Above: Simon Coveney at a defence symposium in 2015.
Finally, after months of dithering and hanging on like a bad dose of the clap we picked up when we were in a bad place and made some bad decisions back in 2011, Enda Kenny has finally decided to step down. Tomas Lynch takes a look at the heirs to the Blueshirt throne.
There’s not much to choose between Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, the bookies’ favourites to be the next Blueshirts to lead this country. While the newspapers get themselves into a tizzy with polls and favorability ratings about who will win the race to be the next Taoiseach we scratch our head and try to tell the difference between two identical Blueshirts.
Now, a recent poll tells us that 49% of landlords, ahem, that is, uh… Fine Gael voters, would prefer Simon Coveney as the next Taoiseach, compared with 44% for Varadkar. We throw our eye back over Coveney’s tenure as Minister for Housing in the midst of the worst housing emergency in recent years to try and figure out just what kind of a Taoiseach he might be.
Our Minister for Housing has always been liberal with the facts. So he’s an ideal politician in the new post-truth era of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ ushered in by Trump’s election.
Back in December 2016 he stood up in the Dáil and said:
“I first want to give a little bit of good news… for the first time in a very long time the number of adults and families who are homeless in Dublin has actually reduced, month on month.”
But when we looked at the data we found that the “good news” he was referring to was that 5,134 people were homeless in the city – a drop of just twelve individuals on October. 2,110 children were still living in emergency accommodation, exactly the number that were in emergency accommodation during the previous month.
What the Minister’s “good news” also glossed over was that since he was appointed Minister for Housing in May 2016, he had presided over an 11.8% increase in homelessness. Meanwhile, child homelessness had rocketed by 14% in the capital during Coveney’s seven months in office.
Since then homelessness has only continued to grow, hitting a record of 7,472 people living in emergency accommodation across the country in March – and the number of people sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin city centre also hit a record high.
During the occupation of Apollo House in December and January he rejected the need for action in the face of the homelessness crisis in the capital, claiming that “there is an emergency bed for everyone who wants one.”
What he didn’t mention was that these beds were in unsafe shared dorms, where people recovering from addiction are forced to share rooms with active drug-users, where people are forced out onto the street in the morning without the security of a bed to return to at night, and without so much as a door that people can lock behind them.
Many people choose to sleep rough rather than stay in these emergency beds which many claim are unsafe. One resident returned to Apollo House after going to one of these emergency hostels, saying that the room he was shown had blood on the walls and on the mattress of the bed. These were the beds that Simon Coveney claimed were available.
He was too afraid to publicly face the activists on Vincent Browne Live, instead sending his hapless deputy Damien English on two separate occasions. Nonetheless, despite his rejection of the tactics of the campaign, Simon Coveney was forced to negotiate with them.
Over two days the government negotiated with the representatives of Home Sweet Home. In the end government agreed to meet the short- and long-term needs of all former residents of Apollo House, and to open two new emergency hostels. Most importantly of all the Minister also guaranteed that there would be no families in commercial emergency accommodation (hotels and B&Bs) by July 1st of 2017, a commitment that was re-asserted by his deputy Minister Damien English, when he appeared on Vincent Browne on February 23.
However as soon as the campaign vacated the building Simon Coveney changed his tune reneging on many of the commitments he had made at the negotiating table. Residents of Apollo House were offered beds that were substandard and unsafe, with one resident offered a room with used syringes littered on the floor. Other residents reported threats of violence, and other people in the accommodation they were offered getting drunk and taking heroin.
Since then, Simon Coveney has continued to present his own alternative facts, which are lapped up by an uncritical media. In February he trumpeted figures that showed that 14,900 houses had been built last year, and claimed that we were well on track for the 2017 target of 21,000.
However, it was quickly pointed out that the data he was relying on was faulty. It was based on the number of new units connected to the electricity grid, but derelict houses and half-finished ghost estates were double-counted in Coveney’s figures. The real number was probably a lot closer to 8,000. And when we look at the actual number of new home transactions the number is lower yet – at a mere 4,400, compared to Coveney’s trumpeted figure of 15,000. Whether our budding Taoiseach-to-be just couldn’t understand his own figures, or whether he was trying to manipulate them to present misleading good news is up to you to decide.
It has also emerged that his attempt to bring in Rent Pressure Zones in Dublin and other cities, to try to limit the rental crisis in those areas has not only failed dramatically, but actually backfired, with average rents in the city now soaring by an unbelievable €134 a month as new tenants looking for accommodation find it harder and harder to find a place to live.
As for the much-trumpeted modular housing scheme, towards the end of 2016 Coveney claimed that 350 would be completed by the end of the year. Just two months later, in January 2017, we learnt that only 22 had actually been completed.
Like Trump in the US, Coveney seems comfortable to twist statistics into misleading ‘alternative facts’ that fit with his narrative of ‘good news’ in the face of an enduring and tragic housing emergency. During his time as Minister for Housing the situation has gone from bad to worse.
As July comes closer, and with it the deadline the Minister had set for himself to have no more homeless people living in hotels, the rate of homelessness in the country continues to soar. With the clock ticking for Coveney he has started trying to rebrand the accommodation where homeless families are kept as ‘hubs’ instead of hotels. Come July don’t be surprised to hear him stand up and say there are no more homeless families in hotels – they’re all in ‘hubs’ now! If the situation remains the same in two months after all his promises, will Coveney resign, and hand over the reigns to more capable hands, or will he brush it aside as he has on the countless other times where what he said did not match what was happening on the ground?