Raise the Roof! Or lower the bar for the government?
What is the basic argument behind the raise the roof campaign? The argument is unity! A broad enough unity will ensure the biggest level of support and thus force the government to change direction.
Some argue that the unity is too broad - that, for example, including the Labour party in the National Homeless & Housing Coalition was a step too far given their role in the last austerity government and support for a budget that brought public house building to a halt and helped fuel the current crisis. Others question the role of Sinn Fein, the leading party in the parliamentary alliance, given their implementation of a far ranging austerity budget in the North.
Socialist Democracy do not agree with a policy of exclusion. If groups support the policy of a campaign they should be members. That's not the issue. The issue is that the broader the alliance, the weaker the political demands become until you reach a point where you have achieved unity for unity’s sake and the campaign no longer reflects the needs of the workers.
So the central demand of Raise the Roof! is housing for all! We can all support that. The issue then becomes how do we work together to achieve that aim? The Irish Congress of Trade Unions have spelt this out in a policy document - the government should ask the European Union for permission to borrow 1.8 billion euro a year to fund a housing programme.
But this is the same old financial strategy that ICTU peddled throughout the last decade of austerity as the "Better Fairer Way" to avoid the pain of paying the bondholders. This strategy was completely ineffective. It is the financial equivalent of scattering fairy dust and dancing widdershins around the garden. It is magical thinking that will get us nowhere.
Let's be crystal clear. Despite pleas from all sides the European Central Bank would not allow Ireland to skip one cent of the bondholder debt. They have squeezed blood from the stone and they are going to keep on squeezing.
Irish capitalism protected the bondholders by using the workers money in a mass public purchase scheme of distressed property. Through the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) they then sold public property to the vulture funds at knockdown prices. Now the vultures, aided by Europe and by local landlordism, are making a killing by buying up mortgages and hiking up rents and house prices. The latest big plan from the government is the mass privatisation of public land to fund another decade of austerity and desperation. And our plan is to ask the Dail and Europe to change their minds!
The thing is we already have a strategy that got results - the Apollo House strategy. Trade unions, housing activists, community and political groups came together to seize a property that was being sold off to financial speculators and demand that the homeless be housed. With the Apollo House strategy, and the occupation strategy of Take Over the City, we don't have to produce complex spreadsheets to advise the government on an affordable housing program. Our job is to confront and challenge the robber barons - if there is a problem in how they meet our demands let them sort it out!
The Apollo strategy was wildly popular, but was dropped like a hot potato when the courts and Garda became involved. But there is no avoiding the courts and the Garda. They are there to defend the property of the ultra-rich and we are here to defend worker’s needs.
Let's stop pretending. "Raise the Roof" is yet another pop up front organised by the trade union bureaucracy and endorsed by opposition parties. These spring up every autumn as a platform for lobbying the government in advance of the budget. They can never succeed in winning more than the most minor reforms because they will never challenge the "fiscal space" imposed by Europe and the need to pay the bondholders. The money in the fiscal space is far too small to fund the sort of public housing programme needed. Such a programme would need a break with the European Central Bank that Irish capitalism will never contemplate
Not only are the demands of Raise the Roof insufficient, they contain great dangers. The call for "affordable houses" and for a land bank sounds suspiciously like a left version of Fine Gael's own housing plan. In the grey fog of negotiation between government and unions and between parties in the Dail there is a very real danger that the government can use a few concessions to drive through a programme of mass privatisation of public land unopposed.
Unity for unity’s sake is all very well, but what we need is a unity that starts with the needs of the dispossessed and strives for the mass mobilisation of the workers to meet those needs.