Comment: Darragh O’Brien: time is up for the minister

Fianna Fáil has as good as admitted they don’t get housing.

Last year after the party’s thrashing in the Dublin Bay South byelection, veteran Jim O’Callaghan told reporters he didn’t “think that Fianna Fail understood the scale of the problem in housing”. It doesn’t seem so.

How would the party otherwise have chosen a candidate, Deirdre Conroy, who was not only a landlord who decided it’s “better to stick with what you know” after what she considered a bad experience with a Latvian tenant, but even blogged about it? She didn’t even get five percent.

During the campaign a mother told an RTÉ reporter in Ranelagh – a Dublin 6 suburb probably in the mind of the first RTÉ reporter to use leafy as a synonym for wealthy – that her three adult sons couldn’t afford to buy a home. Ireland’s housing market has always been in crisis for many, but now it’s affecting both Fianna Fáil and their coalition partner Fine Gael’s constituency, the people in places like Ranelagh.

These people are beginning to understand that these parties, beholden to the ideology that brought us to this point, can’t fix the housing crisis.

The bluster turns to whisper

After almost a decade of failed Fine Gael and Labour housing policies, there was some hope from some quarters when Fianna Fáil man Darragh O’Brien became housing minister in June 2020. He talked a good game in the Dáil and on social media.

“Another record shattered by this Fine Gael government – 10,514 people now homeless,” tweeted O’Brien, just six months before his appointment to cabinet. Figures released by his department last week now put that figure at a record 11,397.

“Rents on average €500 per month dearer than previous height in 2008. This is Ireland in 2019,” tweeted O’Brien in March that year. Since then average national rents across the country have increased by an additional €500 a month.

The bluster muffled to a whisper when O’Brien took office.

The initial excuse for his and Fianna Fáil’s failures was the Covid-19 pandemic. They got the benefit of the doubt, despite the construction of social housing being exempt from lockdown restrictions except for the first seven weeks of the pandemic.

Now it’s war. Not content with using a pandemic that killed thousands as cover for its failures in housing, the government now relies on a war that has seen hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees flee unimaginable horrors in search of safety. Maybe they will think twice about using that particular dog whistle after the ugly scenes over the past few weeks in East Wall and Fermoy. Though even after East Wall, Fianna Fáil TD Cathal Crowe this week decided to capitalise on growing anti-refugee sentiment, calling for a cap on Ukrainian refugees coming to Ireland.

The vast majority of Ukrainian refugees in Ireland are being accommodated in hotels, guesthouses, converted offices and the houses of homeowners with spare rooms. Their presence is having little effect on housing supply. Tragically the war in Ukraine shows no signs of ending anytime soon but, if it does, rest assured that government will have some other excuse at the ready for its housing policy failures.

‘If houses were being delivered, what odds, but they aren’t’

If O’Brien is working hard to solve the housing crisis, this work isn’t reflected in his ministerial diary. Day after day he travels across the country for photo opportunities like he’s on tour with a showband. We are in the middle of the worst housing crisis in the history of the state and O’Brien was out at a building site in Shankill, Dublin last week fucking around with a spade.

If houses were being delivered, what odds, but they aren’t.

Last month the Sunday Independent revealed that government hasn’t spent almost €500 million of its housing budget. In September this year O’Brien told the same publication that he’s “not giving up on the targets, the last quarter is very heavy on delivery”. This was in response to figures that show housing delivery output for this year is 20-30 percent below target.

And this is where we are.

Today there are a little more than 500 properties to rent in county Dublin. The average monthly rent in the capital for new tenancies is €2,011. No other capital city in the EU has higher rents than Dublin, according to the OECD and Eurostat. Rents across the country are similarly obscene.

Blame NIMBYs if you like, but scores of planning-approved strategic housing developments remain undeveloped. Instead these permissions are traded like other commodities, reflecting the broader financialisation of housing, and stay unbuilt for years. A pathetic history of vacant site levy enforcement at local authority level allows this situation to continue.

Earlier in the year The Ditch began a series of articles that eventually led to the resignation of An Bord Pleanála’s deputy chairperson and the “early retirement” of its chair. Throughout the crisis O’Brien repeated the same lines and consistently failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation. It was both a political and human disaster.

Decision-making at the planning authority has now ground to a halt with just four members left on its board. Seconding a few civil servants to the board is O’Brien’s latest attempt at trying to fix the planning body. That and, as revealed this week by the Irish Examiner, rushing through ill-conceived planning legislation without proper scrutiny.

And An Bord Pleanála is not the only place crumbling.

It doesn’t matter

The full extent of the Mica issue should be a true national scandal. It has mainly devastated entire communities in Donegal, but there are still households across the country discovering their homes are literally falling apart. Despite the devastation it has caused, local authorities and the department are struggling to process applications that have been in limbo for months.

The responsibility for that mess rests with O’Brien. He has, again, talked about addressing the concerns of families sleeping in condemned homes – but hasn’t fixed the situation. Unfortunately for those in Ireland’s nicknamed Forgotten County, their collapsing homes are in Dungloe instead of Dalkey.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, prematurely, told us in September that O’Brien was a sure thing to remain in the housing department after next month’s cabinet reshuffle. Why? The facts are plain.

O’Brien has had two-and-a-half years to prove himself. He’s failed and should acknowledge that, rather than hang on while increasingly ruthless landlords and vampire funds suck the last drops of blood from a broken housing system. Maybe it’s his ideology. Maybe he doesn’t understand. Maybe he doesn’t care.

Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter.

Roman Shortall

Roman Shortall