The People of No Property Rise Up
The Dublin Housing Action Committee has an honoured place in the history of the Irish Left. Francis Donohoe presents a brief overview of the campaign.
The Dublin Housing Action Committee (DHAC) was a genuine and popular response to the horrendous housing problems of 1960s Dublin. Between 1961 and 1965 Dublin’s population grew by a greater amount than in any five years since at least 1900. In human terms this meant 6,000 families living in overcrowded conditions, with many others living in condemned buildings.
The most visible sign of the government’s and Dublin Corporation’s response to the housing shortage was seven 15-storey high-rises named after the seven signatories of the 1916 proclamation built in Ballymun, on the northern edge of the city. The first tenants moved into Ballymun in 1966, and when the scheme was completed in 1969 it housed nearly 20,000 people. The development was separated from areas of non-public housing by a 12-foot concrete wall.
Early in the decade there were short lived housing campaigns in response to fatal tenement collapses in 1963 and the lodging of homeless families in unacceptable conditions in Griffith Barracks. However, the decision to establish the DHAC lay in a shift in policy by the republican movement towards social agitation. By 1967, the Sean Russell Cumann had established a Citizen Advice Bureau in the Sinn Fein party headquarters in the North Inner City of Dublin. It soon became clear to the activists manning this centre, which dealt with an array of problems for members of the local community from access to healthcare to workplace disputes, that it was the lack of suitable housing that was the overwhelming issue in working class Dublin.
In February 1967 the United Irishman (the newspaper of the republican movement) lamented that while the Labour Party was ‘unwilling’ to begin a campaign on housing, Sinn Féin was ‘too weak’ to lead the necessary ‘housing revolution’. However, through building a broad left campaign, with the United Irishman itself playing a key role, it intended to attempt to do just that.
During May 1967 the Dublin Housing Action Committee was launched. Its aim was to bring together republican activists and other radicals in a campaign involving the homeless themselves. All families living in inadequate accommodation were defined by the campaign as ‘homeless’. These included people living in severe overcrowding and families forced to live with in-laws, paying excessive rent or squatting. At the same time the Sinn Féin leadership decided to extend the operations of its CABs to every area of the capital. Each of the approximately ten Sinn Féin cumainn active in city was instructed to appoint a member to run an advice office and through its operation recruit people to the housing campaign.
Paddy Stanley, a returned emigrant living in a caravan in Portmarnock, was elected the first DHAC chairman and Denis and Mary Dennehy, a couple also living in roadside accommodation, became key activists from an early stage in the DHAC. However, most DHAC committee positions rotated among republican activists already involved in Sinn Féin’s CABs, (most of whom would stay with Official Sinn Féin later The Workers’ Party after the split in the republican movement in 1969). Most prominent among these were Proinsias De Rossa, Máirín de Burca, Sean Dunne, Seán Ó Cionnaith and Seamus Rhatigan. Members of the Irish Workers Party (IWP), which would become the Communist Party of Ireland in 1970, were involved early on, as was Father Michael Sweetman, a Jesuit priest, whose involvement was seen by some as a useful deterrent to allegations of communist manipulation. Smaller left groups also participated, with Denis Dennehy being a member of the Irish Communist Organisation. The campaign would later gain the support of some Labour Party branches, tenants’ organisations and many trade unionists.
The DHAC highlighted the housing crisis in a campaign that began with pickets on landlords’ homes and demonstrations at Dublin City Council meetings demanding ‘build houses not office blocks’. Initially activists restricted the use of force to halting evictions from premises in which families already lived, but by the first half of 1968 activists were breaking into unused properties to allow families to squat. These properties were then physically protected by DHAC activists.
The organisation gained considerable notoriety by its actions and innovative publicity, which included the use of colourful graphic posters and the production of lively newssheets. A demonstration at the home of the Minister for Local Government, Kevin Boland, was part of the DHAC targeting links between property developers and that party’s business support group Taca. Boland hit back, denouncing the DHAC as the creation of an ‘illegal organisation’.
In January 1968 the DHAC made headlines after a clash between Gardai and bailiffs during an eviction at Sarah Place in Inchicore. Activists were aiding residents who had barricaded themselves inside their dilapidated cottages rather than be relocated to Ballymun. Council bailiffs and 30 Gardai attempted to break the barricades and evict the families. As word spread more DHAC activists arrived. As scuffles ensued placard and baton blows were exchanged with activists shouting ‘Black and Tans’ and ‘Gestapo.’ By the end of the incident 24 people, including leading Sinn Fein activists Sean Dunne, de Rossa, Jim Monaghan, Lar Malone and WPI leader Mick O’Riordan had been arrested.
An Evening Herald front page after “the battle of Sarah Place” warned that “Red Cells” were active in the DHAC. It was claimed housing agitation was the product of a “well known organised movement”. Referring to but not naming Sinn Fein director of education and academic Roy Johnston, it claimed this movement was “under the direction of a man who is alleged to have been trained by extreme elements in Britain and sent over here to exploit housing and other problems”.
Housing Action Committees (HAC) were established elsewhere, with campaigns becoming particularly active in Derry, Belfast, Cork, Waterford and Bray. In Carrickmacross in County Monaghan members of the local HAC broke into a derelict house, restored it and moved in a homeless Traveller family. In connection with this action three Sinn Fein members were arrested and fined £50 each.
