The words “shocking”, “shameful” and “scandalous” are so often thrown about in public discourse that they sometimes lose their true meaning. But all three apply to the facts uncovered by the Primetime Investigates programme broadcast by RTE on Thursday in relation to the behaviour of some landlords and all local authorities as regards the squalid, subhuman conditions that exist in some darker corners of the private rented dwelling market.
I felt deep, deep shame as an Irish citizen when I saw a young Polish immigrant describing how it was to live in a small bedroom with six or eight other people all living on bunk beds. I felt anger that he was being ripped off by an Irish landlord who was extracting six or eight hundred euros a week from letting out a small bedroom as squalid dormitory accommodation.
In the worst days of Dublin’s 19th and early 20th centuries tenement period, it was unheard of to cram so many people into such squalor. The damage to health and well-being is so obvious. TB and other illnesses will spread in such confined and inhuman squalor. Psychological damage and psychiatric illness will result from such conditions.
I also felt great anger and revulsion towards the greed and inhumanity that could motivate any person to exploit his fellow human beings in such a way.
I felt shame that what passes for legislative housing standards were so fallen into desuetude, that any landlord could feel confident that he could get away with such exploitation unpunished.
The local authorities (if they deserve that title) which have failed in their clear duty to enforce the law to prevent such abuses, such squalor, such avarice and such inhumanity deserve outright condemnation. So do their officers, executives and staff, and also their elected members.
If the elected petty internationalists on Dublin City Council have time to concern themselves with Catalan secession and the flying of flags on City Hall while criminal inhumanity is perpetrated on immigrants and fellow citizens in Crumlin due to the total abandonment of the Council’s statutory role as protector of weak and vulnerable tenants, something is definitely rotten.
It is not as if councillors have the excuse of not knowing how bad things are; they deal on a daily basis with the victims of this scandal.
Worse still is the complete abandonment of duty by the permanent staff of such councils. They can swan around in front of the cameras promoting soft, cuddly cultural and artistic projects while knowing that the chances of their colleagues inspecting these hell-holes are negligible, still less the chances of anything being done to prevent the wrong-doing or to penalise the wrong-doers. But learned helplessness and ritual bleating about resources cannot mask their abject failure. Dublin City Council has 6,000 employees and a budget of €750,000,000. Why did it take RTE to discover the squalor in Crumlin?
And accountability also attaches to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government down in the Custom House.
That Department is there to ensure that local authorities are carrying out their legal duties in relation to housing. The permanent civil servants in the Custom House have a collective duty to ensure that local authorities do their job. They cannot shirk their duty or abdicate that responsibility. They are supposed to keep their ministers informed of what is actually happening and not happening. They are equally culpable for this state’s failure to prevent and halt this scandal.
Direct political responsibility for this scandal now falls on Ministers Eoghan Murphy and Damien English. They and their fellow ministers hold clinics. They meet the weakest and most exploited members of our society in the course of their representative duties. It is their responsibility to ensure that their Department lives up to its responsibilities in supervising local authorities and housing standards. They must now account for that failure and they must remedy it.
The sick joke is that old-fashioned bed-sits were outlawed in 2009 by the then Minister with responsibility for local government and housing, John Gormley, at the instance - wait for it - of Threshold, the housing charity. The ban took complete effect in 2013. As a result the homes available to those who were most vulnerable were deemed illegal because their occupants had to share facilities such as bathrooms. Between 8,000 and 12,000 city dwellers lost their homes as a further result just as the housing crisis was hitting its peak.
But then it became entirely lawful for landlords to let out entire houses and buildings with shared toilets and bathrooms to groups of tenants who even share dormitory bedrooms. Can you believe it?
That tragic and farcical legislative mess is the direct political responsibility of those people, ministerial and executive, who run the Custom House – no-one else.
The Custom House has at all material times the responsibility of finding out what resources were being devoted by Dublin City Council and all the other local authorities to inspecting and enforcing housing standards. It was their duty to be informed of such matters by their prefects – the city and county managers. It was their duty to warn ministers of the complete failure of the state to uphold its law and the rights of our most vulnerable citizens.
We don’t need yet another public inquiry, designed to delay accountability, to tell local authorities to stop all the junkets and the international policy debates until they just enforce the housing laws. We just need people to get out from behind their desks and do the urgent jobs that they are paid to do.
No-one in 21st century Ireland should live in a squalid bunk-filled hell-hole. While we were concerning ourselves collectively with the inadequacy of direct provision for asylum-seekers and hotel accommodation for the homeless, private exploitative landlords were building and letting accommodation approximating to war-time internment camp conditions for citizens of our state and immigrants.
I hope the Revenue Commissioners liaise with every other agency to scalp these exploiters. I hope they are prosecuted and punished severely. Local authority inspectors should go street to street to uncover thses places. They should visit houses having asked neighbours about them. The Gardaí must also have an inkling where these hell-holes are located. They can’t be that secret or well-concealed.
If someone takes responsibility, we may learn the extent of the shameful underbelly of housing squalor in a society where trophy homes are snapped up for millions by those with seemingly bottomless cash-piles.
Will we learn later that the house in Crumlin was a one-off?
As the late Mr James Gogarty famously said: “ Will we f----?!!
(photo credit - Barry O'Kelly, RTE)