Part 3- The fightback grows
This is the third of a four part series on the Irish housing crisis and fight back against it; focusing on the rise of the Irish Housing Network. The third part focuses on recovering and building after the Bolt and challenges of political strategy.
(Left Catherine’s Gate: Right, Peoples Housing Forum)
After the Bolt occupation the network and many of the groups in it took some time to rest, recover and reorganise. Groups got back to their own work, helping those in emergency accommodation, legal support, anti-eviction work, research and soup runs. We also got a chance to reflect about what we had learned from the Bolt and how we could grow.
Actions started back with a protest highlighting empty buildings in early September, with Right2Housing driving this (a People before Profit Housing campaign), and a Network organised Homeless Protest on September 22nd. Following the 22nd of September an unprecedented upsurge in action, training, education and organising took place. It would be impossible to cover all that was done so I want to just cover four important pieces of work (network structure changes and growth; actions around homelessness and efforts to engage with justice for marginalised communities; education and training; and our engagement with political strategy) and I want to try tease out some lessons from them.
Network Structures and Growth
We learned in the Bolt that there was huge overlap in the work being done by different groups despite our best efforts to support and educate each other. We also found that small numbers of people were at times taking on multiple roles. This was leading to burnout for these activists but also limiting the possibility of new members getting involved, as everyone came to rely on these few. To challenge these points and to strengthen the Network four internal teams were set up.
1) Cases: helping families, those affected, and the homeless. This team’s role was to pool resources and knowledge more effectively. This was modeled on North Dublin Bay HCC who had already set up a support group which had started to shift from individual case work to a format that better fostered group support and collective action.
2) Finance: We needed to be able to sustainably fund ourselves, particularly for longer campaigns. All grassroots groups know that money is a mixed blessing: without it, groups find themselves constantly lowering their expectations (volunteerism has an exceptionally low glass ceiling), but money creates its own set of problems. It can lead to infighting and reliance; also the existence of money can actually demotivate activists and make them less creative, rather than vice versa. To avoid these problems we began to experiment with a format which would not only be open, transparent and democratic, but also (hopefully) participative and heavily linked to action and housing awareness and keep us independent.
3) Media: Along with updates and calls to action released via social media, we needed to have media contacts at events and the ability to release good quality press releases. This team would expand and standardise our information and message, but also develop and collect relevant research and analysis. Underneath the suffering that a housing crisis brings, and behind the resistance that activists undertake, there is a constant ideological battle being waged against the idea of stable housing as a right. The media team was set up to disperse clear, easily understandable, information to counter the limitations of this pervasive, damaging mainstream narrative.
4) Outreach: this team’s focus was to support new members in the network; to work with new groups and to support new groups to join. In areas without groups, there were efforts to support groups setting up.
The teams allowed us to bring in new faces, spread workload and plan more effectively. This was boasted by new groups joining the network. More local groups such as Dublin Central Housing Action emerging out of the Bolt, joining groups such as D8HAC and Ballymun-Finglas Housing Action. A national network seemed possible as groups sprung up in Wexford and Kildare. Importantly, these groups did not come out of nowhere. Homeless groups, the remnants of previous campaigns, water and anti-austerity activists and small numbers of socialist and republican groups were starting to take part in broader community-based organisations in a participative and respectful way.
Homeless Action and Marginalised Communities
Homelessness became and continued to be central to our organising efforts. The Bolt Hostel focused this on a specific point, a direct fault line pitching us as a network against the full force of the council and courts. In contrast efforts after the Bolt were more diverse and in many ways offered even greater room for experimenting and building a fight back. The support groups set up by local groups such as North Dublin Bay allowed those facing homelessness, those in emergency accommodation to begin to lead homeless actions. At the same time the increased profile of the network and credibility as well the worsening crisis meant that more people were coming forward either facing eviction or already homelessness. Local sleep outs started. Agitation began in the hostels, hotels and emergency accommodation sites. Opposition to the wider interlinked aspects of the crisis from modular housing (prefabs) and Housing Assistant Payment (HAP) and low income rental instead of social housing starting to deepened and spread the reach of our organising efforts.
By November we were starting to get important links by supporting those affected, building local organising around them and with a wider network in support in the background. In Wexford a NAMA auction was successfully stopped. At Catherine’s Gate, a 12 day emergency accommodation stand off after severe mistreatment of tenants by staff was led by the family affected support by a new local network member D8HAC and backed up by the knowledge of the cases and media team of the network. It drew out a stalemate but organised opposition to tenant mistreatment in emergency accommodation was only starting.
