Part 2- First Actions and the Bolt Hostel Occupation
This is the second of a four part series on the Irish housing crisis and fight back against it; focusing on the rise of the Irish Housing Network. This second part looks at the first network actions and then the Bolt Hostel occupation
(DCC Occupation Credit IHN) (South Dub CC Injunction, Credit IHN)
While the network was forming the housing crisis was intensifying. This was particularly noticeable in the increasing numbers of homeless visible every night. Four months after the declaration from Enda Kenny that ‘no one would be homeless unless they choose’ we were seeing families with young children being given sleeping bags in lieu of emergency accommodation, which had reached full capacity at the start of the year. A wave of occupations began.
First DCC were targeted. 4 cases were taken: a mother with 2 young children given a sleeping bag but refused accommodation; a mental health patient released onto the street; a pregnant mother, and a couple with 2 children were all forced into homelessness. The network took these families directly to DCC, occupying the premise until they were housed. Occupations had happened before, the DHAC of the 1960s and 1970s made it famous; the Says No activists of recent years took many buildings in symbolic direct action. We felt we were learning from these actions, but also trying something new. Those directly affected took the lead. They made the decisions, they voted on what to accept or not. We also felt that our target was more concrete then symbolic. Occupying a bank or the GPO has symbolism but occupying DCC, -who have the power to house the families coming forward- was concrete. We could also, if DCC gave in, directly and immediately win a victory. The first DCC occupation produced a 4 hour standoff, meetings with the head of housing and homelessness, and a vote on offers made. Temporary housing was won for these families who would have been on the street.
Next the focus shifted to South County Dublin: a couple faced with homelessness occupied council offices there, supported by local groups and the network. South County Dublin would not cave so easily: the couple occupied for 3 days inside the council buildings, were given a high court injunction, and then raised tents across the road. Pressure and public attention forced a limited offer. Temporary and precarious accommodation.
The council told us take your demands to the department: they control the money. So we did. The department was located in the large, and grand, former custom house on the quays. It was also a place where many people were sleeping rough, in full view of the minister and staff who controlled the housing budget and made housing policy.
Another occupation produced a meeting with heads of the department. We demanded the declaration of an emergency housing and homeless crisis. Their response was that ‘there was no crisis’ and ‘they were solving the crisis’. This confused and contradictory reply was a clear signal that nothing would change from the department, even as the crisis intensified.
For many activists we felt we had hit our expected brick wall. We knew that the state would not admit liability and perform their duty to protect their homeless because of a small amount of pressure; but we felt it was our duty to fully explore this option and to give them, as a preliminary, an unearned benefit of the doubt. It may be argued that this was always going to be the outcome, so why bother? Of course the system is rigged; of course the state and government is so close to the landlord and developer that it is difficult to tell them apart.
Nevertheless, activists and homeless people leading their own struggle had to see that themselves; to experience it first-hand through action. They had to witness, in a land of state-owned vacant properties, state representatives with the power to shelter vulnerable homeless individuals, point blank refuse to shelter them. These state representatives do this every day. They refuse people in need of emergency accommodation after putting them through laborious, nerve racking, difficult bureaucratic processes that stretch throughout the whole day, but which only operate within a small window of time, but these homeless people leading their own struggle, and our activists, had to see these state representatives refuse them to their faces. We were learning, communally, and now we had to prepare to up the fight.
The Bolt Occupation
We had wins from occupations; our network was growing; attention was on housing and homelessness, and many were beginning to take note. Now, in the middle of the summer, we decided to up the ante. An opportunity opened up to take a building in the city centre: a former homeless hostel, vacant for three years. We could do it up and house people. We had a clear message: radical common sense, whereas homelessness while homes are empty is radically nonsensical. The act of taking over a building violated the near-sacred role of private property ownership, but we felt a majority of the country would support the action because it was needed.
The battle ended up lasting 2 months. At first, support poured forward, all be it unevenly. There were many volunteers for painting, plumbing, electrics, donations, and community outreach. The media scrambled over each other to cover the story: messages poured in, parties, trade unions and broad swathes of the public showed support. People were housed, temporarily. We held rallies of support, community fun days and marched to the court. We put the issue of empty buildings in a homeless crisis on the map: which, in terms of housing, is the fundamental contradiction within our society. The occupation ended late August, exhausted and facing a mounting legal battle in the high court, consensus was reached to pull back. This was the first sustained public and political occupation since the height of the DHAC: an amazing effort and a demonstration that vacant buildings could be done up with a bit of time and little to no money. It showed that the problem was will and ideology, not money.
