Harder to take the tough decisions needed to address the northern housing problem, than complain about the same problems in the south…

My favourite line from Tom Kelly’s Irish News column on Monday was “in Northern Ireland positivity is sucked from the air like a Dyson on overdrive”. Of course, we’re not alone in that regard. Populism is hollowing politics as usual everywhere.

Louis Theroux’s latest series opened last night on the BBC with a really interesting look at the new young alt Right in America, in which one respondent talked about how and why did not want to engage with a four hour speech on public policy.

As you will have heard me say before, that’s the Twitter age taking over the real world in which new dispensation what people feel is much more important than what they think. Slugger’s play the ball rule is a deliberately weak attempt to hold that at bay.

It’s not that feeling is not important. As Lonergan and Blyth noted in their great recent tome, Angrynomics, it’s often a legitimate vent for both public and private stressors that tell us something is badly wrong with the world and needs fixing.

Beyond that there’s a sense that the spaces in which we can talk about the hard core issues of policy and its social impacts are shrinking. We can see that clearly in some of the ministerial announcements aimed more at stirring up heat more than light.

As Kelly notes in more general terms:

The obsession with identity politics is destroying the fabric of society and it’s psychologically and physically unhealthy.

Flags, emblems, marches, blood and thunder bands and the seemingly endless cycles of commemorations have their place but not above the real time concerns of daily life such as standards of living, equal opportunities, access to quality education, job creation, housing provision, healthcare and the protection of the most vulnerable in society.

The culture/counter culture of themmuns and whataboutery are perpetual millstones used to grind down communities. If our political classes believe they are standing on the shoulders of giants, then it’s time they looked beyond and above the miles of ‘peace-walls’ separating those they represent.

As long as those walls remain, politics has failed. [Emphasis added]

Quite so. And despite the claims of those who say it’s the fault of the Union, anyone who thinks a United Ireland is going to happen only because Northern Ireland is more badly run than the south surely should have another thought coming.

Take housing for example. For all it’s tub-thumping on the issue in the south, in Northern Ireland Sinn Féin’s Minister charged with housing policy has faced a number of strident interventions by the head of the NI Housing Executive Grania Long.

Last week the party’s inaction on homeless drove her to publish the following:

Demand for temporary accommodation more than trebled between 2018/19 & 2020/21 and has continued to increase further during 2021/22. We estimate that by the end of the current financial year around 6,100 people will be living in 4,250 units of temporary accommodation.

Without the continuation of the COVID-19 funding, we will be forced to remove almost 900 units of temporary accommodation, within weeks, and potentially put on hold our plans for measures aimed at preventing homelessness.

Now, to be fair that’s in part a budget constraint imposed by her party colleague the minister for finance in his response to other pressures in the overall budget. Some of it too relates to issues in the planning system under the remit of Nicola Mallon.

In which regard Kelly notes:

It’s cumbersome and clearly not fit for purpose. Current legislation makes it an objectors’ paradise. Despite damning reports from within the department, from CBI and more recently from the Auditor General’s office there has been a sustained and consistent failure to grapple with the permanent state of paralysis and indecision which engulfs the entire planning service from council level to the top of the Department of Infrastructure.

You cannot build where you don’t have permission, or where you don’t have a sufficient access to water and electricity (a decades long deficit in Northern Ireland which no single party has highlighted or offered to try to fix).

The drift into blame and counter blame is also giving rise to a drift into convenient fictions. In her response to a question at the Minister Hargey claimed she would have sent funding to Irish league grounds before May were it not for the DUP.

But given her cuts to housing and homeless programmes that’s hardly a credible claim. Nor does it chime with the impression the IFA was under. As their Chief Executive Gerard Lawlor told Evening Extra on Monday:

I think this has been part of the plan for a long time, we’re now waiting nearly 11 years for this. I don’t think when we’re sitting now on 14 February that the minister was ever going to deliver this in the current mandate. We’ve been asking for clarity.

I know a lot of people are upset at this and I’m not surprised in the slightest because I think this has been the game all along. We’ve already put plans in place to take our plea elsewhere. That is currently under way and we will just continue with those plans.

I don’t think it has gone completely, but the question for us that we haven’t been able to get answered is, the money is not visible in the 2022-25 budget either for the Executive, and no upspend – there is upspend for Casement Park, but there’s no money for football.

We’re being used as a political football as we have been for nearly 10 or 11 years.

Contrast that with the south, where despite a lot of mud slinging, the current Housing Minster has gripped the slack in the planning system and the lethargy in local government to create a house building pipeline of 30,000 from a start 18 months ago.

Contrast that with the Sinn Fein record in the north. Long again:

The target for this year is 1,900 social housing starts, with increasing outputs required year-on-year to make an imprint into housing need. This simply will not happen under draft budget proposed spend.

Unimpressive when you consider there’s a 30 acre site in West Belfast currently caught up in a tangle that the minster’s department actually owns. So far permission has been granted for a greenway, but no social housing in an area of need.

Some of the constraints are real. But most of them can only be tackled if there’s ongoing interdepartmental co-operation and political will at ministerial level to grip the planning problem and work together to tackle the housing and homeless issues.

The recently announced rent freeze will be a relief to those already in social housing who face an unprecedented hike in energy prices come April. It will also help compensate for the shortfalls felt when that party handed welfare reform back to London.

But voters will only feel they are being feed a lot of convenient fictions when someone else makes a serious counter offer to address an economic equality agenda that has been far too long on empty promises and short on delivery.

As someone once said, there’s no Irish unity to be got from leaning on the idle end of a long handled shovel.

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