Dungannon; Homes for Living, Not for Profit – Op-Ed by Packy Carty – Saoradh Nuacht

The cost of living in Dungannon has reached crisis point; Lisnahull, in the west of the town, offers a glimpse of the spiraling cost of rent for those living in its now many privately owned premises. In some cases, it costs £570 a per month to rent a three bedroom former social housing unit.

Lisnahull was built in the early 1970s in the Catholic/Nationalist west of Dungannon. For decades the apartheid orange state in the north of Ireland had deprived the Irish Catholics equality in jobs, in politics, in human and civil rights and in housing. Many in Dungannon, including my father and his siblings, were reared in slum style housing close to the old railway lines in the town.

An event in Caledon, widely believed to herald the advent of the civil rights movement of the late sixties, was a house squat in the Dungannon council district that highlighted the massive inequality that Catholics faced. The first civil rights march took place from Coalisland to Dungannon and was attacked and prevented from entering the town centre by loyalism, facilitated by the orange state forces. The situation quickly escalated and in a few short years, open insurgency by a rejuvenated IRA on the offensive would force the fall of the old sectarian orange regime at Stormont.

Quick to try and placate the risen people of the north who had suffered discrimination; the Housing executive was formed in 1971. It built and allocated publicly owned homes on a point system, cutting out the discrimination of the past. Lisnahull was one of these new waves of social housing builds in west Dungannon, where homes were desperately needed and much welcomed.

1980 heralded new policies brought in by the right wing Thatcher administration in Whitehall and while the occupants of Lisnahull would be affected by her stance on the Hunger Strikes, arming of Loyalist death squads, the SAS shoot to kill operations throughout the ’80s, it would be another seemingly beneficial change to social housing that would bring misery and hardship almost three decades later.

The ‘right to buy’ was a policy passed in 1980 by the Tory government. It allowed those living in social housing to purchase their home at a sometimes massive discount after years of renting. It was a cynical ploy to end the social housing led sector moving it into the private sector and leaving housing at the mercy of the ‘market’. From now on housing would be about profit not about providing adequate homes for families. The era of neoliberalism was beginning.

Those who could afford a mortgage and who were lucky enough to have a decent full-time job bought their homes. With the IRA ceasefires of the mid-1990s and a decade of banking deregulation, the purchasing of social housing began in earnest. In some cases, landlords bought homes from tenants, paying the reduced price by proxy and giving the tenant a windfall on top; people had money for the first time in their lives. House prices began to rise, as did rents. The amount of social housing being built was dropping significantly and new private estates were being built across Ireland and indeed the western world. As the new century came, it seemed there was no end to the need for housing, mortgages and readily available credit and loans. As migrant workers came in from Portugal and eastern Europe, the old social housing was rented to them at a premium price. Those who could not work found it increasingly hard to secure social housing, as the stock was sold off – not being replaced. New, for profit housing associations, was the model for a subcontracted social housing build that put large amounts of housing revenue in the pockets of these associations’ middle men.

By the middle of the last decade, the bubble had reached its peak. The cost of rent in Dungannon had passed the point of state housing benefit; meaning the worst off in society who could not find social housing were forced to top up their rent out of already meagre benefits. These benefits, which in the past (in theory) went from one arm of the state to the other, now passed directly into the pockets of a new generation of private landlords. It was the same in both states in Ireland, albeit more exacerbated in the south by the state’s double right parliamentary split and a criminal banking sector that was literally printing money that did not exist.

In 2007 the inevitable happened, as it always does with capitalism, the crash came and it came hard. The hookery of the ‘sub-prime’ mortgage swindle in the US plunged the world into the worst recession and financial crisis since the great depression.

Ireland’s economy, north and south, was plunged into chaos. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs. Those relying on the housing trade would never see it fully recover, while people who could – emigrated. The banks took house after house of those who could not repay the massively inflated mortgages. It was quickly ascertained that the banks had acted in a criminal manner in causing the euphemistically named ‘credit crunch’. Under the dog eat dog laws of capitalism they should have went under with new institutions rising in their place, but the ruling elite had to much-vested interest in seeing them survive. In a warped act of socialism, the state intervened first in America then elsewhere across the neoliberal west. Citizens were indebted with the failures of the capitalist system. Our children, their children, have been saddled with massive debts they were not at fault for creating; profits had been privatised and the losses socialised.

In Lisnahull, the empty bank owned properties of defaulting landlords and tenants stacked up. Rents, however, did not drop – they remained at a premium, as did the cost of living. Banks began off-loading properties to those who had the capital for a fraction of the price the houses had recently fetched. Some houses sold for as little as twenty five and thirty grand. The buy to let landlords that had weathered the financial crisis well were like sharks with blood in the water.

Jump forward to the present day. Lisnahull is primarily an area where the working class or those on benefits pay exorbitant rents to private landlords. The ability to get a housing executive property is extremely rare. The days of housing based on need are long gone; replaced by greed. Open market housing or subcontracted social housing prevail. With the setting up of the Stormont executive, it was said that working class areas like Lisnahull, that had borne the brunt of a 30-year conflict, would benefit from a peace dividend that ultimately didn’t emerge. Instead, housing is on course to be in a worse position than it was in 1971 when the housing executive was first formed.

Stormont (now defunct) was the church of compromise, incapable of governing for itself, even if it could. It must do what Westminister bids and we have witnessed the strange sight of former insurgents, who fought against the British Government, who starved themselves against Thatcher, who are today, themselves, rent racking landlords (to paraphrase James Connolly). Recently, at the bidding of a Tory British Government, were happy to impose savage austerity cuts, under the guise of the so-called Fresh Start Agreement, on the communities that sustained them throughout the War, on communities that top the table of social deprivation in western Europe, and on communities that continue to suffer an economic war waged by British Imperialism.

The hospital on the hill that looks down on Lisnahull has been stripped back by neoliberalism as the push for privatisation intensifies. The railway where the people lived in slum housing is gone replaced with a footpath, transport infrastructure west of the Bann now almost non-existent, the trains long gone a few buses their replacement. There are homeless people begging in Dungannon for the first time. There are food banks where working poor live on handouts, wages have remained stagnant, industries such as the brick yard and crystal factory and the building trade have all fallen prey to globalisation. The best and brightest emigrate, drugs have taken hold in working class areas where they were never a problem before, the deaths from the conflict have been replaced by a high rate of suicide that gets none of the media attention the war fatalities got.

The conditions in the melting pot that became a catalyst for the fall of the old orange regime at Stormont are all currently simmering on the stove again, unnoticed by today’s dysfunctional and moribund regime.

 

Packy Carty, is a former Republican Prisoner from Dungannon and a Saoradh activist in East Tyrone.