Part 1: Radical Beginnings – Forming the Irish Housing Network
This is the first 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 first part introduces the housing crisis and traditions of resistance, before then exploring why and how the Irish Housing Network came into being.
In December 2014, a stone’s throw away from Dail Eireann, a homeless man died. Though many more had died on the streets before him, there was immediate outrage and a public outpouring of emotion. There were speeches, calls for policy changes, photo shoots. And then… nothing.
By the end of 2015, the number of homeless families has more than doubled. 1,571 children were homeless; 130,000 people were on social housing waiting lists; more children were living in poverty, rents continued to rise and more evictions were being enacted. Things had only gotten worse. Why so, and what was the fight back?
The story of the rise of the Irish Housing Network is an important part in understanding the housing crisis, a crisis created and recreated by the drive of a rich minority. It is the story of a fight back against this crisis. It is the story of a growing housing movement that focuses on homelessness, social housing and tenants, but also on anti-racism, anti-austerity and community power. The review below is by Seamus Farrell, a founding member of the network. The views expressed are his own.
The Housing and Homeless Crisis
The Irish housing and homeless crisis of 2015, and the resistance to it, have deep roots. The vision of a radical Ireland, of justice, equality, peace and solidarity, envisioned by participants of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence was quickly suppressed by the establishment of the first Free State government. The new state was economically built on business power and a landed ruling class and ideologically built on church control. Property and housing was central to this new Ireland. Private property, speculation and landlordism -taken over by an Irish ruling class from the British 90 years ago-, was deepened and continued by Fianna Fail’s golden circle (longstanding centrist/conservative ruling party), who facilitated property developers and bankers, all the way through to the speculation boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger and the Financial Crash of 2008. Their opposition, the right-wing Fine Gael and nominal left of Labour, provided opposition only in name.
Throughout the 20th century, housing, which was a scene of deplorable conditions and suffering, generated notable housing movements. The tenements of the 1920s gave way to the social housing building programs and land reforms of the 1930s; the overcrowding, squalor and suffering of the 1960s and 1970s gave way to the Dublin Housing Action Committee. Rent strikes, occupations and mass direct action organised by effected tenants, forced the building of social housing throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland housing was central to the emergence of a civil rights movement and deeply tied to radical efforts to challenge living and working conditions, as well as political oppression.
In 2008 the economy collapsed, driven by a golden circle and centered on property and finance. Property developers, investors, speculators and the political establishment were central to this collapse, and the austerity that followed was central to the preservation of the golden circles that teetered on the brink of collapse in 2008. By 2015 communities had been hollowed out by cuts, unemployment and emigration. Homelessness was on the rise, and underneath this very visible homeless on the streets was a host of interconnected disasters: the social housing waiting list had reached 130,000, while maintaining property prices and high end investment were government priorities; thousands were homeless while buildings lay empty; tenement conditions were returning and often three generations of the same family returned to living under the same roof for lack of options; and that is saying nothing of dramatic rent hikes and exponential mortgage debt that many people suffered under. The pressure was building.
Pockets of Resistance, a Water Movement and a Housing Crisis
(Credit Spectacle of Defiance & Hope) (Credit Right2Water)
Austerity cut across large swathes of society. Education cuts, health cuts, community cuts and unemployment devastated working class and rural communities. Emigration dispersed another Irish generation across the globe.
Resistance has been mixed: the trade union movement after 20 years of social partnership had been demobilised and discouraged, negotiation rather than protest, picket and strike was now their tradition. Left parties had been begun to grow, but to little effect, as Fine Gael and Labour, both centre right parties, had formed a stable majority government.
The first resistance to austerity was driven by communities and those affected by austerity; out of shock and horror came pockets of anger. Occupy Dame Street followed the global occupy movement; Dublin Says No and Ballyhea Says No started to march against austerity, work place occupations occurred as business closed, anti-racism activism, feminist activism, student protests and We’re Not Leaving which focused on how austerity disproportionately affected the young all began to build. The Greyhound Lockout and the Campaign Against the Household and Property Tax took such battles more firmly into the communities.
These forces formed the basis of an explosive mass movement in 2014 based around the introduction of water fees. Communities across the country blockaded water meter installations, fighting Irish Water street by street, campaigns sprang up in every corner of the country, boycott campaigns kicked off, and national demonstrations drew between 20,000 and 100,000 for more than a year. The water movement was something new because of its scale and scope, because of the involvement of five unions split away from social partnership and the labour party, the range of left parties and forces involved and most importantly because of the sheer power and scale of community organising. It was also froth with division.
This was the context in which a housing and homeless fightback came together. What made up the beginning of a housing fight back was small, diverse collectives; in many ways the left overs of other campaigns, of communities outside of activism and another movement spilling into a housing fight back.
