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Less peace, more protests surrounding the Irish housing crisis

The first time I heard about the Irish housing crisis was during my first week in Ireland, when our family decided to go on a tour of the Ring of Kerry.

The bus driver was a friendly, salt-and-pepper-haired man who loved answering questions. When my mother asked him about the average price of houses in the area, he said that very poor houses typically listed for 500,000 euros. He briefly mentioned that one of Ireland’s biggest issues was a housing crisis which he said started due to the 2008 financial recession, similar to the one that occurred in the U.S. at the same time.

Ireland’s housing market has not yet seen a full recovery and is still struggling to plan new housing developments and build new houses. According to our bus driver, most of Ireland’s architects and developers left during the recession to seek better work elsewhere in Europe.

A few days ago, I got the chance to see what some citizens think of the housing crisis. I had walked to the Cork City Centre to do some shopping at the English Market; if you ever get a chance go to Cork City, make sure to visit this large indoor food market. There were a large number of people on the way to the market, which was unusual because it was raining out. The closer I got to the market, the thicker the crowd was getting.

People on the outskirts of the crowd were carrying bright red flags with the hammer and sickle symbol. I was intrigued about what they were silently protesting.

Pushing through the crowd of people holding red hand-painted signs, I found the center where a man wielding a bullhorn was rallying the crowd into preparing for a march on the Cork City Centre. A woman came over and handed me a flyer that headlined “Solidarity with Housing Occupations,” and had the branding of the Socialist Party at the bottom. The man with the bullhorn talked about how the Irish government wasn’t doing enough to provide affordable housing options to Irish citizens. He accused the Irish government of withholding rural land that could be used to build affordable housing units and not listing empty houses around the cities of Dublin and Cork.

When I stood back to take a photo of the gathering before they marched off into the city, I could imagine the red signs and flags like seeping wounds standing out against the mass of dark raincoats of the protestors.

The flyer also cited an incident of abuse by the Gardai (the Irish police force), who allegedly assisted a group of masked, unnamed men in forcibly removing peaceful protests from a property in Dublin. The Gardai were accused of using police batons and pepper spray on the crowd. That peaceful protest was organized to “highlight the scandal of houses lying empty while 10,000 people are homeless.”

The scandal surrounding the protesters’ forced removal also comes from how the masked men arrived in unmarked white vans that had generic British plates on the backs of the vehicles. The men wore no identification, which the flyer cites as being in direct violation of legal regulations, though it does not name which regulations were violated. The protest allegedly ended with six protestors arrested and four injured. The flyer ended with an accusation directed at Leo Varadkar, the Irish Minister for Defense, who the Socialist Party indicates is the mastermind behind state-versus-citizens housing issues.

I felt very ignorant of the situation and went back to Google the accused, Leo Varadkar. He is a household name among those who follow Irish politics. He has held many major positions in the Irish government since 2007, including minister of Transport, Tourism and Sport, minister of Health and minister of Social Protection. He is currently Minister for Defence and has been since June of 2017.

It was quickly apparent to me how involved Varadkar is in the government, as he is also the prime minister of Ireland (known in Irish as “Taoiseach,” closest translation is “chieftain”), plays an active role in Irish parliament and leads the Fine Gael party (a popular liberal-conservative, Christian political group in Ireland).

Several articles about Leo Varadkar’s response to the protests in Dublin, and the building anger from the people, reported that he justified the ski-masks and balaclavas as well as their aggressive actions to remove the protestors.

Varadkar addressed the unmarked individuals as a private security firm that was tasked with assisting the Gardai in their removal of the protestors. He said that he disagreed with the garb of the security firm, even though they were wearing outfits similar to the Gardai. Apparently, this isn’t the first time that the Gardai or private security firms have been used to dissolve protests centered around the housing crisis. As the protests increase numbers and anger, more Gardai have been called in and have had to use force.

Yesterday, I returned to the city center to buy some prosecco to mix with local elderberry syrup (like your average college student does). I stopped into a local wine shop run by a woman and her son. I’d been in the store before while the protest was marching through the city streets. The owner was friendly enough that I felt comfortable asking for her opinion on the protests.

She began talking to me about how the protests aren’t as peaceful as they portray themselves being. In the case of the protest in Dublin, the protestors were occupying the property surrounding empty houses, which is illegal. The owner also said that protesters have been occupying empty houses as a form of peaceful protest, which is also illegal. She agreed with the Gardai in their firm removal of the protestors from these properties.

The shop owner also went on to talk about her disapproval of the Irish welfare system, which she said provides too much for people and gives them “the idea that they are entitled to choose what they want and where they want to live.” She said that many people on welfare need affordable housing and want to find housing in the city, where there are many amenities, even though there is little for available housing the city.

If these protestors really wanted affordable housing, the shop owner explained, then they would move to more rural areas of Ireland where there is more available, affordable housing. The shop owner believed that many of the people participating in these protests want city housing without paying the steep price that comes with it.

I have a feeling that this is just the start of my exposure to the Irish housing crisis and the debate surrounding it. Even right now, as I am writing this in the University College Cork library near a window, I can hear and see a stream of students chanting affordable housing slogans and holding signs while they march through campus. I’m looking forward to further researching this issue and talking to the Irish citizens about their own thoughts on the issue.

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