By Conor Payne
Conditions for the working class and the poor in Ireland and internationally, as well as for the planet, are deteriorating at an alarming rate because we live in a capitalist system that is only interested in super profits for a tiny minority. And things will only get worse unless ordinary working-class people unite and fight to overthrow capitalism. The crisis is reflected over the last week and a half, in a series of protests that have taken place in the working-class community of East Wall in Dublin, after more than 300 refugees, fleeing from war, persecution and environmental devastation, were housed in the area in a renovated building by government officials with little or no communication in advance. It must be a terrible experience for those people to be forced to leave their homes and then, on arrival in Ireland, face what must be the intimidating experience of protests outside their accommodation.
The responsibility for these events lies with a government which has presided over this unending housing crisis and consequently, has found itself incapable of handling the increased number of refugees who have entered the country this year due to the Ukraine war and other factors. This is a critical element fuelling these protests. Genuine concerns about housing and essential local services combined with understandable anger at a lack of communication by the government has allowed elements of the far right to intervene and try to whip up divisive and racist sentiments in the midst of a tense situation.
Government’s disgraceful treatment of refugees
There are many factors that result in people being forced to flee their homes: wars, persecution, poverty, oppression and, increasingly, the destruction of our climate and ecosystem. According to the United Nations, there are 89 million refugees globally, 27 million of whom have been forced to leave their respective countries. They are the victims of the systemic failures and injustices of capitalism. The Socialist Party supports the right to seek and be given sanctuary and asylum and to live a life free from poverty, oppression and persecution. We oppose the racist immigration laws and controls of the Irish state and the European Union.
The refugees that have arrived in Ireland have been treated abysmally by the state and are themselves the victims of the housing crisis. You only have to look at the disgrace that is Direct Provision–the ghettoisation of those seeking asylum in substandard accommodation, being forced to live on poverty incomes often without the right to work. Shamefully, the government’s plans to get rid of this system by 2024 have now been indefinitely postponed citing problems with accommodation, or the lack thereof.
Recently, RTE reported that 279 asylum seekers are living in tents across the state in lieu of proper accommodation. In August of this year, reports emerged of refugees being forced to sleep on chairs in City West in Dublin with no blankets. These include the 80 refugees that were brought in to stay in the old ESB office in East Wall. The latter accommodation is not fit for purpose to decently house people. It’s outrageous that people who are suffering from the trauma of experiencing and fleeing war, oppression and persecution are treated in such a manner.
On Friday, it was announced that a record 11,397 are now living in emergency accommodation. This is only the tip of the iceberg—according to the Simon Communities of Ireland, one in four people knows someone who has experienced ‘hidden homelessness’ in the last 12 months. An estimated 290,000 adults are sleeping on sofas or staying with friends.
Yet, shamefully, in the last week Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green Party TDs voted down a motion in the Dáil to simply declare the dire housing situation an emergency. For them, it’s “crisis, what crisis?”. The total lack of affordable homes means that working-class people, Irish-born and migrant, are being put in competition for the scarce resources that the governments and the capitalist market they represent are capable or willing to provide. The housing crisis is just one of a myriad of crises working class people face – including a major cost of living emergency, the chronic under-resourcing of essential public services and now a growing threat of recession which would mean a new round of attacks on jobs and living standards. All this means there is a deep alienation with the status quo, and if an alternative isn’t offered can lay the basis for division and racism to grow and fester, or for the far right to try and grow and to disgustingly exploit this crisis. On the basis of this system based on inequality and the rule of profit, working-class people are pitted against one another in what seems to be a competition for scarce resources.
However, in reality, there are more than enough resources in this country to ensure that everyone has a home and a decent standard of living – but these resources are owned and controlled by a small minority for their own benefit. There are 166,000 vacant and derelict homes in the state. The wealth of Ireland’s billionaires went up by €16 billion during the pandemic, now standing at €51 billion, while the turnover of Ireland’s top five Irish companies alone is €327.4 billion.
The crisis is a result of profiteering by developers, landlords and vulture funds and the government which defends their interests. It is they who have created rising rents, and scores of vacant and derelict homes all over the country and failed to build affordable public housing.
Lack of homes and underfunded services
The community of East Wall is a microcosm of the housing crisis. This traditional working-class community is becoming rapidly gentrified as house prices shoot up and with little to no public homes being built. Many young people are only able to stay in the area in which they grew up by continuing to live with their parents. The area is surrounded by Ireland’s corporate hub, the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC), along with a series of corporate offices, five-star hotels and overpriced luxury apartments along its docklands. Some of these apartments are vacant and are being hoarded for profit such as those in Capital Dock, a 22-storey building, where, as of January last year, half of its 190 apartment units lie empty. The IFSC is home to “brass plate” shell companies, who along with the super-rich and big business generally in Ireland, are profiting enormously from Ireland’s status as a tax haven. Meanwhile, investment in public services and homes, for both Irish and migrant working class and poor people, remain starved of funding.
