Home Sweet Home - Can we burst the limits of protest?
In a grim year, when many Irish workers discovered that economic recovery did not mean recovery for their wage packets, the occupation of Apollo House in Dublin was a beacon of light, described as the only real celebration of the principles of the 1916 rebellion amid all the hypocrisy of the official celebrations.
Housing activists, musicians, artists and trade unionists came together to occupy a disused public building and provide beds for homeless people sleeping on the streets. They were faced with a sustained propaganda campaign by the government and Dublin City Council and a legal process, rubber-stamped by the judiciary that forced their eviction in January.
There is a big disparity between the aims of the campaign and the reaction of the authorities. The quite moderate movement had set out to provide accommodation for homeless people over the Xmas period and to lobby for government action to provide homes.
However in doing so the "Home Sweet Home" campaign has illuminated the utter failure of the Dail parties to provide any answers to a growing epidemic of homelessness, shone a light into the mechanism of exploitation behind the housing crisis and threatened to ignite a growing anger at a capitalist recovery that leaves the majority of workers mired in poverty.
Throughout the life of the last Dail and the short life of the current one housing has been a catastrophe only out-matched by the housing bubble of 2008 that precipitated Ireland's economic collapse.
In terms of government policy building social housing has never even registered on the agenda. Instead a mixture of grants for first time buyers, a slashing of building regulation, give-away public sites for private investors and subsides for landlords have dominated policy. Rather than being simply ineffective, these policies have made things worse. Developers get cheap public land in return for reserving 10% of the units for low-cost housing and the result is another housing bubble. Hints at a mild genuflection towards rent control means steep rent hikes and a wave of evictions. The "Home Sweet Home" campaign exposed the mechanisms behind the housing crisis. In part this is due to the nature of local gombeen capital. Renting, property speculation and the associated reworking of planning laws and the background bribery and corruption are everyday elements of the local housing market.
In the last coalition government the Labour minister Alan Kelly wept salt tears as he confessed that the constitutional right to private property prevented him from helping the homeless. Yet the Irish housing crisis goes well beyond the class struggle between gombeen and worker.
The fact is that Apollo House, the subject of the occupation, is property owned by the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), and is therefore public property. As with the whole history of Ireland's bankruptcy, the debt belongs to the workers and the profits to the bosses.
NAMA used public money to take over ownership of an enormous property portfolio whose financial foundations had collapsed as speculators went belly up in the credit crunch. Its instructions were to sell properties and gather in foreign exchange. Over time the process accelerated into an enormous fire sale. At the same time the usual stories of financial corruption arose, with Project Eagle, the entire northern portfolio, sold for a song amid evidence of millions offered in bribes to local politicians.
The scandals involved notorious New York "vulture capital" firms. It later emerged that they were able to hook into the Irish role as a tax haven and pay a few hundred euro tax on property transactions involving billions.
The economic debate around housing in Ireland hangs around the rights of the landlord. It is argued that rent control will damage tenants because restricting landlordsí profits will shrink rental provision. Now yet another argument is advanced; new corporate investors (vulture capitalists) need certainty that the level of return on their investment is secure.
So there is a triple lock on Irish housing. Local gombeen capital relies heavily on property speculation. Government spending is constrained in a narrow "fiscal space" defined by the payment of banking debt and the application of constraints imposed by the Troika. The involvement of vulture capital means even greater pressure to extract profit.
A new programme
It is in this light that we must assess "Home Sweet Home," now moving to establish itself nationally. As with earlier campaigns such as the water charges campaign, it uses radical methods (mass mobilization, occupation) to mount what is essentially a lobbying exercise aimed at the Irish government - for example asking finance minister Noonan to use the NAMA stock to provide homes and resolve the housing crisis.
Given the subordinate relationship between Irish capital and imperialism, it is clear that, while some concessions have been wrung from government, they fall well short of a defiance of imperialism and a suspension of the market mechanism. The new movement will need a deep discussion of its programme and methods. For example, it is evident that Noonan will never agree to the use of NAMA stock in any widespread way and that the response must be for worker to go ahead and seize buildings, building up the network of support and resistance that will prevent eviction. It is also evident that a hosing movement cannot respect the property right of the vulture capitalists and of the local speculators.
Adopting such an approach will be difficult. As with earlier campaigns we have an ad hoc structure topped by an informal steering committee. The main resources are provided by the left of the trade union bureaucracy and major decisions are made by them. The long-range objective is to construct a replacement for the failed Labour party as was the case with the "Right2Change" campaign in the last election. Both structure and political aims limit the ability of the movement to develop a radical programme.
The present mechanisms of austerity are reaching their limits. There is growing rage at the corruption and theft of the ruling class and a growing recognition of their complicity with imperialism in looting the country. Workers see an economic recovery that doesn't include them and that requires limits on wages and the collapse of public service.
Housing represents a fracture point. The crisis extends beyond rough sleepers to the thousands of families forced into bread and breakfast accommodation to the many tens of thousands living on the edge, dealing with mortgages, rent rises and eviction. The crisis becomes deeper as more workers realise that original pay rates will not be restored and that every day means an inching closer to homelessness or living in penury as every penny goes to feed the landlord.
The first task is to support and build "Home Sweet Home." However a mass national campaign cannot stop at lobbying. It is time to call for the organized working class to step onto the stage, time to challenge the partnership between bosses and union bureaucrats that keeps them shackled, time to say that the only replacement for the Labour party should be a revolutionary party of the working class.