Housing: Fragments and fight backs
The housing fight in many ways was most pronounced and organised in rural Ireland. A wide combination of forces, of rural poverty, of small landholdings, of republicanism, populism and anti-establishment thought were working together. They were united by frustration and set about countering the crisis with anti-eviction work, opposition to the courts and banks, and boycotts, some of which were highly effective, though they failed to get much traction in the cities.
In Dublin, long standing activists consolidated. They aimed to put housing research into practice. Legal activists fought evictions in the courts, direct action republicans, anti-capitalists and a growing squatting scene provided a radical base for anti-establishment activities. These disparate forces coalesced with homeless support groups, along with some of the more radical elements in service provision that were interested in more participatory forms of grassroots action.
Beyond this, most importantly, several communities were self-organising. There, mothers affected by the housing crisis had begun supporting each after they had been used as mouthpieces by left parties on housing issues, and then summarily dropped once media traction had vanished. Dissatisfied by what they viewed as an opportunistic and ineffective model of politics, they began self-organising, they took direct action, they shared information and they built community power.
The Network Forms
The Irish Housing Network came out of these disparate fragments. Initially, Housing Action Now, who wanted to move housing research into practice, organised a workshop with the Spanish anti-eviction group, PAH (Platforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca). They invited housing groups from across the country. The idea was to learn from their struggle, to cement European links, but also to explore the possibility of bringing Irish activists and groups together. There was no guarantee that a network would be a direct outcome of the workshops, but it was worth exploring the possibility in a meaningful and respectful space. Appetite for some level of cooperation was strong among many. How this would take shape was undecided.
Shortly after a spring workshop, North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Community hosted a public talk on the housing crisis in Darndale, Dublin. Many from the workshops were invited to speak. The range of background and skills was exciting: social workers, legal supports, direct action anti-capitalists, left activists all came together with a community that had borne the brunt of devastating cuts.
A network began to form. A simple structure was proposed. Groups would continue as they were, keeping their own name, and prioritising their own issues. The network would be a way of supporting each other- through shared action, shared learning and shared resources. It was agreed that something was needed in writing, a structure to formalise our work but also not overburden the groups involved. The loose collection of groups and activists started work on three pieces. 1) Principles 2) basic decision making structures and 3) a set of demands collectively developed which would be reviewed and revised as the network developed.
The principles are worth laying out in full below:
Irish Housing Network Principles and Structures
1. Housing (long-term and stable, a home) is a right, regardless of income.
2. Those affected by housing issues and the communities in which they live, are the centre of the housing struggle, and their consent, participation and leadership is the driving force of the housing struggle.
3. Anyone who is a member of a political group, NGO, government body, etc. is welcome in the housing network, but while in the network they are working to empower those affected by the housing crisis, according to the needs and wishes of those affected, not the needs and wishes of their respective party or organisation. In short, political allegiances are left at the door.
4. While participating in the housing network, members are subject to the democratic process of the housing network.
5. Violence has no place in the housing network, but all other forms of action, direct or otherwise, are respected when appropriate.
6. No member of the housing network can profit financially from those affected by the housing crisis.
7. We affirm our belief in solidarity. All groups support and train each other, sharing their skills, experience and knowledge, as well as resources where possible.
The democratic procedures allowed a space for working together, for voting and, importantly, it allowed groups to opt out of specific actions, although solidarity was encouraged. The demands took longer to form. They were radical and focused; collectively constructed by diverse groups. They included no evictions, the right to social use of vacant property and NAMA, social housing building, rent controls, tenants’ rights enforced by a tenants’ union, squatter rights, homeless protection and rights and housing as part of the wider community.
Tactically, and in keeping with the principles, the focus was on remaining independent of political parties and NGOs: the centre of its efforts would always be the empowerment of those affected, and the empowerment of their differing communities. There was a conscious effort to take the energy and hope of the water movement, while not replicating its limitations and infighting. Some thought the best way to avoid this was to exclude political parties and big organisations, whose solidarity always only ever stretched so far, and who would try to impose their own agenda rather than generating consensus from the grassroots. In the end, the majority of the network favoured working with, and welcoming, all groups, but introduced several mechanisms that would disallow hijacking. This meant not taking sides in disputes; groups being able to join who agreed with our principles; and parties being allowed in as minorities, not in a majority. More generally, there was the belief that we should actively encourage working alongside those affected; usually found in the base of organisations. We wanted activists rather than Councillors, workers rather than the heads of the trade unions, and frontline workers rather than charity bosses. We wanted to build and work from the frontline first, and would work with anyone who respected that and who was affected by this crisis.