Sinn Fein aims for power on the back of Ireland's housing crisis

A wave of popularity after promises of a brighter future for aspiring homeowners

Young demonstrators take part in a protest in Dublin, calling on the government to address the housing crisis. PA
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Owning a home of your own may not seem like a luxury in many developed countries, but an entire generation of young Irish face insurmountable obstacles to getting on to the property ladder.

Rising rent, soaring property prices and long waiting lists for social housing have given rise to “hidden homelessness”, a phenomenon that is changing the fabric of Irish society.

Chloe Edwards, 31, a resident of Cork, is one of thousands of young citizens in full-time employment unable to afford to pay rent without assistance or obtain a decent mortgage.

The healthcare worker has been on the waiting list for social housing since giving birth to her son Callum 12 years ago and still has no hope of an end in sight.

“I’m stuck in limbo. I just feel like nothing is happening, nothing has moved,” Ms Edwards said. “It is draining and worrying.”

The simmering unhappiness in Cork has been seized on by the country’s main opposition party, Sinn Fein.

Once known worldwide as the voice of the Irish Republican Army, the party has set its sights on urban strongholds around Ireland, thriving off the disillusionment felt by people such as Ms Edwards.

It was no coincidence that Belfast-born Gerry Adams, the former Sinn Fein president, was recently pictured holding up a Cork sporting jersey in a social media post.

Many younger voters do not have vivid memories of the dark days of terrorist violence that blighted politics in Ireland, and appear to be unfazed by “the murky Sinn Fein past”, said political expert Dr Mary Murphy, a lecturer in politics at University College Cork.

Chloe Edwards, with her son Callum, 12, has been on the waiting list for social housing in Cork for eight years. Photo: Chloe Edwards

For the past eight years, Ms Edwards and her son have lived in a three-bedroom house in Ballincollig, a town nine kilometres east of the city, with the help of the Housing Assistance Payment scheme.

The programme, a form of social housing support provided by local authorities, offers tenants living in private properties up to €900 ($950) a month towards their rent.

Ms Edwards was last week handed a notice to vacate by her landlord, who plans to sell the house, leaving the two facing the prospect of emergency hotel or hostel accommodation.

Given the lack of progress on the waiting list for a council property over the past decade, she is not hopeful for a breakthrough.

“It’s just stressful,” she told The National. “Every day you think, 'What’s going to happen today?'

“If I just knew there was an ending, if they said there was something coming up in two years, that would be OK but it’s the uncertainty and waiting.

“Material things are not my main priority. I just want a home.”

Ms Edwards has ruled out private renting, as two-bedroom properties in her home town cost up to €1,600 a month to rent, a figure well over her budget.

When she applied for a mortgage she was told that given her status as a single-parent, the most she could get would be €90,000.

“You wouldn’t buy a shed for that here,” Ms Edwards said.

Sinn Fein's bid to stamp out homelessness

Recent polls have shown Sinn Fein rise to 37 per cent, a double-digit advantage over its nearest rival.

At the last general election in the Republic of Ireland, polls showed health and housing were the top issues for voters.

Sinn Fein won the popular vote in the February 2020 ballot after a campaign that focused on providing more social housing and better health care.

It was a historic moment. Since Ireland gained independence from Britain in 1921, centre-right parties Fine Gael or Fianna Fail have led every government.

The surge saw party leader Mary Lou McDonald come to within an arm’s reach of being named Ireland’s Taoiseach, or prime minister.

But Sinn Fein failed to enter into government when efforts to form a coalition with other parties failed.

The new government was formed from a coalition between the two big beasts of Irish politics and the Green Party.

Ms McDonald leads the largest group on the opposition benches. She now enjoys the highest level of support among party leaders, at 52 per cent.

In May this year the party continued its winning streak when it captured the largest number of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time.

The gains made by Sinn Fein, whose stated aim is to reunite Northern Ireland with the Republic, have resulted in a seismic shift in politics on both sides of the border, Dr Murphy said.

Under Ireland’s single transferable vote system of proportional representation, if a party has 40 per cent of support in polls, towards which the nationalist party is edging, “then you’re looking at the potential for Sinn Fein to form a single-party government”, Dr Murphy said.

“We have seen a constant rise in support for Sinn Fein in recent years,” she told The National.

“It’s a clear and fast trend. It’s not a blip or anything like that. Sinn Fein have been increasingly attractive to voters over the last three to four years.”

Compared to their opponents, Sinn Fein are in favour of more state involvement in housing and have pledged to aggressively tackle the crisis, in a policy that has proven to be a major draw for voters.

Sinn Fein's President Mary Lou McDonald speaks on Ireland's housing crisis outside Leinster House in Dublin. PA

What will Sinn Fein do if it gets into power?

Sinn Fein says it is determined to bring an end to Ireland’s “shameful” housing crisis and has pledged to deliver “the largest public house building programme that Ireland has ever seen” if voted into government.

The party has ambitiously vowed to clear Ireland’s council housing waiting lists within a decade of coming to power.

A Sinn Fein government would increase the availability of affordable homes by building houses and flats on public land.

The party has said it would allow average workers to buy or rent homes at below-market rates, and would legislate to make the central bank instruct lenders to lower mortgage rates.

It also has plans to hold a referendum to enshrine the right to housing in the constitution, if it gets into power.

