Patricia MacBride: Irish government have cut the stick to beat themselves with

Patricia MacBride
Patricia MacBride Patricia MacBride

The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement couldn’t have come at a better time for the Dublin government.

The programme of commemorative events began last weekend with an event at the Abbey Theatre attended by Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and featuring such luminaries as Roddy Doyle, Paul Muldoon and Clannad.

It was a soft opening to a series of events that will include a major international conference at Queen's and a presidential visit from Joe Biden. No doubt the special advisors in Merrion Street will be hoping it distracts from poor opinion polls and the reaction to the ending of the eviction ban in the Republic.

When I interviewed Bertie Ahern in February, he warned that if Fianna Fáil strayed away from its traditional republican ethos it “could end up on 15 per cent” in the next general election. According to last Sunday’s Ireland Thinks poll for the Sunday Independent, the party is perilously close to that on 16 per cent.

If the party were to drop to 15 per cent in the polls, it could result in as few as 20 seats in Leinster House following the next election. Ahern’s warning that this was a possibility “if it forgets its core republican beliefs” and fails to “stick solidly to what we were founded for” might be beginning to sink in with incumbent TDs.

Bertie is back in the party fold and, whilst he may have no designs on running for the leadership again, it is evident his opinion is respected by many in the party. It has also been suggested that he was encouraged to return by those disaffected with Micheál Martin’s leadership.

There are those within the fold who feel Martin has taken the party too close to Fine Gael and Bertie’s ability, love him or loathe him, to gauge the prevailing political wind is needed to change tack before electoral disaster strikes.

It’s possible that the poll results reflect the fact that the party’s TD Darragh O’Brien is the minister for housing and the poll comes in the week that the government voted to end the ban on evictions which had been in place during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But in a Behaviour and Attitudes poll for the Sunday Times the previous week, the 16 per cent figure was repeated in overall party support when undecideds were included, so it’s not likely to be the only reason.

It would be interesting to know does Bertie Ahern consider the ending of the eviction ban and the inevitable homelessness that will result to be consistent with Fianna Fáil’s republican principles? It seems that, increasingly, the public do not.

Protesters hit out at the end of the no-fault eviction ban outside Dáil Eireann in Dublin last weekend
Protesters hit out at the end of the no-fault eviction ban outside Dáil Eireann in Dublin last weekend Protesters hit out at the end of the no-fault eviction ban outside Dáil Eireann in Dublin last weekend

A row erupted when Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin tweeted an image by artist Adam Doyle, aka Spice Bag, which depicted gardaí attending, facilitating or observing an eviction (depending on your point of view). It appeared with the caption “no words needed”.

The tweet drew condemnation from many members of the government parties who argued that it was inflammatory and besmirched the good name of the guards. Ó Broin has since apologised in a phone call to the general secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, stating that he did not mean to offend or criticise the guards.

But not everyone was happy to let it go at that. Fionnan Sheahan, Ireland editor of the Irish Independent, appeared on the Tonight programme on Virgin Media Television along with the artist to criticise this politically motivated art. You would have to question the vehemence and obvious anger Sheahan displayed towards the artist, not to mention the way he brushed off Claire Brock, on whose show he was appearing.

It seemed that Sheahan was taking out his dislike of Sinn Féin and Eoin Ó Broin on the artist without acknowledging that political art has existed for as long as art has existed and is often a far more accurate barometer of public opinion than national newspapers are.

And whilst the gardaí have no legal role to play in evictions, they have been deployed to the scene if a breach of the peace happens or is likely to happen. Images of balaclava-clad guards at the scenes of evictions are part of the public consciousness now and like it or not, the gardaí are an arm of the state.

As a further consequence of the vote by government to end the moratorium, every disabled person, single parent or veteran who loses their home as a result of an eviction will be seen as a casualty of the government. They have cut the stick to beat themselves with.

Fr Peter McVerry entered the debate, stating that the taoiseach had overridden the housing minister on the eviction ban issue, a claim which Varadkar denied. The respected homeless campaigner and advocate described the ending of the moratorium as the “worst decision” the government has ever made. He said: “We have a tsunami of misery coming down the road.”

As the artist Adam Doyle said: “If you get upset about the fact that the gardaí are in (the painting), that might not be the correct emotional response to a bunch of people getting thrown out of their home.”

Public opinion seems to be on the side of Fr McVerry and Adam Doyle, not the government.