The Connected, Divided Island
On a rainy Saturday in March, I take a train to Dublin and walk from Connolly Station to the General Post Office, the seat of the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland. The GPO remains a working post office, but in a concession to its historic status, it now includes a museum and a gift shop packed with tourists browsing through souvenir mugs and figurines commemorating the heroes of Irish history. Meanwhile, a crowd gathers for a protest march organised by the National Housing and Homelessness Coalition, an umbrella organisation of activists, trade unions, and left-leaning political parties.
Soon, a camera crew arrive, and the crowd builds – with expectations that it may exceed the 10,000 people who had turned out for the “Take Back The City” march the previous year. But it is not to be, and as the march merges with two other groups that started at different locations, there appears to be less than a thousand people present – with stalwarts blaming the bad weather for the poor turnout. Still, the marchers do their best: chanting “Murphy, Murphy, Murphy – Out! Out! Out!” in reference to Eoghan Murphy, the housing minister. As the march turns onto Eden Quay, the heart of Dublin’s gentrified Docklands area, a young man in a studded leather jacket bearings the words “Free Palestine”, punches the air with his fist, while another activist uses his phone to broadcast on Snapchat. “This is a crisis, it’s only going to grow ... people need to wake up!” he says, as fellow marchers parade past a young couple kissing next to a double-decker bus, and a pair of shoppers in pom-pom hats and Adidas trainers, with a chihuahua keeping pace beside them.
During the protest, I speak to Tony MacCartháigh, a man in his fifties with a neat beard and glasses, who tells me that he’s been to “at least three protests”. Tony argues that the crisis is a natural consequence of the neo-liberal structure of Ireland’s economy. The shortage of housing, he believes, is “driven by profit”. And the politicians, he asserts, “are the biggest landlords”. This isn’t true – Ireland’s biggest landlord is Ires Reit, a real estate investment trust which owns more than 3,000 residential units and returned a profit of €120m in 2018. But many members of the Dáil, Ireland’s parliament, do own rental property. This does not suggest a conflict of interest, but Father Peter McVerry, a homelessness campaigner, has argued that it could create “a conflict of interest mindset”. Indeed, members of the Dáil recently voted on a bill designed to prevent landlords from evicting tenants at short notice by renovating a property. These so-called “renovictions” often result in the property being re-listed soon after, for a much higher price. The bill was opposed by the government – with the main opposition party abstaining – but it narrowly passed, by 46 votes to 39.
JIM LEONARD has seen the effects of the housing crisis on a very personal level. A paramedic in his fifties, Jim has long provided support to Dublin’s homeless, but in recent years, he’s seen the number of people sleeping rough increase dramatically. “Instead of having two or three guys or girls under a certain bridge, over time it became six, seven, eight, nine, or ten people,” he says. We meet for a drink at Mulligan’s, a traditional Irish pub across the road from the former site of Apollo House, a disused office complex once home to Ireland’s social welfare department, which became a focal point for the public backlash against the housing crisis when it was occupied by activists in December 2016.
Sadly, Jim has also found himself supporting families and children sleeping rough. “I got a call one day, 10:30 at night, and there was a family sleeping in a doorway; and they were using two buggies as a kind of shelter – and shopping bags,” he recalls. “You know, here’s a family, and their address was a doorway in a part of Dublin open for tourism.”
Jim finds this particularly frustrating because he’s proud to have been part of the generation that built the “new Ireland”. In the 1960s, he recalls, conditions for many working class people in Dublin “were unliveable”. This sparked a major social programme which saw working families, including his own, allocated new-build housing. “They were very nice flats – central heating, which was unheard of. Twenty-four hour running hot water, which was unheard of,” he recalls. Now, Jim sees houses where conditions are like they were fifty years ago. “It’s not run-down terraced colonial houses that were built by the British; these are modern houses that were built during the boom times, where people are struggling to pay [their rent]. And you’ve got a three bedroom house, where you’ve got three families.”
Jim also fears that Ireland’s reputation is once again being tarnished. “Ireland was in the news for all the wrong reasons, and that was terrorism,” he says, referring to the Troubles era. But after the Good Friday Agreement and the “laying down of arms” by paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland, Ireland – as an island – became attractive to outside investment, and to migrants looking for a new life. Jim is proud of both these things, but laments the fact that he’s seeing an increasing number of migrants – particularly young men from Eastern Europe – living rough. Many, he adds, had found work in Ireland during the construction boom, and had thus made their own contribution to the “new Ireland”.
But Jim is not the type to spend his days sipping Guinness and lamenting what should be done; he’s played an active part in efforts to resolve the crisis. In December 2016, when Apollo House was occupied by housing activists, Jim volunteered to provide medical support to the rough sleepers the activists invited inside. “We’d get them access to see a doctor, get them prescriptions for medications, and find them a bed – somewhere to stay,” he recalls. In the weeks that followed, there was a groundswell of public support. Hundreds of people dropped off donated items. Power was restored to the building, hot showers were set up, and beds were provided for homeless people. Extensive media coverage resulted, along with celebrity-backed fundraisers that generated more than €170,000 in donations. For some, it seemed like a defining moment that would force the government to act – but that was not how things turned out. Instead, Jim says, “they allowed the organisers to be brought to court.”
A year to the day after the occupation began, someone placed a bronze plaque outside the gates of the soon-to-be demolished building. “Vulture Republic 1916 – 2017” it read, beneath an engraving of a vulture perched upon a harp, Ireland’s national symbol.