Problems of the parliamentary road
As the Raise the Roof protest took place outside the Dail a resolution on housing was put forward inside parliament by Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit.
Although PbP proposed the motion and it was taken in a time slot allotted to them by parliamentary rules, the motion did not reflect People Before Profit policy. Their recorded policy is for public housing. The policy they put was one formulated by the trade union bureaucracy under the Raise the Roof banner, and designed to attract all-party support. So what were the proposals in the resolution? We can disregard empty slogans such as the call for a housing emergency and another calling for the right to housing to be enshrined in the constitution (it would take years to mobilise for a constitutional amendment, time that would be better spent demanding real physical houses now).
The resolution called for increased spending in the budget of 2.3 billion Euro devoted to housing.
Increasing the requirements on developers to provide social and affordable housing as part of section V regulations.
Emergency legislation to prevent eviction into homelessness and rent controls to limit rent rises to the consumer price index.
So what are the problems with the resolution? The call is for a spend of 2.3 billion Euro, yet the total surplus in what is called the "fiscal space" is 0.8 to 1.4 billion. The trade unions have argued that the government can ask Europe for permission to borrow outside the allowed guidelines, but they have been arguing that for over a decade. Given that both government and Europe are determined to drive down public spending the budget proposal is simply an attempt to suggest that adequate housing can be provided inside the narrow limits of sovereign debt and European budgetary control. In any case the government already has substantial if inadequate spend on housing. The problem is that public funds go almost entirely to developers, speculators and vulture capital.
Many of the proposals on rent control are reasonable but who is to implement them? Clearly not any Irish capitalist government. We fall back on proposals for a left government, but the party that would be the cornerstone of this, Sinn Fein, is not socialist and has just produced budget proposals that are clearly those of a capitalist financial policy. In addition they have expressed a strategic aim of coalition with the right wing Fine Gael party. If that were not enough, we simply have to look at Sinn Fein inaction around the housing crisis in the North and acceptance of an austerity budget that included a bedroom tax - cuts in welfare payments if your home had an extra bedroom. This is not to say that a new working class party is not essential, simply that it will not be born in parliamentary manoeuvres inside the Dail.
The biggest difficulty with proposals on housing provision is the central proposal that private developers should agree to expand schemes where they leave aside a proportion of sites either to low-cost housing or social housing. The current practice is for 10% of properties to be left aside. The resolution suggests 20% and in some cases 30%. Right away this prevents the socialist groups from pointing out that the frequent crises in Irish housing arise directly from the decline of public housing and the dominance of private finance. In effect they are pouring petrol on the fire and proposing that the fire engines get some more water. The Republican group eirigi had no difficulty in making this argument on the demonstration with pages of statistics to prove their point. However they are not part of parliamentary alliances. The greatest danger with the proposal is that developers get a quid pro quo. This is either a lenient eye cast on planning permission and building regulation or the transfer of public land to private ownership at knockdown prices. When we understand that the Fine Gael government has just published proposals for the mass privatisation of public land as solution to the housing crisis we can see how dangerous the all-party resolution could be.
In the event the government suffered a massive defeat and were deeply embarrassed. The resolution was no way binding and the hypocrisy of many of the parties is illustrated by the fact that the Sinn Fein resolution of a week before expressing no confidence in the housing minister was defeated. That resolution would have led to the fall of the government, but that is not the game of the opposition. Many are manoeuvring to make housing an issue on which they can build their electoral base or, in the case of Sinn Fein, a complex dance to see if they can outmanoeuvre Fianna Fail and become the major opposition party.
The whole episode shows the weakness of parliamentary manoeuvring. Nowhere in the choreography was there room for the call for public housing or for the new groups such as Take Back the City that have sprung up and find themselves confronting the state.