Has Sinn Féin’s advantage on housing hit a speed bump?

Party leader Mary Lou McDonald confirmed that she would seek to bring down house prices if Sinn Féin was in Government after the next election

In the final week of the Dáil term before Christmas, after its no-confidence motion in Minister for Justice Helen McEntee had backfired somewhat, Sinn Féin sought to return the political focus to housing.

Faltering on law and order, the party sought out the housing issue as its safe space, its comfortable, familiar, profitable ground. At every juncture, its spokespersons raised housing and the party forced a Dáil vote on legislation to ban evictions. The move demonstrated Sinn Féin’s belief in its own strength on housing.

But as an election hovers into the middle distance, Sinn Féin is learning that being a government-in-waiting – as it styles itself – brings with it scrutiny and challenge that can sometimes be uncomfortable.

This week, in an interview with The Irish Times, party leader Mary Lou McDonald confirmed that she would seek to bring down house prices if Sinn Féin was in Government after the next election. The objective, she said, would be to “get prices as low as we feasibly can”.


She dismissed suggestions that seeking a slump in home values was politically dangerous, saying, “the far greater political danger is that we have still an entire generation for whom home ownership is a dim and distant fantasy”.

Asked how low she would like to see prices go, McDonald said: “I mean, for us, the figure of affordability, I would say the €300,000 mark in a place like Dublin, but obviously there would be a regional variation on that.”

Figures from the Central Statistics Office suggest that the average house price in Dublin is about €430,000 at present.

McDonald’s comments did not signal any change in party policy, which has for some time proposed a series of measures that would seek to moderate house prices with the intention of making them more affordable. But the clear statement of the party’s intention to see a drop in the value of the homes owned by hundreds of thousands of voters alarmed many. And gave an opening for the party’s political opponents, which they quickly seized.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar used his Christmas briefing with political correspondents the next day to warn McDonald that as “the potential next Taoiseach”, her words mattered and she was making it more difficult for people to get mortgages.

“That would have significant consequences,” Mr Varadkar told political correspondents at a briefing in Government Buildings. “It would put a lot of people into negative equity... and it would also send a message to the banks – because if banks and lenders hear that the potential next Taoiseach wants house prices to fall by that much, they will think twice about issuing mortgages to people against assets that are going to be worth less.

“People are really listening to what she says now – bankers, lawyers, financiers, investors, and if the message she sends out to lenders is that if you issue a mortgage to somebody I’m going to try and make the collateral to that worth less, the message then is, issue fewer mortgages and put up interest rates,” he said.

How exactly is she going to deliver €300,000 homes, John Cummins, a Fine Gael senator, demanded to know.

Actually, Sinn Féin has fairly comprehensive plans in preparation about bringing down house prices. It will scale up public house building, it says, and implement a series of measures to cut costs for developers, including providing serviced land, cheap finance and accelerate the planning process. It would also abolish demand-side supports like the help-to-buy scheme and shared equity loans.

All this, it says, would bring down housing costs, and therefore house prices, making them more affordable.

An altogether thornier question is how the politics of this works, and whether Sinn Féin’s huge political advantage on the housing issue has hit a bit of a speed bump.

There are about 1.8 million permanent private households in the country; over 1.2 million are owned by their occupier, either outright or with a mortgage. Very likely many of these householders agree – as some polling suggests – that house prices need to fall. But not all of them, probably. And of those who do, you can imagine some residual nervousness when Sinn Féin talks of its determination to bring down the value of their principal asset.

People’s attitudes to housing are not always consistent. For example, they want to see more houses built and the housing crisis solved. But they might not want huge housing developments built near them, as the multifarious objections to housing developments everywhere demonstrate. Sometimes politicians have managed to effortlessly straddle the gap between berating the Government for its failure to build more houses, and objecting to individual housing developments. There is not much evidence that voters are averse to this apparent contradiction; many of them share it themselves.

So wanting house prices in general to come down, but at the same time being alarmed at plans to bring down the price of your own house – this may well be the private position of many voters.

How all this plays out politically is difficult to predict. We do know that the spectre of house price slumps has often been weaponized by the Tory press in the UK against Labour. Ireland’s politics works differently to British politics, for sure. But this week has brought a new consideration to the housing debate that is unlikely to go away. The game has changed a little.

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