A cultural revolutionary – The inside story on Eoin Ó Broin and how Sinn Féin won the class war on housing

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A cultural revolutionary – The inside story on Eoin Ó Broin and how Sinn Féin won the class war on housing
A cultural revolutionary – The inside story on Eoin Ó Broin and how Sinn Féin won the class war on housing

It’s a rotten night, the rain is bucketing down and the roads out of Dublin are blocked up.

Inside the function room of the Ashbourne House Hotel in the commuter town, there’s a small enough gathering of just 44 people scattered across the 100-odd seats laid out to hear the Annual Thomas Ashe Commemorative Lecture on ‘Building sustainable communities in a housing crisis’.

Ashe was a Republican who led the Volunteers in the successful Battle of Ashbourne during the Easter Rising and died on hunger strike a year later.

In other words, it’s a Sinn Féin meeting under a different name.

The meeting is held and chaired by Darren O’Rourke, the local Sinn Féin councillor who scraped across the line for the last seat in the local elections a few months later, finishing eighth on the first count with just 501 votes.

His chances of making an impact in the next general election are pretty slim.

The star attraction hasn’t exactly drawn a crowd.

Eoin Ó Broin is dressed casually in jeans, a green check shirt, brown belt and brown shoes.

His hair is cut neat and short, with a fringe and he has a short beard.

Combining his old-fashioned round spectacles with a sack jacket, the image is deliberately hipster crossed with Soviet-era proletariat worker.

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Hopes talks will bear fruit: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald jokes with a stall owner on Dublin’s Moore Street watched by Eoin Ó Broin. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Hopes talks will bear fruit: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald jokes with a stall owner on Dublin’s Moore Street watched by Eoin Ó Broin. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Hopes talks will bear fruit: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald jokes with a stall owner on Dublin’s Moore Street watched by Eoin Ó Broin. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty

AFP via Getty Images

Hopes talks will bear fruit: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald jokes with a stall owner on Dublin’s Moore Street watched by Eoin Ó Broin. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty

The lecture is more of a chat about the state of housing in the country, the lack of supply, the rise of rents.

“Rents are up 37pc since 2016. That’s €4,000 a year. Has anybody here had a pay rise of €4,000?” he asks rhetorically.

The solutions proffered are around what was government policy in the 1930s and 1940s, with the State building large numbers of houses and offering finance to homeowners to buy.

He marks 1987 as the turning point, when the State pulled back and the banks stepped in, and brings the audience up to the modern-day problems of shortage of supply.

The address is gently littered with statistics, quotes from experts and references to European models of housing. The style is engaging without being too dense.

The speech is based on Ó Broin’s book ‘Home: Why Public Housing is the Answer’. In the book, published last year, he argues for a new style of public housing, covering local authority houses, cost-rental where the rent is set at a low rate that just seeks to pay back the cost of the building, and affordable housing that is in reach of ordinary people.

He cites Aneurin Bevan, the reforming Labour Minister from post-war Britain as an inspiration. Bevan saw housing as a service similar to the NHS and it was about supply and quality, ensuring everyone had access to decent and affordable homes, with people still having the option to live in owner occupation or the private sector if they chose, with funding available to homeowners and landlords to bring accommodation up to standard.

The small attendance at the lecture is probably reflective of the party’s standing.

The cost and scarcity of housing is a preoccupation of many people, impacting upon lives up and down the country, but it isn’t catching on as a protest issue like the water charges did.

Ó Broin is a ready-made campaign in search of a following.

“We have to build a State-wide movement to change,” he says.

Afterwards he signs copies of his book and casually predicts that his candidate in the forthcoming by-election in his constituency of Dublin Mid-West, Mark Ward, is one to watch and in with a real shot of winning.

Given the hammering the Shinners took in the local and European elections, it seems like far-fetched propaganda.

But he was right.

Four months later, Darren O’Rourke would take out a Fine Gael Cabinet minister, when Regina Doherty became the biggest Sinn Féin scalp as the Shinner Storm hit the country in the general election.

Adamstown: November 30

Mary-Lou McDonald is grinning like the cat that got the cream.

In the count centre in Adamstown Community Centre she walks up to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who congratulates her.

