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2023 mooted as right to housing referendum date

Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien TD has indicated that a referendum on a constitutional right to housing could be held in the early part of 2023.

O’Brien, who it was confirmed will retain his cabinet role in the upcoming December reshuffle, has been attempting a number of initiatives to curtail the housing crisis, including Housing for All and the establishment of the Housing Commission.

Article eight of the European Convention of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”. This argument has been used by those in favour of constitutional reform to argue that the non-provision of housing is in contrast to the European values to which Ireland holds itself.

The Articles between 40 and 44 enshrine constitutional rights to the citizens of the State, which cover civil liberties such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of religion. Economic rights are not provided for as a state guarantee in Ireland.

The Taoiseach has stated that government intervention on rent prices would be unconstitutional, but a constitutional right to housing would invariably involve a level of state intervention in the housing market, whether these are publicly owned or with price caps on rents. Additionally, during the Covid-19 level five restrictions, the Government banned tenancy evictions and has banned evictions again until April.

The Irish Council for Human Rights argues that the “unconstitutional” argument of which the Taoiseach, among others, has made is disproven by the nature of a provision within Article 42, which obliges the Government to “supply the place” of parents who cannot or will not look after their children. In other words, the State already possesses the power to provide housing for citizens as long as they are children.

The Housing Commission, established earlier this year, includes a subcommittee chaired by Ailbhe O’Neill which aims to lay the groundwork for a referendum in 2023. It further completed a public consultation on holding a referendum which closed for submissions on 2 September this year.

The subcommittee meets every month and gathers the opinions and viewpoints of members of the general public, as well as experts in the housing sector.

Home for Good, representing Ireland’s leading homeless charities, published its submission for the proposed constitutional amendment:

  1. “The State recognises, and shall vindicate, the right of all persons to have access to adequate housing.”
  2. “The State shall, through legislative and other measures, provide for the realisation of this right within its available resources.”

They further state: “The fundamental problem is not that our Constitution sets out strong property rights. The fundamental problem is that the Constitution fails to set out what is meant by the ‘common good’ against which those rights are intended to be balanced and does not expressly protect the right to housing.

“Those in need of housing reform are left to rely on something that has been given no place, no words in the Constitution. It allows our legislators to shy away from doing what is right.

“This is not good enough. This is not what the people of Ireland want. We seek that the necessary words are spelt out clearly and unambiguously.”

There have been numerous attempts in the Dáil to introduce an amendment or piece of legislation which guarantees a right to housing. The latest of these, the 39th Amendment of the Constitution (Right to Housing) Bill 2020, introduced by People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett, is currently at committee stage in the Dáil.