This occupation and in particular the intensity of the high court case took its toll, but we learned a few points that should be useful for actions such as this, but also more generally for our movements.
This was a huge challenge. An occupation that lasts longer than a week, and you don’t know when its going to end, transforms and consumes people’s lives if there are not enough people on rotation. We went in strong, as a network, but we pushed our capacity to the limits. We also limited our ability to take other actions because all our energy went into the Bolt. It can’t be overstated what an important consideration this is for any sustained action. Numbers, yes. Numbers are easy, but how many people can commit sizable chunks of time regularly to actions of this nature?
2) Good Activism
Any type of collective action involves a few things. Care and support for each other, consistency, planning and strategy. There also needs to be an exit strategy, an ability to up the pressure and stand against any threats. You also have to have something the other side values to fight with. In the Bolt we had all of these but were also challenged by all of these.
3) Challenges of the radical left:
Many of the left parties, revolutionaries and radicals, either don’t have the capacity or are unwilling to get down and dirty with something they have not planned, or with something that they cannot control themselves. If left parties, radicals and revolutionaries don’t have the capacity to help, we have to look at while that is? If they are unwilling surely that has to change? Surely actions like the Bolt are exactly what they should be involved in?
4) The anti-austerity ‘fringe’
Many of the newer anti-austerity activists were themselves scared and not in a position to care for others in an intense and extended collective action, or care and support those who are facing homelessness. This is understandable. It’s a huge responsibility, but it needs to be considered when planning such actions.
5) Sustaining the Fight
Finally there are two ‘groups’ that can sustain long actions and collective struggle and those are communities and trade unions The Trade Unions are not yet active in organising on the ground in housing, even if they are now proposing housing policies. That needs to change. We did some great work in the Bolt with the community and got great support, but real lasting action needs a lot more trust and the groundwork, and it should be done in anticipation of action as well as during the action (and should, ideally, continue after the action). Many groups call themselves grassroots and community, but in an empty sort of way. The only way to test out if groups that call themselves grassroots or community-based are is to test it through co-operative action. Community organising and action means large numbers of people in an area organising and fighting back, not small numbers who hate parties and trade unions and need a title so call themselves ‘community’ or ‘grassroots’ for lack of a different name. We need to build from networks that actually exist in the community, not people who call themselves the community. The ability to differentiate one from the other is a key organising tool. We need to build alongside those who are already trusted in the community, those who care for others within those communities, and those who hold communities together. We also need to politicise, radicalise and democratise them; turning the already-existing power of the community into something that can win big political fights; turn back the tide in housing and fight for a more decent society overall.
6) Dublin City Council’s (DCC’s) power:
DCC were not a neutral entity or a sympathetic voice. It set out to eliminate us. We learned how DCC works, and who holds power within it. DCC is dominated by a non-elected area manager who actively acts as a business CEO. This business model shows who holds legal and financial power over housing, and, importantly, who doesn’t. It shows the ability of the council to override and steamroll decision through. Elected councillors neither have the ability or the power to hold them to account or honestly set policy at a local level. It is a stitch-up and a farce. Above the council, if all else fails, the department of the environment sets the policy and controls the money. They are the link to the suitcase men; driven by lobbying from developers, bankers, accountancy firms and investors. And all this is channeled through a right-wing government.
7) DCC Tactics
DCC played nice, offering us deals on site by site cooperation (where we would provide free labour and they would get a house or two out of it), hoping we were naïve do-gooders. The intention of this was to split the network radicals from moderates, and it was done through carefully constructed proposals and hints at job offers for key network members. Meanwhile DCC also played viciously they enacted consistent surveillance of the building, social media surveillance, high court action and, most viciously, refused to take on any cases or families that were supported by the network. In effect, they sought to punish homeless people to isolate the network. Often they were just dishonest; arriving at the door of the Bolt to gain access while numbers were low, despite formally agreeing to only go through representatives at set times. There strongest suit was the legal route and it was filled with strong handed tactics too. We were called to court with two days’ notice and if that wasn’t enough we were whisked away to meet some of the most powerful barristers in the country at lunch on our court day who ‘reminded’ us of the consequences of being ‘obstructive’. DCC, naturally, was very keen on a total victory, not only to crush subversion, but also so that the glaring cracks in its own system didn’t become apparent for all to see.
Know your enemy by what they do when their power is challenged, not by what they say.