Relaying the Bricks of Our Nation: The Programme for Government’s Commitment to a Referendum on Housing

Deputy Current Affairs Editor Stephen Moynihan investigates the possibility of adding “The Right to a Home” to Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Irish Constitution. 

When Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Housing Eoin Ó Broin introduced his Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to a Home) Bill on 6th October, it represented just the latest step in the long fight for an explicit right to housing in Bunreacht na hÉireann.

The Bill proposes the insertion of Article 43A to read that “The State recognises the right to appropriate and affordable housing, essential for an adequate standard of living, for every person and family. The State accordingly, shall take appropriate steps to ensure the realisation of this right”, and that “The State shall take reasonable steps to prevent and reduce homelessness, with a view to its gradual elimination.”

In introducing this legislation, Deputy Ó Broin stated that “this is not a silver bullet. It does not guarantee every person in the State an automatic right to a free home. It does, however, place an obligation on the Government to realise the right to housing and to eliminate homelessness progressively.”

Should the Bill be passed by both the Dáil and the Seanad the amendment will go to a referendum, as do all amendments to the Constitution, although the proposal’s nature as a Private Members’ Bill, i.e. raised by the opposition, means it is unlikely to reach this stage.

Despite this, the appetite for the insertion of a similar clause has undeniably been gaining steam in recent years across party lines. The Programme for Government, signed in June by the three governing parties of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green Party outlining the aims of their term in government, commits to holding a “referendum on housing” in the next five years. This provision, which was not present in Fine Gael’s 2016 Programme for Government, provides evidence that the need for constitutional changes with regard to housing is at the forefront of the current political zeitgeist, although its vague wording leaves the form of these potential changes ambiguous.

However, to say that the campaign for the Right to Housing has been led by politicians would be misleading. Several NGOs and charities have continually been seeking a constitutional Right to Housing, including Threshold, Focus Ireland, Respond and the Simon Community. In order to achieve this, these four organisations are part of a coalition which operates under the name of Home For Good, which aims to provide constitutional change regarding housing which they believe would constitute “an essential underpinning for any successful programme to tackle our housing and homelessness crisis”.

Home for Good argues that the Constitution, instead of ensuring its citizens to suitable housing, provides a barrier. They maintain that Article 43, which provides protection for a citizens’ possession of private property, is mainly to blame for this, citing a 2019 Oireachtas Research Paper which states that on twelve different occasions in recent years legislation has failed to progress due to the presence of this article in the Constitution.

Despite Article 43’s provision that the State can limit private property protections “with a view reconciling their exercise with the exigencies of the common good”, Home for Good argues that this is insufficient.

“We propose that the Constitution be amended to make it clear that access to adequate, secure and affordable housing is an essential part of the common good. Any amendment can preserve the right to private property, while also offering the counterbalance of a right to housing. It will unlock the barrier to essential reforming legislation and be a vital part of ending the current housing crisis”, they argue.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including […] housing.” A Constitutional Right to Housing would provide all Irish citizens with an assurance of this.

There is a mandate to legislate for this right and there is a mechanism to make this change to the Constitution. The Irish people should get the chance to have their say in the next five years – if not, it will be a failure by the government, one that won’t be easily forgotten by those affected by Ireland’s housing crisis.