Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
There’s a standard dance to be performed when a left-wing activist wishes to promote the idea of a constitutional right to housing, which reared its head once again for discussion last week.
He or she will tell tales of the legitimate hardship of many, wrapped up in the cloak of outrage of What Sort of Country Are We? Then lob in Will Somebody Please Think Of The Children, and then, just for good measure, it’ll all be drizzled with a good dose of The Men of 1916 and Was It For This? There’ll be plenty of emotion and finger-pointing, all with the suggestion that once it is a right, that’s it: problem solved.
As it happens, I agree with a right to housing. As with healthcare, the reality is that a capitalist free-market society can only exist with broad consent, and you won’t get that consent without people having decent homes to live in. A shortage of affordable housing of an acceptable standard is a serious threat to confidence in the capitalist system, and smart centre-right politicians including Fianna Fail and the Tories, from World War Two onwards recognised this. That recognition helped keep those parties in power for a generation. Shelter isn’t a privilege; it’s both a right and a necessity. If capitalism isn’t capable of providing shelter for all, then we should all be socialists.
What annoys me isn’t the actual goal of a right to housing, but the fact that the commitment to delivery is so wafer thin by the alphabet left. Many on the left who do the right to housing dance are similar to those who protest against nuclear power and in favour of renewable energy.
Right up to the moment some company tries to build a wind farm.
Then they’ll either vanish or else do the usual support for the concept but object to the actual details of the practice. They’ll be first up to wax lyrical about housing, but any sort of local opposition, even to publicly-built housing, and they’ll find some reason to join the crowd outside shouting at the county chief executive who wants to actually build it. The alphabet left don’t do spine. They’re terrified of the mob turning on them, and so pretend to lead it, a trickle of tell-tale nervous sweat running down their backs as they keep a wary eye on its direction.
They don’t do courage of conviction.
There’s an old and beautifully-named concept in Marxism called the “transitional demand”. It’s the idea of a far left group issuing a demand for something which they know can’t be achieved, or privately don’t really want to be achieved. A right to housing is an old classic, suitably big but vague enough to be kicked about without going into the specifics of where to build, what to build, and how to pay for it. If they’d been around in 1916, they’d have been in the mob screaming at the volunteers being led out, not for rising up against the British, but for not implementing a universal healthcare and building programme whilst being the provisional government for a week.
Even if we could get the proverbial bricks and mortar details together as to how to build all this needed housing, what specific right would we put before the people in a constitutional referendum? What would be the wording?
Every citizen shall have a right to housing?
Every citizen? So this doesn’t apply to refugees or EU citizens or non-Irish? Is that a hate-crime?
OK. Every resident of Ireland shall have a right to housing.
But what do we mean by housing? Is a hotel room housing? A Bed & Breakfast?
I suspect the housing rights people would disagree.
Every resident of Ireland shall have a right to non-temporary housing.
Now we’re getting somewhere. But a question. What’s to stop, say, a Times columnist tootling down to the High Court and demanding a free house?
Ah, but you fancy-pants columnists wouldn’t accept what was offered to you, and the danger you could be miles away from your nearest smashed avocado toast depot, says you.
So a person would have to accept what was offered to fulfil their right to housing? Isn’t that actually a reduction in one’s current rights, where one can refuse a number of offers of council housing?
Of course, the High Court would say that I could exercise my right to housing without state intervention, which would be true. But wouldn’t that then recognise, constitutionally, the concept of a means test? That the state had not only a right, but perhaps even an obligation to ensure that by giving a limited resource, a home, to an individual who may well be able to contribute to housing themselves that it was in fact depriving another lower income individual of the exercise of their right to housing?
Does that not mean that the state would actually be obliged to set variable rents based on an individual’s income, be it salary or social welfare? Couldn’t that oblige the state, therefore, to even increase rents on existing state tenants by court order, to free up revenue to build more housing to vindicate other unhoused people’s right to housing?
A constitutional obligation on the state to means test? Not on Paul Murphy’s watch, God damn it! Out comes the red pen again:
Every resident of Ireland shall have a right to non-temporary housing without regard to their income.
Now, literally, everybody can demand a free house. Air BnB will be delighted, and the housing waiting lists will soar as every South Dublin rugby-playing kid stands in the queue of the housing rights agency waiting for the keys to their free gaff, as Dad shouts at Matt Cooper inside the Seven Series outside. The official will peer out the window and grind his teeth, knowing that Sebastian in front of him here has as much constitutional right to a free house as the next fella, despite his father bringing in the big bucks as Chairman of Anglo-Ukrainian Bank. Dad’s solicitor at Countem, Foldem and Trouserem, or rather, his junior Arabella whom Sebastian quite fancies, has filled in the paperwork immaculately, unlike the poor fella who is in the queue before him who was never great at the old reading and writing and so has been sent home to try to fill the forms in, moving to the bottom of the housing list once again.
Once again, the Irish alphabet left will have put another nice tasty taxpayer funded number into the pockets of the educated Irish upper middle classes. In the words of the late Claude Rains: I’m shocked! Shocked!
All a load of nonsense, right? Yeah, you’re probably right. After all, this country, to be fair, has absolutely no experience whatsoever of what was thought to be a relatively simple constitutional amendment being inserted into Bunreacht na hEireann and for the thing to go haywire, being interpreted to mean something completely different by the courts.
Nope. That’s never happened before.
I look forward to an elderly Paul Murphy coming out of retirement to campaign to repeal the right to housing after it makes the government fund a chateau in Provence for Michael O’Leary after he goes to court to vindicate his right to housing.
Because we never said that right had to be exercised in Ireland, did we?