Pat Leahy: Ending the eviction ban could be this Government’s worst mistake

Stories of families being evicted would not just be outrageous, but have the potential to destroy the coalition

It seems like a million years ago now, but back in the bad old days of the bailout, the then government had only a limited say in the budgetary and fiscal policies it was implementing.

The Troika, comprised of the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, having provided the loans the country couldn’t get anywhere else but needed to keep the lights on, pay pensions, social welfare, public sector workers, etc, required adherence to a detailed bailout programme. The government would sometimes seek changes and tweaks but, especially in the early days when it was still establishing its credibility with the gnomes of Frankfurt and Brussels, the wriggle room was minimal. Even then, however, they knew the dangers of evictions.

The Troika wanted banks to clean up their loan books and take possession of homes where the mortgages were hopelessly in default. It was the only way, they argued, to get the banks off life support and get the property market restarted on a realistic footing. Irish officials, however, could see the danger, fearing it would damage not just their government but the legitimacy of the whole bailout operation.

One of the participants told me that officials gave the Troika a forceful “lecture about Irish history” and the inadvisability of being seen to be responsible for a wave of evictions. The Troika accepted the advice.


While there is clearly a strong argument to end the ban, it is politically reckless not to have prepared the ground beforehand

There is a strong chance that lifting the moratorium on evictions this week could turn out to be one of the most serious mistakes this Government makes.

While there is clearly a strong argument to end the ban in order to keep as many landlords as possible in the market, it is politically reckless not to have either prepared the ground beforehand, or else to announce the end of the ban in three months’ time and give that time and space to put in the place the mitigations and protections for tenants that the Government hastily announced this week.

Because, as Jack Horgan-Jones reported in detail on Thursday, many of the mitigations will not come into effective operation for months. The first refusal policy – enabling tenants to buy homes the landlord wishes to sell – will need legislation that hasn’t been written yet, not to mind tabled in the Dáil.

The “backstop”, whereby a local authority or approved housing body will buy the home to keep the tenant in place, is just an iteration of the “tenant in situ” schemes that are supposed to have been operating already – but have actually bought only a handful of homes. Tax changes might (or might not) be introduced in the budget next October.

Ministers also promised there would be more social housing units acquired by giving local authorities increased targets. And – of course – the Government will seek to “boost supply”. Hands up if any of this sounds familiar.

You may be sure that some – and possibly many – tenants will simply refuse to move; if the alternative was your car, wouldn’t you?

Unlike the mitigation measures, the end of the moratorium is clear: April 1st. If the Opposition is right and – in the words of new Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns this week – there is a “tsunami” of evictions coming, then this has the potential to sap the political and moral credibility of the Government.

Stories of families being evicted and with – in at least some cases – no emergency accommodation available would not just be outrageous in themselves, but have the potential to destroy the Government. You may be sure that some – and possibly many – tenants will simply refuse to move; if the alternative was your car, wouldn’t you? A rental owner contacts me to point out that this could mean another two years waiting for an eviction notice. I doubt that will please the landlords. And when the forced evictions inevitably come, what are ministers going to say when people are thrown onto the streets by private security men as the gardaí look on? The message this policy sends to a generation that feels locked out of home ownership is pretty much: you’re on your own.

The Government is sometimes criticised for failing to take difficult and unpopular choices that are in the long-term interest of the country. Certainly this week it didn’t take the easy option. But just because something is the hard option, doesn’t mean it’s the right one.

I try to be appropriately sceptical rather than hopelessly cynical about the ability of government in the widest sense to deliver projects quickly. But it’s getting harder. Housing construction is too slow. The Government insists that money is not the issue in fixing the housing crisis. But if it isn’t, then what is being done to effectively accelerate delivery? Often, the Government and its many agencies seem completely unable to work the levers of power to get practical things done. It’s a complaint you hear everywhere: why can’t they just get on with it?

Allow me the indulgence of a local example. Every morning, I gauge the glacial progress of a project to build elaborate new cycle lanes on a route towards the city centre. Incidentally, this is on a road where there were already cycle lanes. Nearby routes that still require lanes have been ignored.

Works started last Easter. A few hundred yards have been (badly) constructed on either side of the road. (The project is well known to the Minister for Transport, as he cycles past it every day on the Clonskeagh Road.) That has taken nearly a year and counting.

In much the same timeframe, a private developer has lashed up a 12-storey building in Donnybrook. Buy-to-let apartments, of course.

The contrast strikes me as a metaphor for the Government’s inability to do important things quickly enough. If that persists, especially in housing, the Government will be judged a failure on the most important social issue it faces. The political consequences of that will be severe, and they should be.