Across Ireland in recent weeks people have come together in solidarity with those impacted by cervical cancer health services scandal, which has affected so many families and communities. Mike Allen, Director of Advocacy, takes a look at why the voices of those opposing the housing crisis are being silenced.
RTÉ and all the newspapers reported upon the huge numbers expressing spontaneous support for the women involved in the cervical cancer scandal. It is impossible to imagine the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, standing up to contesting the figures as reported, or claiming that he had privately secured evidence that the turn-out was less than half this number. What would be the point of that? To deliberately challenge evidence that Irish people care about others in their times of trouble? There would have been calls for resignation.
But this is exactly what Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy, did on the 25th April when he told the Seanad that, while newspapers had all agreed that over 10,000 people had turned out on the housing crisis march three weeks earlier, ‘the figure we have for that protest is around 4,000.’
Diminished or Silenced
This was not an isolated remark, but reflects a mood of deep embattlement which affects the Minister and some of his Department. Anyone who expresses concern about rising homelessness is seen as an opponent, to be diminished or silenced.
Anyone who expresses concern about rising homelessness is seen as an opponent, to be diminished or silenced.
Last year at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis, both the Taoiseach and Minister for Housing used OECD figures, which were not only outdated but included clear warnings that they could not be used to compare the situation in different countries, to claim that our homelessness crisis is so bad as in other countries. Next we had the Government-appointed Chair of the Housing Agency claim that ‘homelessness is normal’, and then that it is caused by people trying to ‘game the system’. As recently as the May Bank Holiday weekend we have had anonymous ‘leaks’ from the Minister’s office to Sunday papers claiming homelessness is caused by queue-jumping teenagers or by an influx of non-EU immigrants who have heard that we are a ‘soft touch’. Now we have the Minister’s chaotic efforts to bring into question the validity of the figures he himself publishes.
All these comment have two things in common. The first is that they are all totally untrue. The usual response to them has been that ‘there is no evidence to support them’ but in reality there is a lot of evidence, all of which shows them to have no basis in fact. The other thing they have in common is that they are all designed to diminish the problem, make the people suffering it appear less worthy of our concern than we might originally think. The constant message to the Irish public is clear: ‘just stop caring’.
The constant message to the Irish public is clear: ‘just stop caring’.
To some extent this approach is a legacy of an entirely different issue – the hostility of the water charges dispute. After all it was Minister Murphy’s department, then known as the Department of Environment, which fought and lost the water charges battle over years of bitter dispute. Some more extreme anti-water campaigners occupied the Department’s head office and, allegedly, threatened Ministers and their staff.
Government sources regularly claimed that estimates for the turn-out in water charge rallies were overestimated, and campaigners counter-claimed that the media underestimated turn-out as reflection of their pro-Government position.
Such conflicts leave scars. But it is a mistake to see the deep public concern about homelessness in the same light as public opposition to water charges.
Certainly there were those on the housing rights march who simply oppose the Government, and also those who hope the housing protests will be a re-run the water charge protests.
But the overwhelming majority of the 10,000 people who turned out to march that day were there not to oppose Government policy, not to block a specific Government proposal, but rather to call on the Government to do more. A lot more.
Unfortunately this demand for ‘more’ further deepens the sense of siege in the Minister’s office. Because the truth is that the Minister, and officials at national and local level are working long hours and long weeks. It is very unpleasant, when you feel you are doing all within your power, to be told that it is not enough.
Taoiseach Leo Varadakar articulated this when, at the end of March, he rather peevishly told the Oireachtas Finance Committee “If commitment is down to the amount of work you are doing, the amount of money you are spending, I don’t think anyone can doubt the level of Government commitment to this issue.”
But this is not the point. None of us is judged on how hard we work, we are judged on what we achieve.
No serious commentator has suggested that the housing crisis is caused by slacking or even by lack of caring. But it is caused by applying the wrong policies. And the wrong policies keep being applied because those with alternative views are treated as opponents.
None of us is judged on how hard we work, we are judged on what we achieve.
Very complex issue
Homelessness is a very complex issue, and solutions do not come quickly. Every country which has successfully tackled a homeless crisis has done so on the basis of a broad consensus about what is to be done and what resources are to be mobilized. The consensus starts with a common agreement on how we will measure the problem. In 2010, three years into the economic crash Ireland achieved its lowest level of homelessness ever. There was no rough sleeping in Cork, Limerick or Galway, and we had achieve the lowest levels ever reported. This required not just Government hard-work but also a commitment to building and maintained a consensus with local authorities, homeless organisations and the concerned public.
Since then, successive Government’s have systematically dismantled this consensus as homelessness has grown. The relationship between the Minister and local authorities is at an all time low and, as we have seen, the Minister thinks it is in his interest to belittle the level of public concern.
Meanwhile, the visible distress of so many homeless people, particularly children, has meant that there is a much larger concerned public than there was before. As the broader housing crisis has grown to blight the lives of more people, their wider families and communities, this concerned public has grown further. The essential services which Focus Ireland provides would grind to a halt without this public support – nearly half our income comes from fundraising. In this sense, the entire Government response to homelessness would collapse without the public caring about the issue, and donating. But, while people are willing to donate to help, they want to see solutions too.
So instead of relentlessly telling people to ‘just stop caring’ about homelessness, the Government needs to get out of the bunker and start listening. Then they might see the huge public concern about housing and homelessness not as opposition to be taken on, but as the basis for a new consensus from which real solutions can emerge.
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