Home Sweet Home and Democracy


via Home Sweet Home Eire Facebook page

It could have led to ‘an intolerable situation in a democratic state’, according to Judge Paul Gilligan, had the Apollo House residents been allowed an extension to the deadline laid down by the court for vacating the building.

A corollary to the judge’s argument, however, is that homelessness is a tolerable situation in a democratic state. Homelessness: tolerable. Preventing homelessness: intolerable.

One might also observe that if direct action to end homelessness is intolerable in a democratic state by the judge’s lights, then it must also be intolerable in other kinds of state: judges in a fascist state would also deem infringements of private or state property rights to be intolerable.

So it’s not clear yet why the judge makes reference to democracy at all.

Perhaps it would be intolerable for the judiciary to interfere with government decisions, since this would undo the separation of powers set forth in Article 15 of the Irish Constitution, and, since Ireland is ‘a democratic state’, it would therefore prove intolerable within the scope of the constitution.

This would suggest that democracy exists only in so far as it inheres in a constitution, and that the Irish constitution is what defines democracy in the first instance. The Irish constitution emphasises that a democratic state is one in which the people have the right to ‘designate the rulers of the State’.

Even though ‘in final appeal’ it is the right of the people to ‘decide all questions of national policy’, the rulers rule and the people are expected to comply, regardless of whether or not or how much they took part in making the rules.

In actual fact, the vast majority of people have no role in the formulation of rules, and their everyday compliance is taken as proof of both their consent and the legitimacy of the rules. So when it comes to homelessness, or to any other social outrage arising through the application of the rules and by the actions of the rulers, the only acceptable course of action is to petition the rulers, or elect different ones.

All this amounts to a very narrow conception of democracy. In practice it means the rule of a minority over a majority. In no sense is it ‘government by the people’, which is commonly cited as a defining characteristic of democracy.

In fact, when people take action that amounts to ‘government by the people’, which is to say, deciding for themselves how life in common should be lived, this is bitterly denounced by the ruling powers, and by those who live by upholding the rules.

For example, on Friday’s Liveline, the organisers of the Home Sweet Home campaign came in for unrelentingly bitter criticism from Dublin City Councillor Mannix Flynn. According to him, those who had supported the campaign were ‘dupes’, and he took particular umbrage at the fact that Home Sweet Home might be breaking the law. He voiced his own experience in working with homelessness, and called into question the political credentials of ‘Mattress’ Mick Flynn, who was speaking in favour of the campaign and who believed that the occupation of Apollo House ought to continue in defiance of court rulings. In contrast to those involved in the campaign, Mannix Flynn said that he had been elected. Though charged with a venom rarely encountered in airwave debate, there was nothing particularly unusual about his perspective: breaking the law is wrong, leave things to the experts, and if you want to do something about the matter of homelessness yourself, you should either take your own private initiative in accordance with the law, or help charities who operate in this domain. And if you want to take part in politics, you should be standing for election.

Mannix Flynn pressed Mattress Mick to accommodate the occupiers of Apollo House himself. This was no different in approach to Fine Gael TD Catherine Byrne, who in the Dáil suggested that families ought to accommodate their homeless members. Thus private solutions -ones that do not disturb the rules that produce homelessness in the first instance- are the order of the day.

The overall effect of this is to de-politicise homelessness, and to confine it as far as possible to the private realm. In so doing, it strengthens the underlying relations of power that sustain homelessness. First, by refusing to interrupt the legal order, the speculative activities, and the housing policies that favour speculation and private enrichment over the right to a home, and secondly, by making individuals bear the cost of homelessness.

In the latter case, this means that not only are people enjoined to engage in charity rather than challenge the legal and political order, but it shapes the sense that those who do end up without a home are primarily responsible for their predicament. Moreover, it shifts the discussion away from the underlying causes of homelessness and its status as a political issue towards the question of whether proper order is maintained and how to get rid of the malcontents undermining proper order.

Flynn’s intervention also condemned Mattress Mick and the Home Sweet Home participants more broadly for encroaching on an area in which they had no expertise. That is, to intervene in public matters such as homelessness, one must be endowed with the necessary know-how and experience. But the know-how and experience that comes with attending to the needs of homeless people day-in day-out is an entirely different thing to identifying homelessness as a human scandal and a political matter.

Whatever the necessary work carried out by homeless charities in providing day-to-day vital supports, there is no reason to expect that these entities will challenge the overall order in which homelessness emerges, and a great deal of reason to expect that they will be at best subdued in their criticisms, reliant as they are on government contributions and private donations.

The most widely-heard voices, whenever a social crisis comes into public view, be it unemployment or homelessness or mental health or any other issue you care to name, are never the voices of those affected, but the voices instead of experts: politicians, economists, charity CEOs and psychologists. This does not mean there is anything wrong with expertise, or with a deep understanding of a particular area, but what it shows is that the only acceptable solutions to such crises, under the current order, will come by disregarding radical responses, by leaving it to the experts, by protecting the regime of property and by suppressing expressions of democracy deemed to threaten the status quo.

1 Comment

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One response to “Home Sweet Home and Democracy

  1. greenspeakireland

    Though Home Sweet Home shone a light on the plight of homeless people and indeed created shelter for some hard-pressed folk it may not have sufficiently challenged the status quo. It’s said that significant change comes from the bottom up and if this be so perhaps this campaign needs to refocus. Has a stage been reached where the priority might be to support those without homes to speak and act for themselves and find effective ways to express their demands directly to those in power without mediation from well-intentioned people, as kind as they may be. Casting one’s mind back to the heyday of community action in the 1970s the struggle for housing for homeless people was carried out through effective self- organisation of those deprived of housing. Indeed the campaign to set up London’s Centrepoint began in that way as did several of the city’s housing associations whose birth was initiated in the squatting movement. Many a politician and housing official back then found their minds being changed when faced directly with the folk victimised by their inaction. Supporters of the notion of the right to secure housing could find a fresh role enabling activists who are in fact homeless, to have their own voices heard and their demands validated.
    One last point. Is it not time that those without a home are referred to as homeless people. The term ‘the homeless’ tends to depersonalise those who are already marginalised and treated with indifference by society at large.

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