Photo: Henry George
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
CONTENT WARNING: Suicide ideation, description of suicide, for help call National Suicide Helpline (Pieta House) 1800 247 247.
Last summer, in Dublin’s Gardiner Street, I attended the screening of a new film about the Irish housing crisis. Producer Ingrid Casey told me the Repeal the 8th campaign had been instructive to her work saying “we need to make housing cool;” referring to efforts by campaigners and advertisers to engage the public. Language – the design company which also worked on the marriage equality campaign – framed the messaging on repeal as being about “care, compassion and change”. Both campaigns sought to deliver positive messages in thoughtfully matched, muted colours and elegant, san-serif fonts. They built on popular sentiments around personal identity, equality for women and parity of esteem.
I spent months thinking about what Ingrid said, wondering if the issues were even comparable. The Government was not ideologically committed to a ban on abortion but it is, expressly, to the private market in housing. Arguably more now than before, after the collapse of housing as an asset class during the GFC (global financial crisis). I was also unsure whether the progressive forces galvanised by reproductive rights and marriage equality could get excited about an issue that was so multi-faceted. Neither campaign required a change in the economic management of Ireland; a protected right to housing for each citizen surely would.
Despite this, if the right to housing were presented as a binary choice the matter would be settled. In 2014 a Constitutional Convention voted overwhelmingly to enshrine the right in the State’s principal legal document. Recent polling suggests that 82% of people in Ireland believe that it should be in the Constitution. A similar right to housing and shelter exists too in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Ireland has been a signatory for 70 years.
So, why is it so hard to agree on a guarantee against homelessness in Ireland? In September 2017, the Government defeated a bill, belatedly put before the Dáil by legislature member Richard Boyd-Barrett TD that would have acted on the instructions of the convention; enshrining the right to housing in the Constitution. Boyd-Barrett called the Government vote, taken with their coalition partners in Fianna Fáil, “strange and disgraceful”. He recalled a conversation with An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who said, “[he did] not believe that everyone should be housed for free”.
The difference is stark in contrast with the level of support in the two main political parties for a repeal vote, or the bill to amend the Constitution to allow same-sex marriage which passed without a division in the Dáil. The right to an abortion has also long been enshrined in Britain, our nearest neighbour and progenitor for much of our law, along with same-sex marriage in 2014. However despite world-renowned experiments in public housing provision, beginning with Arnold Circus in Shoreditch, in 1896, the right to housing in both states remains an aspiration.
To wage this campaign, to guarantee a right to housing, there are questions to be addressed concerning economic management; urban design; a sense of place and culture and a torturous history with the land. The crisis is often framed as a result of “irrational exuberance” during the Celtic Tiger years, but his fails to acknowledge the seemingly irresistible forces that return so many of us to penury or to consider emigration. Our membership of the European single currency and the “shadow banking” system has had a marked impact on our political culture since Charles Haughey renovated the empty docks beside the Customs House in the 1980s. This portended Ireland’s role as a tax haven and satellite of the City of London, the largest financial services centre in the world.
Unable to devalue our currency, we instead devalue wages and prices. This is painful for any society to do and has changed the relations of production in Ireland. In a different era, devaluations of this kind were instructive to the abandonment of the gold standard in the 1970s, which the European Union has brought back in miniature.
The seeming permanence of the built environment is like an immortal presence which shapes our lives but, as we navigate its many spaces, the runny layers of social relations are on the move. The symbolism of the built environment is replete with messages about the place we occupy in society, and our relationship to those spaces. The town centres built in the Georgian era were an advertisement for enlightened colonial rule. What followed in the late 20th century was designed to be modern, rational and a break with the past. The significance of this idealism pales next to the fact that space in Ireland has been a commodity for centuries; traded by the rentier who, made famous by the protest movements of the 19th century, is now rebranded as an asset manager or a hedge fund. In the contest for space, a citizen of the Republic can measure their right to live in Ireland against their wealth. In short, while the Irish may have an equal right to live they do not have an equal right to live in Ireland.
There is no alternative
At a party in London in the spring of 1882, San Francisco journalist Henry George was introduced to the English philosopher Herbert Spencer. Though he was angling to meet Alfred Tennyson, or the playwright Robert Browning, the prospect of meeting Spencer gave him ‘real pleasure’. George’s book Progress and Poverty - a treatise on inequality, the cyclic nature of industrialised economies, and the use of the land value tax as a remedy - was published to acclaim three years before and made use of Spencer’s arguments against the private ownership of land, which he had made three decades earlier.
Spencer was by then the most famous intellectual of his day, credited with coining the phrase “survival of the fittest” and “there is no alternative” or TINA - in defence of free markets - a favourite refrain of Margaret Thatcher. He must have already known the answer when he asked the younger George - who had written a defence of the Irish Land League a year before - for his opinion of the rent strike taking place in Ireland. George believed Spencer shared his views, and expressed his support for the protesters - who by then had been imprisoned - at which point, “Spencer burst into vehement dissent”:
“They have got only what they deserve”, said Spencer. “They are inciting the people to refuse to pay to their landlords what is rightfully theirs—rent.” This speech and the manner of its delivery so differed from what was expected of the man who in Social Statics wrote, “equity does not permit property in land,” that Mr. George was first astonished and then disgusted at this flat denial of principle. “It is evident that we cannot agree on this matter,” was all that he could say, and he abruptly left Mr. Spencer.”
