Property still more important than people

30th June 2000

There is a remarkable interest among ordinary people here in the recent events in Zimbabwe. I can’t recall a foreign affairs issue (apart from war) that has so caught the public imagination.

While Mugabe has been cast in the role of villain, there seems to be widespread hostility here to the virtual monopoly on farm land by a few white farmers.

This is undoubtedly a republican reflex called forth from our own history and a folk memory of the brutal landlord system in Ireland.

The principle fought for in the land struggle was that people were more important than property – a notion carried through from Davitt to Connolly and into the Democratic Programme of the First Dail in 1919.

It is a principle even carried through into our current Constitution where Article 43 grants the right of private property but limits that right in pursuit of ‘social justice’ and ‘the common good’.

You could have fooled me.

Whatever the ‘social justice’ component there is in Article 43, it has been completely subordinated to the needs of private property in practice.

It’s easy to imagine how this has come about. The landed classes in this country have gone to the courts whenever their interests have been challenged. With well paid lawyers and a sympathetic ear from their kinfolk on the benches of the High Court and the Supreme Court, they have whittled away at any compromises to ‘the common good’ in the Constitution.

The only vestige of limitations to private property lies with the Compulsory Purchase Order. This power is practically only ever used in road building and that is as important to economic and commercial development as to the common good.

We now have the situation where young couples in Dublin have to pay anywhere from £50,000 to £100,000 for the few square yards under their house to a guy who may never have done a hand’s turn in his life to prepare that land for house building. His sole contribution is that he has a piece of paper saying that he owns the land.

Meanwhile, for every acre that he owns, 10 young couples (soon to be 15-20) have to work their arses off throughout their best years to ensure he gets paid.

The other limitation to private property is the zoning system and wild life protection. Now this is interesting.

The ducks and other creatures (golfers?) out on Bull Island are so important that the Government will not allow any house building to intrude on their patch. And quite rightly so.

But suppose the ducks went away and the land was safe for property development. It would then be changed to the appropriate zoning and the owners could charge as much as they could get for it.

So our inheritance from Davitt and Connolly now works out as follows: ducks can have land for nothing but homeless people have to pay full whack.

It amazes me how such an iniquitous system can retain support throughout the community, but it has.

I think the answer is that everyone owns or wants to own some property. In fact, a huge proportion of the population in this country own their own home. I do too.

Thus this body of people, middle Ireland, are co-opted into the system of private property and its god-like needs. No-one can tamper with the privileges without threatening the interests of all property owners.

We need to amend the Constitution (and our collective perspectives) to distinguish between personal private property and commercial private property.

So where it is perfectly natural and right for the individual to own their house and those personal things that they need to live in our society, the same law can’t be used to exploit those who have nothing.

Having the sole run of your back garden is one thing; having the exclusive use of Lambay Island is another. Surely private property should have some meaningful restraints.

I’m not optimistic on this one. It seems much easier to make the case in Zimbabwe.


As well as that…

Stay out of the buscycle lane

My beloved fell foul of the law when a Garda gave her a stern telling-to for riding her moped in a bus lane.

She explained that she didn’t like riding the bike out in the middle of the road where cars try to squeeze past half a millimetre away at 40 miles an hour.

He was impervious to her argument but let her off with a warning, telling her those lanes were only for buses and bicycles.

What a ridiculous law! I have never seen motorbikes hold up a bus and if the city encouraged their use it might free up the traffic a touch.

Using the Lliffey (usefully)

now that we have a few bob to spare and wondering what to do with it, the old Liffey Weir idea deserves another outing.

A weir sited down at the docks would leave the levels of the river through town controllable. We could then have water taxis, floating restaurants, even rowing boats.

I know the ebb and flow of the tide reminds us where we are, but a trip to Belfast would prove the merits of the scheme with the success of the Lagan weir built a few years back.

And we’d never have to look at the shopping trollies again.