Fergus Finlay: Simon, fixing the housing crisis is the only way to erode bitterness

view original post

Dear Simon, I said last week I’d write to you so here it is. I really wanted to focus on one issue, because it is the issue that informs everything else right now. That’s the issue of housing, Ireland’s great failure.

But you’re probably preoccupied with the local and European elections because they’re just around the corner. And I have a terrible fear that hate is going to play a significant part in those elections.

Back in the day, I would have been one of the people advising party leaders about what to expect and how to approach any election campaign. I’d have had science at my disposal then, all the latest polling data. I don’t now. Just instinct and forty years of experience.

I always figured it was my job to be honest. So there’s the hard news. You’re in for a hiding. Oddly enough, it may not be as bad as if Leo was still in charge. The fact that you’re a new face and that you’re very good on the telly will help a bit.

But there is no-one — no-one anywhere in Ireland — who is feeling enthusiastic about your government. I have yet to meet a sinner other than your own activists who are dying to go out and vote for any of you.

In the last local elections, Fianna Fáil picked up 12 seats. You nearly passed out their total with a gain of 20 seats (and without the Maria Bailey and the swing fiasco — remember that?) you’d have done even better. The Greens quadrupled their representation at local level. Sinn Féin took a bit of a beating in that election. Questions were asked in the aftermath about Mary Lou’s leadership ability.

All of that will be turned on its head this time. All of the government parties will lose seats in this election, buckets of them. Sinn Féin will defy current polls and clean up, especially in the cities. 

The smaller established parties — my own included — will struggle to find relevance and a voice.

That may not be fair. When history is written, it may well find that the political parties who led Ireland out of the two biggest crises we have ever faced — apart from paramilitary violence — have performed magnificently well. It’s only sixteen years since the banks crashed, and twelve years since a government fell apart in disgrace and foreign civil servants took over the running of the country. We’re now one of the richest countries in the world.

It’s only four years since covid arrived, and Ireland managed to achieve one of the lowest excess death rates in the world, and despite troubles came through it better than most. And our economy is even stronger now.

But there’s a bitterness out there. I live in fear that it will become an ingrained meanness. We’ve become angry, especially about immigration. 

Actually not about immigration, because we depend utterly on immigrants to run huge swathes of our public services. I’ve spent a lot of hours in the Dental Hospital in Dublin over the last few months (don’t ask) and indeed in other hospitals, and I’ve met doctors and nurses, porters and ward orderlies — every one more brilliant than the last — from every country in the world.

No, it’s not immigration that bothers us, but the fear of immigration. Foreign accents, different skin colours. We don’t actually know an immigrant who has forced us out of our houses, or jumped the queue ahead of us in the health clinic, but we’re being told every day that it’s happening. 

That bitterness, that meanness, has found a loud voice on social media, and it will find a dark and stealthy one in the local elections.

Fear and loathing

Over the weekend, for example, one of the better-known activists on X posted footage he (or maybe one of his acolytes) had taken at Powerscourt Waterfall. He described it as “shocking” and asked his nearly 60,000 followers (that’s a quarter of what you have yourself) to share it.

Now, I know that spot very well — so do you, Simon — and I visit it often. There is no more beautiful place in Ireland. So I looked at the shocking footage. It was of a group of families, men, women, and children, enjoying a day out and a picnic in the rare beautiful sunshine we’ve been having. They seemed to be Muslim, perhaps (who knows) an outing organised from a mosque. There were babies in buggies, mums pushing prams, maybe 50 people in all.

It looked great fun and completely harmless, but it was being portrayed as another example (the activist’s words) of “the level of population replacement happening in Ireland”. And the comments underneath his post matched, one of them describing the people shown in the video as “things”, forcing us to work harder and pay more taxes (which we don’t) so these “things” can be fed and housed.

This fear and hate-mongering is everywhere on social media, and it’s growing every day. As Taoiseach, you need to confront it. Take a stand on the Hate Bill now, and stick to it. Get the Hate Bill done.

But the real tangible source of alienation in these elections springs from housing and homelessness. The death of hope for young families in a cruel and dysfunctional housing market, the number of families living in overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation. 

Perhaps most of all the children whose growth and development have been damaged.

I retired five years ago from Barnardos, Simon. When I was there I used to visit homeless hubs to meet families and kids. We ran Christmas parties in some of the so-called “reception centres” for people seeking asylum, bleak cheerless places that our teams tried to brighten up with festive decorations. In Cork and Dublin and all around the country our teams worked tirelessly with individual children whose hopes and dreams had been held back by homelessness.

It was cruel and unnecessary then, and I regularly railed against it, here in the Irish Examiner and in speaking opportunities my job gave me. But do you know what? I was absolutely convinced then that the problem would be fixed by now. I was absolutely certain that the list of decent politicians who occupied the housing portfolio would have it sorted.

But you know that it has got worse ever since. One of the richest countries in the world can’t find a way to address a quality of life issue that is not just causing hardship, but is distorting politics.

What has happened as a result is potentially really damaging. I’m not scaremongering when I say that anger over our housing crisis can be melded with intolerance about immigration in a way that can enable the early roots of fascism — not too strong a word, sorry — to be laid down in our country.

Fix housing — give hope again — and you’ll get rid of that fear. I don’t want to make you sound like Trump, but this is one issue only you can fix. Only the power and influence of the Taoiseach’s office, focused exclusively on solutions, can drive this issue to resolution. Next week I’ll tell you how to go about it.