The crisis in housing is combined with a series of crises in social services. There are 30% fewer GPs in Ireland per head of population than in England, resulting in longer waiting times. The lack of affordable homes is resulting in a shortage of teachers, with schools reporting drastically low levels of applicants for teaching posts. This is all taking place against the backdrop of a growing and increasingly intolerable cost of living crisis. This is combined with deep levels of deprivation, alienation and social problems that exist such as drug abuse–an estimated 400 people per month are injecting heroin on Dublin streets. Various charities report being inundated with requests for help in the context of a rise in food poverty.
There can be real concerns about the sudden increase in the local population and the impact this will have on strained and underfunded services. There is a real danger that without additional investment in services and housing, attempts to house refugees will continue to face opposition. These issues were compounded by the botched way in which the government has handled things in East Wall. The government is now planning to build six “reception centres” across the state without the necessary resources being put in place to accommodate refugees in the local community. There should be information provided to local communities in advance of refugees being moved in and consultation on what local services or supports may be needed. However, the solution to these concerns is not to protest against refugees fleeing war and persecution but to demand the necessary investment in services and housing.
United struggle needed
While sympathy and solidarity with refugees are completely essential, in the context of the crises faced by working-class people as a whole, we also need a programme that can overcome the idea of competition for resources by using the wealth that exists to meet the needs of all. This means kicking out this government, but without a radical programme to challenge profiteering and the rule of big business, the door is potentially open to the right to grow which will be very dangerous for the rights of workers, women, LGBTQ+ people and migrants. A united struggle of all working class and poor people, migrant and non-migrant, Travellers and settled, could demand the necessary radical measures to end the emergency in housing and home provision, along with the wider crises in our society. Crucially, trade unions, students unions and communities must unite to demand:
- The resources are there to end the housing and homelessness crisis. We need public homes for all, racist division is a barrier to winning this.
- Tax the wealth of big business, developers, billionaires and the super-rich. Use it to fund an emergency public house building programme that will build tens of thousands of homes. Build these homes at a cost price by taking the major construction companies and their resources into democratic public ownership.
- Slash and freeze rents at affordable levels. Make the ban on evictions permanent.
- Seize all land and property that is being hoarded for profit. Ban vulture and cuckoo funds and take the apartments and homes they own into public ownership, along with their profits.
- End racism in home provision–Abolish the system of Direct Provision. All refugees and asylum seekers should have the right to work. Provide culturally appropriate accommodation for Travellers.
- There should be no race to the bottom in wages and conditions. Trade unions must organise all workers in a fight for decent wages and conditions.
- End the cost of living crisis. Increase pay, not profits. For a €17 an hour minimum wage and for double-digit pay increases. Take the energy companies into public ownership and run them on a not-for-profit basis so that bills can be slashed.
- We need free, public childcare, investment in education and a national health service that’s free at the point of use. We need a society based on need, not profit, and one based on solidarity not division. This means breaking with the rule of capitalism.
There is a concerted effort by the far-right in Ireland to use the situation in East Wall to grow their support and spread their rotten ideas. These groups are openly racist and anti-migrant and want to turn back the clock on women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and the challenging of church control in this country. While claiming to be anti-establishment they seek to divide working-class people, distract from the real causes of our problems and therefore serve the interests of the status quo.
They promote myths and lies about refugees and immigrants, for example, that refugees and migrants are at the “top of the queue” as far as housing provision is concerned–in fact, migrants in Ireland are disproportionately impacted by this crisis, along with groups such as lone parents. In 2017, a study showed that migrants made up 33% of the homeless population, despite being only 12% of the population overall.
They have argued that “unvetted” male refugees of “military age” are being brought into places like East Wall. This is a pernicious attempt to inject fear and prejudice. Nearly everyone in society is “unvetted”, this accusation could be levelled at nearly anyone who moves into an area. It is designed to create fear about sexual and gender-based violence and play on racist and Islamophobic prejudices which portray men of colour as sexual predators. In reality, the great majority of gender-based violence is committed by people known to the victim. As well as this, the far-right is based on a misogynistic outlook that perpetuates gender-based violence. For example, Justin Barrett, leader of the Irish National Party, was a prominent leader in the campaign against Divorce in the 1995 referendum that saw its legalisation and was a prominent activist in the right-wing, anti-choice group Youth Defence. His party’s programme stands for the creation of a “Catholic Republic” ie an Ireland of the Magdelene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, that tortured and abused countless numbers of women and children.
The far-right and its nasty agenda should be rejected by all working-class people. Protesting against refugees or migrants offers no way forward for anyone; it won’t do anything to address the housing crisis or any of the other crises our communities face. Refugees and working-class communities such as East Wall are both victims of a government and capitalist system run in the interests of the super-rich and which has failed the rest of us. The answer lies in solidarity and a united struggle to take on that system and demand that the abundant resources of society are taken out of the hands of the wealthy elite and used to ensure a decent life for all.
The case for socialist change
Capitalism today is a crisis-ridden system that is bringing misery to the mass of working class and poor people globally. We need to break with a system that forces millions to flee their homes and makes them the scapegoats for the absence of decent homes and services due to their profiteering. It creates the fertile soil for racism, LGTBQphobia and misogyny to grow.
This system must go. We must build a multi-racial, multi-gendered working-class movement that fights for a democratic socialist society built on solidarity and equality, where public ownership of wealth and resources can meet the needs of all and safeguard our planet.