This week demonstrated that the housing issue will continue to dog the Government for the remainder of its term of office. The chronic shortage of housing – even if it is partially eased in the coming two years, and there’s no certainty of that – will make it hard for the Coalition parties to compete for votes among the under 40s, a rather hefty chunk of the electorate to be writing off. Nobody realises this better than Sinn Féin.
If the opposition is right and there is a “tsunami” of evictions in the coming months, then the politics of this will become immediately more difficult, and possibly unmanageably so. The ending of the ban will be blamed for evictions; there is a strong chance that the Government is blundering into something it might not be able to control. Several insiders have spoken of a peculiar disconnect, a sort of fatalism, around Government on the issue. If that persists, then there are dangerous times indeed ahead for the Coalition.
There are two things to consider here. The first is the specific hames that the Government has made of ending the eviction ban; the second is the longer-term failure to get to grips with the housing crisis. Both raise questions of basic competence.
The Government has now been struggling to shore up its position since the ending of the eviction ban was suddenly – and unexpectedly – announced. There has been a mad scramble to come up with measures to mitigate the ending of the ban, culminating in basically allowing the Independents to write much of the Government’s countermotion to the Sinn Féin motion on which the Dáil voted on Wednesday. The failure to prepare all this in advance I find inexplicable.
It was evident... that housing would be the defining policy problem for the Coalition. It had massive resources, a decent Dáil majority and a full term ahead of it. Yet three years later, it has failed to convey a sense that it is getting on top of the crisis
Sure, the Government won the vote, and its working majority remains substantial. But the whole mess has resulted in a significant loss of authority for the Coalition. When you have to go cap in hand to the Independents to save your majority, that’s a not a sight that either the Independents or the voters will quickly forget.
For those reasons, and accepting the difficulty of comparing Covid to non-Covid times, this has been one of the worst few weeks in the Government’s life. And it is not going to end there. Sinn Féin’s decision to table legislation extending the ban for a vote next week is much cleverer than Labour’s clumsy motion of no confidence; it avoids the rallying effect that a no-confidence motion has on the Government benches and instead makes the Independents vote specifically against legislation to extend the evictions ban. That will be harder for them. The controversy will rumble on.
But what are we to make of the Government’s wider failure to get to grips with the housing crisis? It was evident, after all, at its inception that housing would be the defining policy problem for the Coalition. It had massive resources, a decent Dáil majority and a full term ahead of it. Yet three years later, it has failed to convey to the public a sense that it is getting on top of the crisis. The best – the very best – that you can say is that the jury is out.
Failure of will
There are, to be sure, some explanations that can be offered in mitigation. The pandemic brought construction almost to a halt. The arrival of 70,000 refugees from Ukraine requiring accommodation would have thrown any housing programme into chaos. Capacity in the building industry cannot be magicked into existence.
But it’s hard to escape the conclusion – even if it’s an interim one – that the continuing housing crisis represents a failure of perception, planning, capacity and will on the part of the Government. It did not perceive the extent of the problem and how it would develop. It did not produce a plan with enough urgency. It did not have the capacity to marshal its own resources, and it did not have the will to drive the machine of government with sufficient purpose.
Look, government is difficult. There is always a jostling for priority. You’re pulled in several directions at once. It’s hard to separate the urgent from the important. But the fact is that despite its own promises, the Coalition has not managed to elevate housing above all the other things it wants to do.
Do you think if the Government believed it could solve the housing crisis by spending a few billion euros on public housing a few years ago, it would have demurred because it thought the plan was a bit socialist?
I don’t think this is because – as some of their opponents insist – the Coalition parties are wedded to any particular ideology. The idea that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael don’t want to build social housing because they are allergic to the State’s involvement in the sector is fervently believed by many of their opponents but is contradicted by the Coalition’s willingness to massively expand the State’s influence in all sorts of areas and by its own desire to build public housing.
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[ Diarmaid Ferriter: Evictions and villainous landlords are part of what we are ]
Look at it another way: do you think if the Government believed it could solve the housing crisis by spending a few billion euros on public housing a few years ago, it would have demurred because it thought the plan was a bit socialist? The Government is desperately trying to build public housing; it has just not been very good at it.
It is true that there are reasons for this, too. Its own processes, especially at local government level, are clumsy, time-consuming and inefficient. Planning law is not designed to promote speedy delivery of projects; quite the opposite. And – we might as well admit this to ourselves – lots of people (and their political representatives) are in favour of solving the housing crisis, just not by building anything near them.
But Government retains the ultimate political tool: the power of executive action. It has been unable to use this to overcome the barriers to delivery. And it is by that yardstick – delivery – that the Coalition will ultimately be judged.