Her candidate, Ward, is about to be declared the victor in the by-election, taking the seat held by former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and defeating Fine Gael candidate Emer Higgins.

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Dublin mid West election winner Mark Ward TD with his son Oisin Ward 11 during a press briefing by Sinn Fein at Leinster House Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Dublin mid West election winner Mark Ward TD with his son Oisin Ward 11 during a press briefing by Sinn Fein at Leinster House Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Dublin mid West election winner Mark Ward TD with his son Oisin Ward 11 during a press briefing by Sinn Fein at Leinster House Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

Dublin mid West election winner Mark Ward TD with his son Oisin Ward 11 during a press briefing by Sinn Fein at Leinster House Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

It’s a sweet victory.

During McDonald’s term as leader, the party has taken a pasting in the Presidential election, local elections and European elections. Support in opinion polls remains static and there are doubts about McDonald’s ability to bring the party on after replacing Gerry Adams.

The Dublin Mid-West win is an important turning point in the party’s fortunes – and a harbinger of what’s to come.

And it’s come about because Ó Broin and Sinn Féin have gone back to basics.

In a set of four by-elections, marked by profound disinterest on the part of voters, Sinn Féin made sure their voters turned out.

The constituency covers the sprawling suburbs, beyond the M50 of Clondalkin and Lucan and villages that have turned into towns such as Newcastle and Rathcoole.

The scars of bad planning in the past, particularly in the 1980s, are in evidence here every day.

This was the Wild West of planning in Dublin.

A lack of public transport and massive estates built away from community centres, shops and facilities is the hallmark.

Sinn Féin now has two seats in Dublin Mid-West and won’t give them up easily.

‘Twas far from the sprawling housing estates of west Dublin Eoin Ruairí Ó Broin was reared.

He grew up in the rarefied surrounds of Cabinteely in south Co Dublin.

His father, Seán, was a bank official with the old Hibernian Bank and then Bank of Ireland, and was seemingly apolitical. However, he was reared in working class Dolphin’s Barn and educated at Coláiste Mhuire, where his love for the Irish language blossomed.

Although it was rarely referenced, his father, Eoin’s grandfather, was active in Clann na Poblachta, with Seán McBride and Maud Gonne McBride, and later supported the Workers’ Party and Democratic Left, canvassing for Eric Byrne, who would ultimately go on to become a Labour Party TD.

His mother Catherine, maiden name Corcoran, was from Tipperary town and her family were also rural Labour supporters, but politics wasn’t huge in the house. She was an admirer of local Labour TD Barry Desmond, who was Minister for Health in the Garret FitzGerald Fine Gael-led coalition in the 1980s.

Ó Broin went to that bastion of south-side privilege, the elite fee-paying Blackrock College.

Music, not politics, was his passion as a teenager. He was in the brass band in school and went on to play guitar in rock and folk bands, including a group called ‘The Foremen’, whose claim to fame was once supporting Rory Gallagher at a small festival.

There was little sign in late 1980s and early 1990s that the southside Dublin boy with shoulder-length blond dreadlocks would go on to become a cultural revolutionary, bringing the middle classes to the Republican socialism cause.

The political bug hit when he attended the left-leaning University of East London, where he studied cultural studies. Working in restaurants, he became involved with the catering trade union, and also gravitated to the Irish Centre, becoming chairman. He met many people from Northern Ireland and got involved with Sinn Féin.

Now deeply politicised, he returned to Dublin in the mid-1990s, working on Sinn Féin’s propaganda newspaper, An Phoblacht. Heading to Belfast, he studied an MA in Politics at Queen’s University and became a Sinn Féin councillor in north Belfast from 2001 to 2004, where his interest in housing issues grew.

He also worked as Sinn Féin’s Director of European Affairs during the period, when future party leader and fellow privately-educated party colleague, McDonald, was the party’s MEP and rising star.

Returning to Dublin, he ran for Sinn Féin in his native Dún Laoghaire in the 2007 general election, coming last. He took three years away from Sinn Féin to work as policy adviser for Focus Ireland, the housing charity.

During this time he lived in Monkstown, Co Dublin and tried again in the local elections, running in the Ballybrack ward of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.