Dr Murphy questioned how realistic it would be to put such election promises into practice, given the shortage of building materials caused by supply problems that are having a knock-on effect on construction projects in Ireland.

The building industry is suffering from a lack of manpower and the rising cost of living is proving to be a barrier for companies looking to attract overseas labourers to plug gaps.

But Dr Murphy said that while the list of ambitions pledges sound appealing to voters, they have yet to be proven as effective.

“Sinn Fein are untested as a party and as a national government,” she said.

Dr Murphy has spent more than 20 years researching politics on both sides of the invisible 500 kilometre border.

Millennials caught up in cycle of 'hidden homelessness'

Eolan Ryng, a Sinn Fein councillor on Cork City Council, said the housing crisis had grown in recent years to affect all generations and several classes.

Adults, many of whom are parents, are being forced to continue living with their mothers and fathers or move back in with them after moving out because of the lack of affordable housing.

Such cases are part of a growing trend that often goes unnoticed.

“That’s the hidden homelessness,” Mr Ryng told The National. “People cannot afford to either rent or get on the property ladder.”

Generations living under the same roof puts considerable strain on family relationships, he said, having heard many examples of this from his constituents.

Seven in 10 people under the age of 30 in Ireland were living with their parents in 2020, according to statistics from campaign group Home Sweet Home.

The end of the booming Celtic Tiger economy and the 2008 financial crash led to a huge oversupply of properties across the country, with finished and semi-finished homes across the nation left lying empty.

But fast-forward more than a decade and there is now a shortage of affordable places to live.

“It is a problem that has to be solved because it’s having a detrimental impact on society and the economy as well,” Mr Ryng said.

“I think Sinn Fein is the party to solve it because I think we are the only party that looks at it from the point of view of people affected, as opposed to the vested interests.”

He said the surge in support for his party in the last election is a reflection of how fed-up voters are with mainstream parties, and he predicted the backing will increase before the 2025 general election.

“I think the next election will be an election about housing and the cost of living,” Mr Ryng said.

“People are prepared to give us a chance and to give us an opportunity because they’re not seeing solutions.”

Pensioners also feel the pinch

Deirdre Barry, who volunteers for a charity for the homeless in Cork city, sees first-hand how the housing crisis is affecting the older generation of Irish.

At Homeless Help Cork’s weekly soup kitchen, most of the regular clients are rough sleepers afflicted by drug and alcohol problems.

But elderly men comprise another demographic seeking help and assistance from the charity, because they cannot afford food or to pay energy bills.

These types of cases are often pushed to the bottom of waiting lists by councils, as priority is given to families with children.

“It’s getting busier, we are running out of food in the early evenings,” Ms Barry told The National. “Gone are the days when we could send them away with two dinners.

“We have a cohort of men who are slightly older who come to our table. They would be on social welfare or the pension.

“They would all have a roof over their heads. It might not be the best quality, there are a lot of issues with dampness, and it tends to be very basic and old accommodation in the city.

“They might not have a TV or a microwave. They’re out walking the streets a lot of the time. They don’t want to stay at home because they’re saving their heating and they’re isolated.

“The days of bedsits are gone. They’re not allowed any more and that’s a huge drawback for those types of demographics. They cannot afford a one-bedroom flat with a [separate] kitchen and bathroom.

“There are families who have been on the housing waiting list for 10 to 15 years and there’s no budge on it, so somebody who is single hasn’t a hope.”

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein from 1983 to 2018, poses with a Cork hurling team jersey. Photo: GerryAdamsSF/Twitter

Moving on from the past

While Sinn Fein has undeniably won the hearts of many voters in Ireland over the past few years, the party continues to drag the cloak of its past behind it.

Once the political wing of the Provisional IRA, the group has in recent years taken huge strides to distance itself from its former links.

The old guard of Sinn Fein, such as former leader Adams, were replaced by new faces as part of an overhaul of its image.

Martin McGuinness, Adams’s understudy, was a former commander in the Provisional IRA who went on to become deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and a Sinn Fein MP.

Mr Adams always denied he was a member of the Provisional IRA but was routinely named as having been a leader in the group during the 1970s.

The Provisional IRA, a paramilitary group of Irish nationalist extremists, was born from a splinter in the IRA in 1969.

Members of the group, known as Provos, waged a campaign of terror that included bombings, assassinations and ambushes during the 1970s, '80s and '90s in the UK to force the British government to the negotiating table.

The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 between Unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland brought an end to the violent period known as the Troubles, and ushered in a new era of power-sharing between the two sides.

But memories of terrorist attacks still linger, particularly among older generations, and the prospect of voting for Sinn Fein is out of the question for many.

But many younger voters who may not have vivid memories of the dark days, appear to be unfazed by “the murky Sinn Fein past”, said Dr Murphy, co-author of A Troubled Constitutional Future, which explores the realities of post-Brexit Northern Ireland.

“For some old people it’s definitely a problem,” she said. “It’s a legitimate problem and [Sinn Fein] is having difficulty shaking it off … but I don’t think it’s a substantial problem.

“That being said, when it comes to an election campaign itself, it is then we would see a greater and stronger narrative about their history [emerging].

“The only people who are really bringing this up are Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.”

Updated: June 17, 2022, 6:00 PM