That bad-tempered encounter in the rarefied atmosphere of a London salon became more than a quibble over solutions, namely Spencer’s proposed land nationalisation, or George’s “single tax”. In competing polemics over the years, the elder man accused George of believing the “the individual has no rights”. In response George said Spencer was guilty of “intellectual prostitution,” and that he had been compromised by “an anxiety for honours”.
Progress and Poverty inspired land reform movements across the English-speaking world and George’s pamphlet The Irish Land Question was explicitly intended as “an appeal to the Land Leagues”. While Henry George did not support the seizure of private land in Ireland, he saw “the tendency to concentration” of ownership and the primacy of the rights of landlords as a denial of a right “to the elements necessary to the maintaining of life”:
“Since … all the Irish people have the same equal right to [live] … if they are all in Ireland by the same permission of Nature; so that all the rest of them could not justly say to any one of them, “You have not the same right to live as we have; therefore we will pitch you out of Ireland into the sea!”
As individuals, we bring assumptions to bear on the issue of housing that are grounded in an emotive view of history. As a people, our tortured relationship with the land has left us feeling that once we have a freehold, our rights should be as unrestricted our former oppressors. “Perhaps it's a lingering aftermath of 800 years of British oppression and colonialism,” says Dr Vittorio Bufacchi, a philosophy professor at University College Cork, “but Ireland has a profoundly unhealthy understanding of private property, [thinking of it] as our private fiefdom.” Any interference by third parties, including the state, is perceived as the essence of social injustice. He says this gives “too much power to wealthy individuals and financial institutions.”
The Irish state, in aping its colonial predecessor, has failed us. The fact of the state's inability to house its citizens and – though it long ago industrialised – the persistence of mass emigration suggest deep structural problems.
Dublin has had a “strong tradition of devastating housing outcomes” for at least the last three centuries. The same researchers who discovered this also found - having trawled through 20,000 records –that large increases in property values are a recent phenomenon; a finding consistent with similar studies in other states. The current crisis in housing owes as much to this recent extraordinary period of land speculation – by the state as well as investors - as it does to the collapse in house-building and an ideological retreat from the concept of social housing. Rampant income inequality which afflicts the Irish more than almost any other people in the European Union, disguises the gravity of the crisis for those who can afford to participate in the private market.
Goodbody’s Chief Economist Dermot O’Leary suggested housing shortages would continue for most income earners, even if supply were to double. As foreign capital competes for sites with local buyers, spiralling building costs and booming land prices per unit have pushed the average price across the country to €237,000. Using Revenue statistics, he calculated that roughly half of wage earners could only afford a mortgage of €175,000 under current lending rules. In Dublin last year, more than half of new homes were sold for more than that figure with one in five sold at over €500,000, with asking prices in the city going up by €1,000 a month on average.
A dearth of social housing, a market afflicted by the inherent instability of boom-and-bust development, and a squeezed rental sector have conspired to create a high-stakes game where much can go wrong, and at great personal cost. For the residents of the notorious development at Priory Hall some have paid the highest price.
On a Monday morning in 2013, following a balmy and humid weekend in July, Stephanie Meehan woke up in her young son’s bed. She had got up to comfort him during the night, having left her partner - Fiachra Daly - downstairs watching television. She went into her daughter’s room to open the curtains, when she peered through the window at Fiachra’s van, still parked outside. She called to him, saying he was late for work but received no answer. Entering the bedroom the couple shared, she found the father of her two children suspended from a tie; cold to the touch.
Fiachra and his young family had been residents of the complex, which was built in 2007 by former IRA hunger-striker Tom McFeely. The large complex had been condemned by fire inspectors and evacuated by court order two years earlier. They had been in a limbo for all of that time, moving constantly; their mortgage still accruing interest.
Asked two months later why Fiachra took his life, Stephanie said:
“We [had] a court case coming up in October which I know Fiachra was very concerned about. It would have been our fifth time as a young family, or a young couple with two very young children … to have to move, and we were pretty certain that would be the case in October. We had gotten numerous letters from KBC regarding our moratorium and the interest that was building up on it. The final letter we got … before Fiachra passed away really upset him.”
French sociologist Emile Durkheim, writing in his ground-breaking work Le Suicide – still in use in contemporary literature - observed a strong link between social and economic disruption and people taking their own lives. For “in anomic suicide,” he wrote, “society’s influence is lacking in the basically individual passions thus leaving them without a check-rein.” In a world without rules that make sense, Durkheim argued, “there is no restraint upon aspirations,” making possible what seemed before to be inconceivable.
