forcing workers to hand over half their salary to greedy unregulated landlords cheered on by government politicians – many of whom are also greedy unregulated landlords. Left wing TD (MP) Ruth Coppinger claims the fact that one in five Irish politicians are landlords means there is little political interest in solving the country’s housing crisis.
“The excuses that the government gives is, ‘Oh, it's very complex,’ when actually it's not,” she explains. “We have the money and we have the land so you'd have to conclude that Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour prefer to prioritise landlords, shovelling millions of euros of taxpayer funds their way. The HAP rent scheme is a direct example of this. We have a Dáil packed full of landlords who seem to be happy to represent the rich and elite and to further enrich them.”
Coppinger has a point. Instead of building social housing the government embarked on a disastrous plan to outsource the need for housing to the private sector. The HAP (Housing Assistance Payment) scheme meant the state would rent housing from private landlords, further encroaching on the country’s overstretched private rental sector. The state also hands over millions of taxpayers euros to hotels housing Ireland’s growing homeless population. Every week images of women stare at us from tabloid newspapers as another mother is quizzed on "the feeling of homelessness" while kids sit awkwardly for photos in cramped hotel rooms.
Minister for Housing, 36-year-old Eoin Murphy is part of the ruling party's "posh" problem. Despite the relative youth of leading Fine Gael politicians – Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is only 39 – they are far removed from the country's millennials struggling to recover from lost years of austerity.
A recent attempt by Murphy to alleviate the housing shortage backfired horrendously and highlighted the gulf between the government and Ireland’s frustrated youth. The minister proudly announced they would be building 3,000 homes on eight sites in Dublin. Just 30 percent of these homes would be deemed “affordable”, but at €320,000 per unit they are well above most workers’ salaries with an income of €82,000 required to secure a mortgage. Once again the government’s view of affordable veered wildly from that of the average Irish millennial.
There are now almost 10,000 people homeless in Ireland – a staggering amount given the country’s small population. But how did one of the wealthiest countries in Europe end up in such a mess? That depends on who you talk to, Dublin City Councillor Mick O’Brien says EU spending regulations means Ireland cannot use its reserves to build public housing. He says Ireland must declare a national emergency order to get Brussels to relax its grip on Ireland’s finances.
"If the government declared a housing emergency to the EU it would be similar to what happens in other countries when natural disasters happen. But that would be a loss of face to this government who are happy to have the market, landlords, decide our future,” he said.
While the government frantically reaches for half-assed answers, Ireland’s politicised millennials have started to mobilise. The current wave of occupations and protests across Dublin is the culmination of years of political organisation. Activists from the country’s abortion and marriage equality movement have bolstered the country’s burgeoning housing movement. Parliament’s inaction is being answered with occupations and marches.
Veteran housing activist Seamus Farrell was one of the occupiers pulled away by police in balaclavas. He says Ireland is waking up to mismanagement of public property and funds by the current government.
"Public support has been built over months of occupation and direct action in Dublin. There's near universal support because the crisis has gotten so bad. Our demands are to reduce rent and have public land for public housing and we want the council to put CPOs (Compulsory Purchase Order) on properties. We got so violently evicted by private security and the police that's it's created a massive shock response for most people,” he said.
Eoin Murphy had promised to meet the activists occupying Dublin’s vacant buildings but that meeting has yet to happen. Meanwhile, workshops teaching activists how to occupy vacant buildings have started to spring up as renters struggle under the hammer of greedy landlords and a dispassionate political class.
One thing is certain, Ireland’s millennials are a determined lot, well versed in the language of activism. As Coppinger points out: “It interesting to see the Repeal and Yes jackets worn by demonstrators – clothing they would have worn out canvassing [for the abortion referendum]. There's been a huge politicisation of young people in Ireland but what has been offered to them? No future, precarious jobs, less stable conditions than their parents and grandparents and now the housing crisis hitting them. They’ve been dealt a bad hand by this country.”