Again, he came last.

Back on his home turf, he flops.

Dún Laoghaire is not fertile ground for Sinn Féin, but even still there are dismissive murmurings within the party at the time that Ó Broin is too academic and bookish for elected politics.

By this time, he has published two books, ‘Matxinada, Basque Nationalism and the Radical Basque Youth Movements’ in 2003 and ‘Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism’ in 2009.

The breakthrough comes when Ó Broin, as chair of Dublin Sinn Féin, is on a group tasked with finding candidates to run in certain constituencies in the capital.

In the absence of anyone else, he is chosen.

He relocates to Clondalkin, runs in the 2011 general election, fails to win a seat, but is just 1,000 votes off. He is co-opted on to the council in October 2013 and tops the poll in the following year’s local elections.

By the time the 2016 general election comes along, Ó Broin tops the poll and finally makes it into the Dáil.

He joins the Sinn Fein frontbench as housing spokesman. Unlike Pearse Doherty and McDonald herself, at times, he is not a shouty Shinner, who bark at ministers in confrontations.

Ó Broin is more deliberative in his debating style.

The 47-year-old is regarded as the new face of Sinn Féin and yet he’s been around the party for 25 years and is a long-time member of the party’s strategy team.

He proceeds to draft the party’s policy on the issue that goes on to become central to the 2020 general election.

Central to his policy is the building of 100,000 social and affordable homes, a rent freeze and tax refund for renters.

It’s a bold statement and critics question how it can actually be delivered.

The rent freeze is deemed to be unconstitutional by the outgoing government as it interferes with property rights. And when it was introduced in Berlin, it resulted in investors leaving the market and a severe fall in construction.

The 100,000 homes figure would involve a huge ramping up of the construction sector and a massive increase in the public investment, well beyond the amount allowed for within current Exchequer spending limits.

Although local authorities would deliver the housing, private sector builders would construct the homes. It envisages developers switching from commercial office building to houses and apartments.

Experts in the sector say it is overly ambitious, given the availability of workers.

The number of new builds and old stock refitted that became available last year was 24,500, which was up substantially, but also shows how the industry is stretched.

However, other observers of the market say it is so straightforward it’s radical in its simplicity.

The policies around energy efficiency, land use, generic designs, more inspections, more rented properties and elimination of red tape appear sound, provided they can be paid for.

Yet Sinn Féin also wants to abolish property tax, which is a direct funding source for local authorities, albeit the party says it will fund council from central funds. The overall €22bn package of spending and tax cuts from Sinn Féin is highly questionable too.

Building 100,000 social and affordable homes is aspirational, leading to questions about how it will be done.

Moreover, the housing policy appears to be a paean to the home-building drives by the 1930s Fianna Fáil governments of Éamon de Valera – another past pupil of Blackrock College with its Spiritan ethos of “fearless and bold”.

Clondalkin: February 8

As the wind and the rain of Storm Ciara whip in around Dublin from the west on election day, Ó Broin is knocking on doors in Lealand Drive, an estate in the Bawnogue area of Clondalkn.

Despite the massive swing towards Sinn Féin in the previous fortnight, the party is still implementing the ‘Torrent Strategy’.

This professional, systematic approach to electioneering is named after the local election in the Torrent ward of Dungannon in Co Tyrone in 1990 where it was first employed.

No matter where the party is canvassing on the island, the same method applies.

The party canvasses neighbourhoods with the electoral register, chalks up houses where support is expressed. That is then loaded into a database. In the final 24 hours and on polling day, the get-the-vote-out phase kicks in as party activists go back to those houses to remind people to vote.

Only the houses where support was expressed are canvassed at that point.

And you only do it in local authority estates. People in private estates tend not to like it.

Party units in Northern Ireland pair off with those in the Republic to work on each other’s campaigns.

On this occasion, West Belfast activists have come down for the last few days to help out in Clondalkin and Lucan.

The party sets up a base in a supporter’s house for the day.

In the beautiful hardwood and tiled kitchen of her house in Lealand Avenue, Rita Doyle churns out tea, homemade scones and sandwiches to the canvassers who come in cold, wet and with muddy shoes, stock up on leaflets, check where to next and go again.