As the refugee crisis engulfed Europe many of us in the network felt that homelessness was being used as an excuse to refuse refugees their right to shelter. We felt that we had a duty to fight this. We reached out to the Anti-Racism Network (ARN) to see how we could work together and they responded by joining the network. Soon after this the Carrickmines tragedy put discrimination against Irish Travellers sharply into focus. For many involved we want housing for all, and even more then this the most marginalised and suffering are the greatest target for mistreatment and the most important to support and build as central to our network. Single mothers, migrants, young people, the unemployed and travellers, no one can be left behind or out. We felt we were not experts by any means and the voice of those affected from these communities and grassroots anti-racism activists should be central to our struggle.
Education and Training
Education and Training became a huge part of our work after the Bolt. It was a key founding principle, that the network would exist to support, train, educate and show solidarity in action. It was important to give new groups confidence, to spread the work of activists and to share the knowledge ever growing from battle to battle, struggle to struggle. The two most important forms this took were the internal Strategy Get Together and the external Peoples Housing Forum. The Strategy Get Together allowed for a full day of training, strategy power analysis and then campaign discussion. It allowed us to reflect together, educate and plan for the short and medium term. The Peoples Housing Forum driven by Housing Action Now and supported by the network set out the building of people’s housing demands. Process in many ways was important as the outcome and we felt even in progress circles too much of housing policy and ideas are controlled by a small number of ‘experts’. This was a problem for three reasons. It created an elite, it detached policy from people’s experiences and it gave activists and those affected no ownership over the ideas necessary to change the conditions we faced. We wanted to begin to change that with the Peoples Housing Forum.
The Politics Game
As our network grew, our education, strategy and training strengthen and our action developed an important political clash happened. A National Demonstration was called by a few group the National Housing and Homeless Coalition. One group who left the network Help 4 the Homeless have being calling for a national demonstration since September. Their approach was to get the ‘heavy-hitters’ behind it, i.e left parties, trade unions and homeless charities. Despite differences within the network over this being too closely linked with various parties, we generally supported calls for a national demonstration. The Demonstration ended up having between 700-1000 people at it on a cold Tuesday evening in December. Below are a number of general and hopefully constructive critiques of the organising and impact of said national demonstration and what we need to consider moving forward with such actions.
Organising V Mobilising. Mobilisation/demonstrations can serve a number of important roles. They can be a show of strength, they can bring groups together in planning or organising of an event, forging new links and networks and/or they can raise an issue that is often ignored. With these upsides there are also downsides. A demonstration does not on its own achieve anything. In housing for example, it does not stop an eviction, build social housing, open a vacant building or take a homeless person off the street. It does not disrupt the day to day running of the system of the profit making which drives our current housing regime. In effect demonstrations alone appeal only to a vague idea of changing public opinion or damaging the government.
If they don’t achieve anything tangible why are they the main form of political opposition from the radicals left to moderate forces? The most simple answer is that they are safe. They give parties, trade unions and charities the change to show they are doing something and boast their profile without risking direct disruptive action or more long term deep organising on the ground.
Demonstration are useful when they are an addition to organising but they simple cannot be seem as a replacement. In the water movement they were an addition to pickets, water meter protests and direct action not a replacement. Traditionally in trade union circles they were and are an addition to the strike not a replacement. We made these arguments clearly to the new coalition, and we asked them to support organising on the ground and efforts such as the peoples housing forum as well as the demonstration. Time will tell if these ideas and demands are heeded.
Democracy. For organising to work large number of people affected need to be not only engaged but centre to the fight back. That means that they are central to decision making not simply used as boots on the streets. Old habits die hard in many corners of the ‘progressive’ movement on this fundamental organising question. We were requested to attend organising meetings as a network, with leaders of each of the left parties, heads of the left unions and the main homeless charities. We requested that such a meeting be opened out. We requested that rather than two members representing the network that all groups in the network be allowed to send representative and that we would be able to choose to rotate them so that those affected and new activists get to take part in the decision making process. They requested that two are selected, and in fact they recommended who they wanted and no more. This is smart politics in itself as it creates tension between those ‘selected’ or picked out as leaders and the rest of the movement.
Many from the radical left and more institutional left call for people power and a new democracy in theory but are slow to act out these ideas in their day to day organising practice. Without real democracy built into real and sustained organising effort no movement can or will grow to challenge or transform the world we have before us. This will be a long fight in our housing movement and more generally for all movements and efforts for justice.