When, in 1897, Durkheim looked at the statistics on suicide in Europe over the course of the previous century, he saw a massive increase that coincided with the shift to a modern, industrialised society. Durkheim showed that traditional societies, like those of feudal Europe, were highly socially integrated. The dramatic changes in the economy, the decreasing importance of religion and other traditional ways of thinking had resulted in a smaller, weaker common consciousness and a less intense communal life.
Durkheim concluded that this economic anomie - or ‘normlessness’ - resulted in an increased suicide rate. Though suicide had been viewed as a personal act, Durkheim showed that the sentiments felt by the suicidal person did not form in a vacuum. Society was their crucible; its changing nature stressing the social bonds on which the individual depends to the point of breaking.
Just days after the news of Fiachra’s suicide sparked a national outcry, Stephanie’s mortgage lender KBC - the bank recently implicated in a well-publicised eviction near Strokestown - sent a letter indicating that she still owed nearly €17,000 in arrears, even after Fiachra's life insurance had paid the remaining balance.
Over the course of two years Priory Hall residents had asked for a meeting with An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and the Minister for the Environment, but to no avail. Though he had made public statements on the future of the complex, Mr Kenny had refused to meet a representative of the residents, citing the upcoming Supreme Court case.
First as tragedy
The Irish state, since its conception, never lost sight of the value of the land under its control. Through the Land Commission the ruling party bought land and subdivided it into parcels, often for local political advantage. It was the inheritor of some 250,000 ground rents. The clientelism inherent in its efforts was the prologue to the rigged system of today. Ireland’s greatest export has not been beef, or even pharmaceuticals; it has been rent. Within Ireland it has been both necessary and possible to co-opt the leadership in this endeavour, not unlike other colonised societies.
"History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes," goes an apocryphal quote attributed to the American writer Mark Twain. A forceful eviction at a farm near Strokestown, Co. Roscommon - at the end of last year - rocked the country, with one commentator describing the events as “the most shameful incident since Black Jack Adair’s scourge of evicting tenants from his acquired lands on Donegal’s Derryveigh estate in April 1861”. The property was repossessed over unpaid debts to KBC bank.
The bank had instructed a security firm based in Northern Ireland to forcibly remove two elderly brothers and their sister. At least one family member suffered injuries as members of the police force looked on. A few days later, in excess of 70 people stormed the farm in the early hours of the morning. Eight were injured and four vehicles were set alight.
One of the security personnel was later revealed to be 49-year-old debt collector Ian Gordon; a former British soldier.
The McGanns - who were eventually returned to their property - condemned "all forms of violence" and said they wanted to see the rule of law upheld, calling the events "deeply distressing”. In a statement later made by their former neighbour Sinn Féin MEP Matt Carthy, the family criticised An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for his subsequent comments in the Dáil describing them as "a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from … the very serious issues relating to [their] eviction".
During Leaders’ Questions Mr Varadkar had queried what he regarded as Sinn Féin member Pearse Doherty’s reticence to condemn the attack on the security personnel, saying ”it doesn't take long for your balaclava to slip.”
During that session Strokestown-based Fianna Fáil TD Eugene Murphy appealed for calm saying “we have to condemn all violence … but [that] this started with the eviction.” Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan tried to point out the difference between a security firm with a court order and a vigilante group, but was warned by Sinn Féin TDs “that’s just the start of it”. They went on to call for legislation that “protects people, not banks”. The incident became highly symbolic and continued to garner headlines for many days.
The events at Strokestown were an echo from our history, and a warning. The dynamic of coercion and reaction, framed by violence, is a familiar story which, in its re-enactment inflames passions but solves nothing.
Why we can't wait
Martin Luther King, writing in 1963 about his non-violent campaign for racial equality in Birmingham, Alabama, spoke of “non-violence [as] a powerful and just weapon … a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the [person] who wields it.” The success of the campaign King describes in Why We Can’t Wait was made possible by embracing non-violent cooperation and acknowledging that “often opposition comes not only from the conservatives, who cling to tradition, but also from the extremist militants, who favour neither the old, nor the new.”
The past is not a different country and we are not bound to it. It is the same country and we can do things differently, but it is not enough to repudiate the vigilantism of Strokestown - and our history of violent reaction - without addressing the structural violence of the Irish state and its institutions. The scale of the crisis we face is not limited to the homeless, but the vast number at risk of homelessness.
The crisis which has left ten-thousand of our citizens without a home, requires us to stage a showdown with the rentier who - in this latest iteration - has found new ways to extract resources; using the protection of the state to make a few wealthy by exploiting and displacing the rest.
Today’s crisis is a crisis of social relations which has many faces. It is in our relationship with Europe and our role in international finance, both of which facilitate the tide of capital flowing out of the country since 2008. The bailout which followed revealed the architecture of the crisis, but its foundations were built a long time ago.
The ideas that dominate our thinking about land and rights are so old the names of their authors have receded from memory. In piecing together that fragmented history we can see that the “mistakes of the past” are not artefacts of a different era, but a centuries-old problem repackaged for our times.