Driving around the polling stations of west Clondalkin, where there are 3,000 council houses, to check the turnout at teatime, Ó Broin explains if the turnout is particularly low in an area, they will send in a team to knock on doors of supporters.

Ó Broin points to council and private estate that were once strongholds for Fianna Fáil or the Labour Party.

Not any more.

These are now Sinn Féin estates.

The surge has brought what Sinn Féin has always wanted: to break out of its working class base into the squeezed middle coping classes.

The approach of McDonald on families, Doherty on insurance costs, Louise O’Reilly on A&E overcrowding and Ó Broin on housing have

These are the people who were Fianna Fáil voters up to the crash, then went to Labour, but got anygry at water charges and property tax.

By now the rain is lashing down, carrying out some last checks, he meets a family just back from voting.

“We voted you No 1, No 2 for Mark and No 3 for Gino to get yiz all in.”

“That’s what we want,” replies Ó Broin.

Mark is his running mate, Mark Ward, and Gino is the Solidarity-People Before Profit TD, Gino Kenny.

All three were elected the following day, with Kenny being dragged back to life from the Sinn Féin surplus.

Among the canvassers are Ó Broin’s partner, Lynn Boylan, the former Dublin MEP.

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Former Sinn Fein MEP Lynn Boylan, Sinn Fein TD Eoin O' Broin & their dog Cooper arrive to vote during the European Election, Divorce referendum & Council election at Scoil Aine, New Road, Clondalkin. Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Former Sinn Fein MEP Lynn Boylan, Sinn Fein TD Eoin O' Broin & their dog Cooper arrive to vote during the European Election, Divorce referendum & Council election at Scoil Aine, New Road, Clondalkin. Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Former Sinn Fein MEP Lynn Boylan, Sinn Fein TD Eoin O’ Broin & their dog Cooper arrive to vote during the European Election, Divorce referendum & Council election at Scoil Aine, New Road, Clondalkin. Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

Former Sinn Fein MEP Lynn Boylan, Sinn Fein TD Eoin O’ Broin & their dog Cooper arrive to vote during the European Election, Divorce referendum & Council election at Scoil Aine, New Road, Clondalkin. Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Although viewed as a diligent member of the European Parliament, she got caught in the Sinn Féin purge last summer.

Ironically, as she would be viewed as influential in the shaping of Sinn Féin’s environmental and climate change policy, she got taken out by the Green Party.

Ultimately, the party planned to run her for the Dáil, but their scaling back of candidates before the surge put this on hold.

From Kilnamanagh in Tallaght, the 43-year-old ecologist was a park ranger in Killarney when she ran for Sinn Féin in the first decade of the century before coming back to Dublin.

The couple are together for 10 years this month. They live with their dog, Cooper, in Clondalkin Village. Their rented cut-stone cottage in the heart of Clondalkin village, built by the adjacent Anglican Church in 1979, is just a stone’s throw from the Happy Pear restaurant in the nearly Round Tower centre.

The couple share a love of cooking intricate recipes from organic food.

They frequently travel to the Basque country, where Ó Broin is godfather to the child of one of his best friends. They also dispatch themselves to Bóthar Buí, on the Beara Peninsula in west Cork, where he researches his books and writing.

Far from the stereotypical Shinner, the slightly bohemian lifestyle would be more akin to the typical Green Party activists.

Beneath his middle-class background, Ó Broin though is a true ideologue who subscribes to a united Ireland and subscribes to classic left-wing philosophy of mobilising the masses to subvert the elite.

He just says it more politely.

“He’s bright, he’s sharp, he’s much more pragmatic than people might think. He’s not one to cut off his nose to spite his face, letting ideology get in the way,” an observer notes.

After converting the middle classes to his thinking on housing, the longer-term project remains on track.

As of now, it looks like Ó Broin won’t become the Minister for Housing.

Instead, he’ll be opposing the minister and pointing to another way.

Housing is now what water charges were four years ago – the issue the ruling parties got the most kicking from in a general election.

Unlike water charges, housing is not an easy fix.

Although Sinn Féin won’t be in power, the new government’s housing targets will have to live up to the expectations the party has set.

Source: Irish