Fr Peter McVerry’s rapid climbdown on Wednesday marks an ending, of sorts, to a strange saga.
On Monday and Tuesday of this week, Fr McVerry was adamant that the Taoiseach had “overridden” Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien, who had wanted to extend the eviction ban. The two politicians were equally adamant that had not occurred. Suddenly, on Wednesday, the homelessness campaigner U-turned.
On Tuesday, he had doubled down when faced with two denials; on Wednesday, he said he accepted the Taoiseach’s position “as true”. Earlier in the week, he said he believed his confidential source. But on Wednesday, he said the phrase he used was “unfortunate and inaccurate”.
Strangely, Fr McVerry did not contact his source to reconfirm or check the information before rapidly shifting position. Contact did happen, however, between the Taoiseach’s office and the Peter McVerry Trust in order to, in Leo Varadkar’s words, “set out the facts as they happened and that’s all, really”. The day after this, Fr McVerry explained his stance by telling The Irish Times: “The change is I don’t want to call the Taoiseach a liar ... I will accept his word that he did not override the Minister.” Asked if he still believed his source, he said he was “backing the source but I think the word that was used is inappropriate”. Make of that what you will.
There’s no clear evidence of an overruling as the decision was moving through the decision-making process. This Government has had its share of Cabinet table bust-ups – but by and large it has tried to move policy through a supporting architecture of Cabinet subcommittees, before proposals go to the Coalition leaders for approval on the night before Cabinet.
This is the policymaking and political decision-making nexus – by the time something comes to Cabinet, the decision is pretty much made. During the preamble, we know an extension was an option, but it’s not clear that O’Brien ever argued strongly for it. While the ban was in place, he was publicly guarded about the possibility of extending it, speaking generally about his responsibility to ensure the market was functioning as a whole and the risk of landlord flight. If he wanted to extend it, it would also have made sense for him to have sought the data the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) passed to his Department on the number of tenancies being terminated: it wasn’t shown to him, and it seems he didn’t seek it. This could have shifted the debate, just as it recharged it when the Dublin Inquirer reported this data had been passed to the Department well before the call was made to lift the ban.
The backlash to the decision has been fierce, but the political assessment was that the balance sheet did not favour extension. There was strident opposition from officials; the Attorney General was wary; homelessness had gone up while it was in place; at least one party of Government, Fine Gael, was instinctively against the ban, and its backbenchers were not afraid to show it. By the time the Cabinet met to consider it, O’Brien was recommending the ban be lifted. He has not moved from this position since. Had O’Brien sought an extension with the support of his own leader and at least one of Paschal Donohoe or Michael McGrath, it would have been difficult for even the Taoiseach to overrule him. But it seems clear no such critical mass of support existed within the Coalition for extending the ban, and there’s no indication O’Brien sought to build such support.
At this stage, the main objective of all parties seems to be to draw a line under the McVerry saga, but for all sides, it has been a confusing and damaging controversy.