How many emergencies have we had in Ireland?
Let me count the ways.
Some emergencies we acknowledge while others have always been gently nudged under that enormous carpet we use to hide uncomfortable truths, so it isn’t that easy to enumerate the things we should count as an emergency.
For example, we didn’t count as an emergency the gigantic epidemic of TB that ravaged our population in the 1920s and 1930s. And we didn’t count the mass unemployment of the 1950s as an emergency, preferring also to export that disaster to our nearest neighbours. We didn’t recognise the disgrace of the Magdalene laundries or the industrial schools, preferring to count our rosary beads.
Aren’t we great? Of course we are.
And then, let’s not forget, we had that thing we called The Emergency, which wasn’t an emergency at all but a world war.
Aren’t we just great? Weren’t we the best in the whole world, declining to resist the Nazis? We went so far as to sign the book of condolences to the genocidal maniac Hitler, thereby placing ourselves firmly outside the economic plan that rebuilt Europe after the war and leaving this country in the economic doldrums for decades.
We really are great, fair play to us.
In recent times, we faced a thing we were told was an emergency, and that thing was the banking collapse. We were asked as a nation to dig deep and we did exactly as requested, because we had no choice but what was the emergency? Some banks were in trouble and some banks were already dead. To be specific, Anglo-Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide were gone, and the only people who stood to lose were investors who had already insured themselves against losses. But we, the Irish people, were told that unless we bailed out those speculators, we would never again have credibility in the world markets.
This was obvious nonsense, since the markets have no memory, but it was on the basis of such tosh that Ireland was placed on the rack. It was on the basis of such illogicality that we enriched the likes of Roman Abramovich, who bought Anglo bonds at 10% of face value and demanded 100% from our government, which dutifully paid him, perhaps funding a new striker for Chelsea.
Now here’s the point.
Irish governments since the foundation of the State, have resisted intervening to challenge the rights of private property and vested interests. That was a concept at the heart of the Mother and Child conflict, where church and medical interests colluded to derail an initiative introduced by Noel Browne with the sole aim of helping poor people to become healthier.
Because that plan would have deprived wealthy doctors of income, priests and medics came together to destroy it and our spineless State capitulated in the face of clerical condemnation.
That, my friends, is the republic we created and what a wonderful freedom we carved out for ourselves when we stood up against imperialism.
Today we face a new emergency and it’s about time our politicians acknowledged it instead of recycling the tired old platitudes that put them in their safe seats. Today we face an Ireland where thousands of people are homeless, where children are growing up without ever joining their parents at the table for a family meal, where they can’t play because hotel staff are hushing them to be quiet. Thousands of children are getting used to going in by the back door, learning to be subservient. Learning to be quiet.
We are raising a generation of second-class citizens and it doesn’t have to be this way.
Once, in Ireland, we had security for people who rented their own homes, just as it is in the rest of Europe today. Once, in this country, it was possible to rent a home for life, just like in Germany or Holland or France. But the Madigan case in 1981, overturning the rent control laws, threw thousands of vulnerable elderly people into fear and turned money into a weapon.
That wasn’t Paddy Madigan’s fault, even though he was a beneficiary of the decision. That was the fault of a constitution that favours the power of private property above the welfare of citizens. All Madigan did was expose what a heartless society we have when the poor, the old, the weak and the vulnerable are at the mercy of those who have the ability to use money as a weapon.
How do we solve the homelessness crisis?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that an Irish government was willing to pledge €480 million in guarantees to protect gamblers who bought shares in Irish banks. An Irish government was willing to risk the existential survival of this State in order to defend the wealthy. An Irish government was prepared to put you and me and everyone else on the rack rather than see the owners of a failed enterprise like Anglo suffer.
We now have another emergency. We now have a crisis of homelessness with Irish families suffering like no Anglo investor ever suffered and it’s time to face up to that crisis, if our government is able to shake off its ideological shackles.
Let’s abandon the deep-rooted Irish attachment to money as a weapon and let us tackle the fundamental obstacle to solving our accommodation crisis once and for all.
Let’s confront the mindset that allowed the likes of Paddy Madigan to terrify a whole generation of elderly Irish citizens. Let’s hold a constitutional referendum and let’s ask the Irish people if they really believe property rights are more important than decency and dignity for our people.
Frankly, I don’t believe either of the Tweedledum parties, Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, are up to the task or have sufficient moral fibre to do what is decent, but until we confront the tyranny of private property in this country, we’re doomed to decades of misery for Irish citizens.