Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
There’s a quote, probably falsely attributed to Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychiatrist, about the Irish being impervious to psychoanalysis. Whether he said it or not doesn’t really matter, because the thought behind the quote does have a nugget of truth buried deep within it.
As a people, we’re very comfortable with holding two conflicting views at the same time. We’re also, as a nation, unnaturally obsessed with What Other People Think Of Us. Combine the two and you end up with a culture where people say one thing yet are permanently unhappy because they don’t really believe the thing they say, and get annoyed when other people take them at their word.
The housing debate is the latest area where this applies. Last week the government seemed to engage in extraordinarily hamfisted attempts to lead public debate about the homelessness situation. I mean, who on Earth thought that comparing our homeless figures to some other country would take the pressure off? Homelessness, particularly in Dublin, is a gut instinct, an issue you don’t really rely on figures but on one’s own experiences. Seeing bundles of rags shivering in shop doorways is what tells us there’s a problem, not comparing us to the Copenhagen metropolitan district. It’s nearly impossible to stand outside a pub in Dublin on a warm-ish evening and not have a procession of people begging off you. I counted eight people over a ninety minute period on one evening.
It’s an issue we want fixed, right?
Sort of. We say we do, and we get indignant as the issue seems to get worse. As the nights get cold and winter comes in, we all know people are going to die. We know that right now. There are people alive as I write this who will be dead, from homeless related causes, in the next twelve weeks.
Should we declare a national emergency? Hell yes!
Should we appoint a long-term housing czar, taking the issue out of party politics? Damn right!
Should we give him an enormous ball of public money? Of course!
Should we hold an emergency referendum to give him the powers to override legal and planning delays to rapidly build, to whatever height, wherever he sees fit?
Woah there Nelly, steady on there, now, let’s not go mad.
You see, the whole debate is stifled by a flaw at its core. The theory behind democracy is that it’s about the vigorous competition between competing solutions to common problems. The voters identify the problem, the parties duke it out, each pitching their own solution. Then the voters choose which option they believe is most viable. All perfectly logical, save for one vital conceit.
The voters are lying. They won’t admit it, but they’re willing to put up with homelessness if the alternative inconveniences them by building something near them they don’t like. But they won’t say that. That would be fine if there was a party willing to call them out on that. Like, say, a genuine left wing party willing to say that the needs of the wretched outweigh the needs of the already housed. But we don’t have a genuinely left wing party, just various shades of populist who start to sweat kidney stones if there’s a danger they might end up on the unpopular side of an issue. In the words of Yes, Minister’s Jim Hacker: “There goes the mob. I am their leader. I must follow them.”
No, it’s much easier to bang on about how housing is caused by ideology, how the Fine Gael/Fianna Fail partnership government is riddled with corruption and builders money burning a hole in their Panamanian bank accounts and all the rest.
If only it were that simple. If the problem was just a load of crooks the solution would be straightforward. Vote them out.
But it’s not, and they’re not.
The reason they’re making such little progress on housing is because they know, deep down, the public want new housing built but only in places that won’t effect, you know, the public.
It’s as simple as that. Yes, we can join all the dots about planning and funding and zoning and height restrictions and dual aspect and minimum square metrage, and they all matter, but the politicians know one thing over everything else.
Local voters vote against new housing entrants into their area, and cast their votes for councillors and TDs accordingly.
Supporting new local housing needs political courage, and political courage in modern Ireland is not a plentiful commodity.
In 1957 John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer prize for “writing” (he didn’t) “Profiles in courage”, a book about US senators who took courageous stands on issues of personal conscience against popular opinion. Ironically, one of the greatest 20th century profiles in courage displayed was then by Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson, in supporting the 1964 civil rights act and the 1965 voting rights act knowingly destroyed his own party’s voter core in the US south in pursuit of black voting rights.
The Democratic party literally walked away from its own most racist voters. No prizes for guessing which party jettisoned its traditional black voters faster than you could say Abraham Lincoln and ran towards the white sheets, by the way.
Where is our LBJ? It’s a big ask, admittedly. Expecting an Irish politician to make decisions that they know are extremely unpopular and will almost certainly destroy them politically is expecting an awful lot. The sort of thing that one would never expect of the ordinary voter. On top of that, there’s also the reality that one’s noble action will probably not be acknowledged in one’s life- time. Look at how we regard the late Brian Lenihan compared to Brian Cowan, two men who pretty much made the same decisions.
But then, that’s the difference between a mere politician, of whom we have no shortage, and most of whom will be forgotten, and a statesman.
Even with the political will, it’ll probably take at least a decade to build the level of housing we need. That’s assuming, by the way, that as we build it doesn’t lower housing costs, improve the country’s attractiveness, and increase housing demand. But the political titan who makes the decisions will have been despised by the already housed and probably have been hounded from office way before the first new tenants and owners finally move into their new homes. Like those who spoke against segregation in the southern US states, their friends, work colleagues, neighbours even family spitting on them, he or she will have to be satisfied by the inner light. The voice that says you are doing the right thing.
You don’t need courage to agree with the popular opinion. Those who supported marriage equality 20 years ago, they were the brave ones, not the ones last year. Those who opposed the 8th amendment in 1983, they’re the courageous ones. No one dared wear a “Repeal” sweater in 1984.
Show me a housing minister who says we’re going high-rise in Dublin and we’re going to fast-track it, and no, you won’t be able to block it in the courts, and I’ll show you a profile in courage.