A fighting movement
The story of the housing crisis has been marked by anger and discontent and a gradual erosion of the political parties who have been responsible for the catastrophe. It has also seen a whole range of responses - political action, protest, demonstration, occupation and open violence between activists and bailiffs on some occasions. What has not come about is a mobilisation sufficient to change the overall mechanism of the property market, rather than panicky attempts by political parties to avoid blame.
If we are to build a movement on housing, we have to recognise that it will not be built simply by appealing to the victims or to the humanity of Irish capitalism. Individual workers will adapt in any way they can by, for example, working longer hours and saving as much as they can, by renting instead of buying, by scrimping on other expenses and so on. They will support protests, but they expect housing as a political issue to be resolved by a political movement.
For example; the high point of change in working class housing in Britain came with the election of a Labour government supported by trade unions and with a programme of radical reform. When the rate of profit fell and the movement declined capitalism was not slow to exploit housing as a commodity rather than a human need, beginning with Thatcher’s mass sale of public housing. In the decades since the Labour Party and unions have failed absolutely to re-establish a movement for mass public housing.
In the context of the Irish political economy can such a major political and economic investment as providing housing as a need be undertaken?
Firstly, it cannot be undertaken by the current coalition government. They are absolutely committed to what Leo Varadkar calls public private partnership. What he means is attracting Vulture and Cuckoo capital and ensuring them a return on their investment. Their reaction to this flood of capital was to change the law to allow for local capitalists to enter Retail Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and then for ministers, including the housing minister, to join the REITs and start feeding from the trough of increased property speculation.
Even moderate reform of tenant rights would have been enough to stabilise rents and thus limit the return on the mass property buy up by the Vultures. This was not forthcoming from a government representing the landlord class.
So,1 what about a new government? As the last party standing outside the permanent merry-go-round of coalition government and with some quick footwork on housing policy, Sinn Fein are likely to be part of a new government. We can discount fanciful stuff about a "left government”, but that's not the issue. Can they deliver a solution to the housing crisis?
The answer is not within the current structures of Irish capitalism. There's no sign that they have a convincing alternative policy. A new capitalist government has freedom to manoeuvre, but with some very tight constraints. On the one hand you have the income from transnationals. Entry of capital has become increasingly financialised. By charging low corporation tax and granting many exemptions the government is able to generate high income from the sheer volume of capital inflow, but that prevents it from any serious restriction of the speculators. Major direct state intervention in the supply of housing would be seen as such a restriction.
On the other hand, the day-to-day running of the Irish economy is determined by a supply of cheap money guaranteed by the European Central Bank and by an extension of the repayment terms on sovereign debt. The bank does not prevent spending on this or that area, but the Maastricht and subsequent treaties restrict the overall level of spending and debt.
A good example of this process at work is Irish Water. Privatisation would have meant another source of capital inflow and would have taken the service off the books as an element of government expenditure. Mass protest prevented this but the settlement preserved the privatised structure and the return of charging would greatly increase government freedom of manoeuvre, so there is a constant threat of a more gradual privatisation.
The National Maternity Hospital is another example. In essence the service, as with much medical provision, is being handed to the church and to private health agencies, many controlled by the church. The alternative is state seizure of public assets or capital expenditure on a new site, as well as the millions in other costs falling directly on the state.
The water service costs the state approximately €300 million per annum and the millions lost in foreign investment on top. The NMH would also involve millions. It essentially required a mass revolt to stop water charging and a bigger mobilisation is needed to save women's health care.
Public housing would require billions in investment with a similar loss in inward investment, alongside threats of a loss of confidence by the transnationals and the European Central Bank. We can immediately see that the fight to put this in place would involve a movement that would both physically and politically dwarf the water charges fight.
There is a blueprint for such a movement. The Apollo House occupation of December 2016 took the very simple step of occupying a NAMA property and housing homeless people. The occupation was wildly popular, as it pointed out a direct policy of using government property to instantly solve the housing crisis.
The National Asset Management Agency was set up to rescue speculators by issuing bonds in return for properties whose price had collapsed. Later NAMA was used to sell off properties in a fire sale to gain access to foreign exchange.
The Apollo House movement quickly collapsed. The protesters withdrew when the homeless people inside Apollo House were offered accommodation and the occupation tactic was abandoned.
It was the political foundation of Apollo House which failed. The campaign was an attempt to carry forward the strategy of the Water Charges campaign, with the union leaders in formal partnership with the government on the one hand but with the left unions running populist campaigns outside this framework. Brendan Ogle of UNITE led the Apollo House campaign and was also an advocate for a new left party directed by the unions.
The whole process rested on the state's willingness to accept the campaign's legitimacy and separation from the unions. The courts moved swiftly to dismiss the idea that the campaign could occupy public property and went on to rule that union support was essentially union control. Immediately after that they ordered evacuation of Apollo House on pain of sequestration of union funds. The protest was ended and the unions have ever since stuck to occasional demonstrations linked to lobbying the government for a larger housing budget. This is the policy which has failed in its turn with the current housing catastrophe.
However, Apollo House continues to be a signpost for a future movement. Front and centre will be the need for public housing provided by the state. In terms of tactics, it should operate from above and below. Pressure on the government must be accompanied by direct action and seizure of speculative property being held empty and by the building of anti-eviction task forces.
Such a movement will need the foundation of a working-class party. This party will not ignore the Dáil or the union leaders, but it will learn from the housing debacle of the need for independent organisation that directly represents worker's interests. The new party will be anti-imperialist, fighting against the transnational banks and speculators and a native capitalist class firmly allied with the imperialists.
Such a party and such a movement are clearly some distance in the future. What is important is to fight now to ensure that a renewed housing campaign does not reduce to a lobby of the Dáil and that there is an ongoing campaign and an open national structure that helps build combativity and class consciousness.
The dominant political direction is towards a left government that will resolve the housing crisis. Socialists should explain that in reality what is proposed is a capitalist Sinn Fein government and, although it will be under a great deal of pressure to improve housing availability, it has not advanced a programme that would resolve the housing crisis or all the other crises arising from our subordination to imperialism and in fact operates a pro-imperialist policy in the North. In the absence of such an explanation desperation around a Sinn Fein vote will likely be followed by demoralisation and despair.
With every passing day the squeeze on the working class increases. Housing, health, education, transport, the environment, pay and pensions are all under attack. The workers will have no choice but to fight back.
Socialists should unite in presenting a clear analysis of capitalism, provide a critique of failed reformist strategies advanced by existing leaderships, link with activists fighting the ongoing exploitation of the class and develop a working-class programme that new layers of fighters can use in the ongoing struggle.