The regular pickets at Dublin City Hall became more confrontational with on one occasion a dead rat from a tenement thrown at councillors. Clashes between Gardaí and protesters became commonplace. It was often teenage members of the republican youth group, Na Fianna, who were to the fore in these confrontations.
During Easter 1968 the DHAC ‘commandeered’ a number of four storey Georgian houses on Mount Street. The properties where due to be developed into office blocks by their London owners. The Starry Plough and Tricolour flags were flown from the building and homeless families where moved in. Private security firms, hired by landlords to repossess properties, were confronted by activists and on most occasions forced to back away from implementing evictions. The DHAC was denounced in the Dail as ‘reds and fellow travellers.’ Its chairman in the summer of 1969, de Rossa was equally confrontational in an Irish Times interview stating; “we don’t set out to be respectable public figures. We want to focus attention on the problem and force action on it…our battle is against…the system.”
By early 1969 housing action in Dublin was reaching a crescendo with several properties around the city occupied by ‘squatting’ families. In January there were major protests to highlight the case of Dennis Dennehy, jailed and on hunger strike for squatting with his family. At one protest where traffic was blocked outside the GPO a message from housing activists occupying the Guildhall in Derry was read out proclaiming that “the struggle is the same: North and South”. A 2,000 strong DHAC march ended in running battles on O’Connell Bridge between Gardaí and protesters. In Cork housing demonstrators disrupted a Fianna Fáil dinner at which Taoiseach Jack Lynch was the guest, and there were nine arrests when the Cork HAC took over City Hall the following week.
Later in the month thousands attended a DHAC protest outside a ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the First Dáil In the Mansion House in Dublin. Inside activist and 1916 veteran Joe Clarke disrupted a speech by President de Valera to raise the Dennehy case; the DHAC campaigner was released a few days later.
During the summer of 1969 homeless families being housed with the support of DHAC in properties in Mountjoy Square were threatened with forced eviction. When private security men hired by a landlord arrived to evict the squatters, they found a large group of men armed with hurleys waiting for them and no evictions took place. Members of the IRA also carried out actions in support of the campaign. These included an incident where a landlord and garage owner, had several of his cars burnt out while another landlord had his car firebombed outside his home on the Howth Road. After August 1969 an increasing focus by key activists on events in the North and a hardening of the Garda approach to the protests began to sap the momentum of the DHAC. The return of the gun into republican politics increased political support for a Garda clampdown as some squats were used to store weapons. This dynamic would play a role in the last major confrontation of the campaign.
In late May 1970 a private security firm forcibly evicted squatters from one of two four-storey houses on Pembroke Road in the leafy south Dublin suburbs near the US Embassy. The house, owned by the Gallagher property developers, had been occupied by DHAC activists during 1969 and used to house several homeless families. Following a call to the Sinn Féin offices in Gardiner Place a dozen DHAC activists rushed over to Pembroke Road to find the house deserted. Unknown to them a homeless man from the adjacent squat had produced a gun and frightened the evictors off. Within minutes of the activists taking repossession of the property a Garda officer on a megaphone, was demanding, “Throw out the gun”. Gardai had surrounded the area and moved into the property badly beating the protesters. Injuries included broken ribs and a fractured skull. Those protesters not hospitalised were produced at the High Court, where it was demanded they give an undertaking to stay out of the property.
However, within hours the DHAC had reoccupied the house, this time barracking it against another Garda incursion. Well over one hundred Gardaí surrounded the building and after a week of preparations launched a pre-dawn raid. Riot shields were deployed for the first time in the force’s history, and under specially constructed corrugated iron shelters the Gardai advanced into a hail of bottles, bricks and smoke bombs. They attempted to gain entry using power saws but met with a sustained shower of missiles. After hours of violent confrontation the protesters surrendered. That night, as the squatting families were being removed from the second Pembroke Street house, offices owned by the Gallaghers on Baggot Street were set on fire, causing an estimated £250,000 worth of damage.
Although protests would continue, for many the Pembroke Road siege marked the end of the DHAC as a serious force. A contemporary internal Official Sinn Féin report analysising the campaign stated that after the siege the DHAC “disintegrated” as attention was focused on events in the North. It surmised that confrontation with the Gardai had seen the action “taken off the streets and into the courts where the government won hands down.” The Housing Action Committees also had to accept there was growing disquiet that squatters, particularly in council properties, were merely “queue jumpers”.
Concerned by the campaign’s decline, Máirín de Burca called a special meeting of leading DHAC activists in December 1970. Little was agreed upon and during 1971 the campaign reverted to opposing evictions and finding housing for those fleeing the violence in the North. There was also decisive action by government, with the Forcible Entry Bill becoming law in September 1971. It increased both Garda powers and the penalties on those who transgressed property rights.
The DHAC mobilised thousands in a broad campaign demanding action on housing. Its innovative tactics drew attention to the problem and temporarily provided homes for many families. However, the State was able to use its power to hinder the campaign and the Northern crisis drew the attention of activists away from housing activity. Ultimately the relationship between private housing developers and the state endured, meaning housing problems in Dublin remain as acute today as in the 1960s.