Peter McVerry’s eviction ban comment will linger on unproven yet politically alive

The intervention has set the Coalition firmly against the word of a priest who has been one of the most respected voices on housing and homelessness for a generation

Father Peter McVerry’s charge that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ordered the lifting of the eviction ban in the face of objections from Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien is unproven and strongly denied, but it presents the Government with a particular problem

“Living saint accuses politicians of lying,” sighed a senior Coalition source on Tuesday as Fr McVerry doubled down on the allegation first aired on Monday on South East Radio, “Media will back him and most of the public will believe him. Not much we can do.”

The remarkable intervention has set tongues wagging and the Coalition firmly against the word of a priest who has been one of the most respected and longstanding voices on housing and homelessness for a generation.

McVerry will not be drawn on his source other than to refute the supposition that quickly sprang up that O’Brien himself may have quietly briefed that he had fought the good fight, but had been overruled. “I’m not revealing the source other than to say it’s not the Minister,” McVerry told The Irish Times on Tuesday.


Not only had O’Brien, the Minister for Housing, wanted to extend the eviction ban lifted at the end of March but, in McVerry’s words, “he was overridden by the Taoiseach and that’s why there was no preparation made during the five-month ban for mitigating the effects of ending this”.

“The public will have to decide whether to believe me or the Government,” McVerry told The Irish Times on Monday. “But I think the evidence points in my direction.”

However, McVerry’s version of events has been strongly denied by both O’Brien and by the Taoiseach. “This claim is 100 per cent incorrect and without any foundation,” a spokeswoman for the Taoiseach said. A spokesman for the Department of Housing has said O’Brien firmly believes the decision to lift the ban is the correct one, and that he has said so consistently - “there is no question of him being overruled as suggested”.

The bizarre spat is not easily resolved, compounded by the fact that McVerry has doubled down. “Government have to deny it, have to present a united front. I would expect them to deny it,” he said on Monday.

From the Government’s point of view the intervention has placed a renewed focus on its decision-making in the run-up to lifting the ban.

While the decision was not taken until the end of the first week in March there had been earlier indications that it may be lifted. On February 24th the Irish Independent reported on its front page that the Coalition was set to let the ban expire, with key figures “leaning” towards allowing it to lapse. Two days before that report, there was strong opposition to continuing the ban voiced by TDs and Senators at a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party. “That was when we all knew it wasn’t going to be extended,” says a source who attended the wider meeting of Fine Gael TDs and Senators that night.

From the Government’s point of view the key series of meetings started on March 2nd, with a meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on housing. Before the meeting Fine Gael had expected that O’Brien would seek an extension of the ban with exceptions for landlords or their families moving back in. The eviction ban had always had a Fianna Fáil stamp on it, more than the other parties of Government. It was backbenchers from that party who called for one in early October, and the day after that then-taoiseach Micheál Martin made a surprise move on the fringes of an informal meeting of the European Council in Prague, confirming a reintroduction of a ban was being considered.

A paper produced for that meeting contained three options: allow the ban to expire, move to an annual winter ban on evictions, or extend it for two years with significant tax breaks for landlords to soften the blow. The idea that any extension would have to be for two years, according to sources involved in the talks, came from the Department of Housing – who said a shorter extension would simply store up more notices to quit. Two years would allow more housing to be built, but it also risked warping the market, driving landlords away and making a mockery of the “emergency” nature of the ban.

Sources were largely vague or brief in their recollections of the meeting, and slow to describe much beyond that there was an options paper, that a debate took place with all the research in front of the politicians, the officials and their advisers, and that all ultimately came to the same conclusion. Little detail from the meeting leaked into the media immediately afterwards.

“There was a sense if it was extended we are going to make it worse,” one participant said, adding that there was a “genuine discussion on the policy and politics of the decision”. If there was a row it seems possible that it took place at the March 2nd meeting, although when pushed on whether one took place at this meeting two sources said none happened.

The second key meeting was the leaders’ regular pre-Cabinet discussion on Monday, March 6th. This meeting was where the final decision was taken to lift the ban, and it focused also on mitigation measures. Immediately before the Coalition leaders made the decision there had been a broad expectation that the ban would be extended, but that morning’s papers had not discounted the possibility it would be dropped. As the day proceeded no firm indication emerged from the Government, with political journalists told not to take it as given it would be extended, before the news quickly leaked once the decision was taken.

Four sources with knowledge of these talks said after the exchanges in the run-in to the decision O’Brien’s only recommendation was that the ban be lifted. That, of course, neatly sidesteps the issue of whether that position shifted in the days and weeks previously, and if so why. But by the morning of the Cabinet meeting on March 7th, O’Brien brought a memo for his Cabinet colleagues outlining his “deep concern” that extending the ban would harm the rental market, driving down supply for tenants and frustrating landlords.

The Cabinet was also told that extending the ban could be regarded as a “serious breach of trust” by landlords, and could prompt a further exodus from the market. The Attorney General’s advice, while often invoked as a key reason for not extending the ban, seems to have been junior to policy and political concerns – the Cabinet papers outline the AG’s advice that there would be a need for “substantial evidence” if the ban was extended, but that is a truism, given the nature of the decision and the political and constitutional context for it. Senior sources said the advice was that the options were open to the Government, that they should expect to be challenged, and would have to prove in court that the common good overrode a particular landlord’s property rights – as allowed for in the part of the Constitution that governs these rights.

There were disagreements at Cabinet but they didn’t focus on the decision itself, more on whether enough had been done to help landlords and tenants. One account of Cabinet given to The Irish Times has other members trying to persuade Minister for Finance Michael McGrath and Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe to do more, and within Government there remains a view in some quarters that they may be forced to before the budget.

Polling, meanwhile, suggests the electorate is split on the decision. There has been a hit in all recent polls for Fianna Fáil, which Ministers assume is because it holds the housing brief. But the data suggest there are large camps in every party’s support, including Sinn Féin, which support the decision to end the ban. There isn’t, yet, a clear signal that the electorate is rejecting the decision en masse although the fear within Government is that the situation deteriorates over the summer on the ground and in the polls.

McVerry accepts that he cannot totally prove his case, but nonetheless is sticking to his guns. “I can’t prove what I’m saying and they can’t prove what they’re saying. It comes down to ‘I said, you said’ – unless I reveal my sources that’s where it stays,” he said on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the narrative is becoming muddied by interventions and reinterpretations, as well as theories being passed around variously blaming people in O’Brien’s circle or in the Department of Housing for the briefing to McVerry. Sinn Féin claimed on Tuesday that McVerry had said his source was at Cabinet but he told The Irish Times: “I haven’t said it was a Cabinet source,” he said, adding: “I’m not revealing my source but I haven’t said that it wasn’t a Cabinet source (either)”.

Nobody suspects the priest of lying, and equally nobody expects that he will reveal his source – leaving the whole episode in a sort of no-man’s land for controversies, simultaneously unproven and politically undead. Meanwhile, it plays on the jitters in the Coalition around housing. So long as neither party resiles from their position, the assertion, like the decision to lift the ban itself, will linger in the air.