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Rebuilding Pompeii as Vesuvius rumbles

There are times when even the Good Book despairs of the world and the capacity of humans to change.

“All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

This passage is taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes in what is called the ‘Wisdom Literature’, a beautiful and poetic part of the Bible. While there is much in it that is joyous and life-giving, it doesn’t shirk from naming some harsh realities.

The most recent eruption of hostilities between the Israelis and the Palestinians brought the above quotation to mind, along with the simmering signs of bother in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol - the more things change the more they stay the same.

It can be depressing, how we go around and around in endless circles with so many issues and problems that remain unresolved.

Housing is one that rarely leaves the headlines: it has bedevilled the country forever. During the Famine poor housing with atrocious living conditions exacerbated the calamity and acted as an accelerant to the spread of sickness and disease.

This was followed by the clearance of lands and mass evictions, with unwanted tenant families literally being thrown out on the side of the road all over the country. By the turn of the century the overcrowded tenements of Dublin with their accompanying poverty gave the city an infamy it deserved.

After independence, while some admirable public housing schemes were undertaken, the issue remained problematic. I remember as a boy seeing an edition of Halls Pictorial Weekly on TV that featured a man, a hearse builder by trade, who was reduced to living in one of his hearses because he was homeless.

During the Celtic Tiger years housing dominated the consciousness of the nation. Everyone and her father tried to get in on the act, people were queuing overnight to buy houses and apartments off the plans. In fact some people were paying others to queue for them.

The abiding icon of the lean years after the crash was the skull and skeleton of the half-finished house in the half-built ghost estate. These places were like a latter day Pompeii, with discarded yellow vests hanging from rusted scaffolding and upturned hard hats littering the uneven ground in evidence of lives suddenly disrupted.

From the perspective of our housing and homelessness problems those abandoned estates are a perversity. As the wind and rain blew through their windowless shells the levels of homelessness rocketed. Even when the broader economy appeared to be on the way up the number of people able to afford a home of their own declined steeply. We have now reached a point where the cost of rent is beyond those on average and lower incomes.

It took the sudden arrival of a pandemic to prove that everything from homelessness to our two-tier health service can be taken in hand. It proved that where there’s political will a way will be found and the state can extend its reach when it wants to.

Nevertheless, housing continues to be the great untouchable, for some reason the traditional political parties are desperately afraid to grasp the housing market and shale it to the core. They prefer to fiddle at it from a distance using stamp duty and capital gains tax like prosthetic extensions to the limbs of government. Meanwhile, they are quite willing to let ordinary people, especially the young, suffer everything from destitution to unrelenting uncertainty when it comes to fulfilling that basic of needs, the need for shelter.

Among the great sins of the Celtic Tiger years was the sin of deception; it deceived people into believing their houses are assets to be leveraged and sweated rather than homes to be lived in. So long as this deception continues to prevail the provision of housing will be a casino where the privileged and opportunists play roulette with everyone else’s money.

The traditional political parties would be well advised to listen deeply to the young, to the generation that went into exile after the last casino failed and came back only to find that home ownership is beyond their reach.

The politicos would also be well advised to listen to the members of the next generation again, those who came of age in the pandemic, an experience that proved to them how relative everything is, that the sacred cows of the market can be de-consecrated and the state has far more power to shape society than it was willing to admit.

In the privacy of the polling booth these young citizens will give a far different slant to their pens than the one their parents gave. While the focus of much mainstream politics is on rebuilding Pompeii into what it once was, the young are rumbling impatiently in a nearby Vesuvius, waiting to erupt. They have different plans.

First published in the Farming Independent, Tuesday, May 25th 2021

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