RTÉ, the state broadcaster, is running a story today on a trustee company linked to UNITE the Union applying for an exemption from social housing for a development at its former headquarters on Merrion Square.
What makes this newsworthy from the broadcaster’s point of view, is that the application was made at the same time as plans were underway for the occupation of Apollo House, with UNITE official Brendan Ogle in a prominent role.
The news report includes the detail that the property has toilet and shower facilities. The relevance of this detail to the story is that a group called ‘Hands Off The Homeless’, cited in the report, believes that the property ought to have been used instead of Apollo House, and that the fact it was not used made the Home Sweet Home initiative a ‘publicity stunt’.
Who are ‘Hands Off The Homeless’? No idea. But a commenter on this site yesterday made a relevant observation, before the news report and the group in question appeared on the scene:
‘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.’
With this report we are back again in the territory staked out by Mannix Flynn on Liveline last week, but also in the territory staked out by a large degree of the coverage given to the Home Sweet Home occupation. To wit: the matter of homelessness is simply a technical matter, not a political one, and it is solved through charity and private initiative, not through political intervention. If you want to do something with regard to homelessness, you should be putting your hand in your own pocket, rather than expecting state agencies to do anything about it.
By staking out this territory, other areas are kept free of scrutiny. If all that is needed is charity, then there is no need for increased public funding for social housing. Nor is there any need to call into question how current public resources are being used to address homelessness.
What makes the UNITE detail particularly attractive to people who are sympathetic with the predicament of the powerful when their indifference to human need is highlighted is that it appears hypocritical, on the one hand, to support an action aimed at using public resources to tackle homelessness, and on the other, to engage in commercial activities that appear to narrow the scope for providing social housing. Few things whet the appetite of someone who hates trade unions more than the possibility of making them appear as bad as the political and economic elites they claim they are challenging.
There may well be a contradiction involved. But so what? Such a contradiction would not alter one iota the principal issue brought to the fore by the Home Sweet Home occupation, which is that the government favours the interests of property speculators over the interests of people in need of a home. Moreover, we are not told what the ground rules are for such a trustee company, and what it is obliged to do with its investments. It is only when you wish to avoid the principal issue that a contradiction such as this takes on any relevance.
In fact, unions -and individuals- engage all the time in activities that can contradict their stated political positions and broader activities. This is a fact of operating in a capitalist system. The question is: how do you evaluate the contradiction?
The thick strain of right-wing anti-establishment sentiment in Irish political life, tapped into by RTÉ’s reporting here, does not evaluate it at all. It merely barks ‘hypocrisy!’. According to these quarters, the ‘vested interests’, in which the trade unions are always made to figure heavily, have things all sown up, at the expense of the little man. The purpose of such sentiment is to sow disenchantment with trade unions and, consequently, with the defence of workers’ rights, including social rights such as the right to a home.
RTÉ’s concern over UNITE’s role in Home Sweet Home is hardly matched by an ongoing concern with workers’ rights, or the provision of public goods, whether public housing, education, or healthcare.
For example: on January 6th, in the midst of a full-blown hospital trolley crisis, the Sean O’Rourke show, RTÉ’s daily news and current affairs morning programme, had what amounted to a feature length advertisement for private health services in general, and for the Beacon Hospital in particular.
The feature was presented in terms of ‘how the private sector can help’ with regard to the present health crisis. They had the CEO of the Beacon Hospital in studio, an emergency ward consultant in Cork University Hospital on the phone who said he was a ‘committed public sector man’ who ‘believed in’ the National Health Service and Ireland’s health service but who had come round to the idea that ‘some sort of hybrid model’ was “the way forward”, and a rep from the national association of GPs who said she and other GPs encouraged their patients with private health insurance to attend private hospitals whenever possible. In effect, such programming means that when you pay the licence fee, you are also contributing to the local PR fund for disaster capitalism. The feature did nothing to examine the role played by the so-called ‘two-tier’ health system -which allows private operators to profit from the poor condition of public provision- in producing the crisis in the first instance, and, as with the housing crisis, addressed the problem, as ever, in terms of technical solutions.
There is a continuity between this kind of coverage and the UNITE story: addressing social crises means ponying up out of your own pocket and leaving the powerful and their political institutions well alone.
The real story of hypocrisy here is a public broadcaster affecting concern over homelessness as a cover for anti-union attacks. In fact, unions do a great deal to prevent homelessness, primarily through maintaining minimum standards for workers.
Given that the drive of RTÉ’s reporting is to undermine support for collective institutions that serve to protect basic social rights, it is also a drive for increased homelessness, and heightened reactionary ignorance.