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First job is to halt sell-off of our hard-won public housing by faceless and unelected bureaucrats

Being an MLA does not mean end to street politics for veteran campaigner Eamonn McCann as he vows to fight to reverse 'completely undemocratic' decision to abolish the Housing Executive.

Published 11/05/2016

Housing issues are a priority for newly elected MLA Eamonn McCann
Housing issues are a priority for newly elected MLA Eamonn McCann

'Mad, isn't it?" I remarked to Gerry Carroll on Monday as we strolled toward the Stormont building, blinding white in the dazzle of a gorgeous day. We scurried inside for shelter from the sun and sailed serenely through security - "No, you don't need a badge" - which is the sort of thing that could unsettle me.

The marbled elegance of the entrance hall stands in contrast to the workplaces, colleges and the dusty streets where I plied my trade for years - decades even - and still do when needs must.

But I find it odd to be asked at hourly intervals whether taking a seat at Stormont means a definitive break with past politics.

This is a lurch into a different political arena, not a change in direction or perspective, I reassured myself as we chanced into the company of the genial guru of UTV, Ken Reid. "Mad, isn't it?" he remarked.

But not really as mad as all that. The same ideas can be promoted on the rowdy streets as in the buttoned-up ambience of the Assembly.

There are circumstances, indeed, in which the street can still be the better avenue for advance, even here where streets are so often strewn with debris.

There wouldn't have been votes for women at all last week if their sisters of an earlier generation hadn't smashed every shop window in Regent Street.

The creation of the Housing Executive in 1970 was one of the great achievements of the civil rights movement. The building of public sector housing had come to a virtual standstill. In many council areas there was unfair allocation of the homes which were being built. Complaints fell on stone-deaf ears.

The grievance simmered and eventually boiled over and splurged onto the streets.

It was this which delivered the Housing Executive, taking control away from local councils and an ineffectual Housing Trust and bringing forward a points system for allocation.

Nobody at all suggests now that we should go back to the old ways of doing things.

So, it wasn't debate at Stormont, nor recourse to the gun, which resulted in the old order rapidly changing.

What ushered the new era in was the sound of marching feet.

Now, the structures built back then are being dismantled and discarded with as little sentimentality as election posters en route for recycling.

The Executive, through the Strategic Investment Board, is in the process of selling off the Housing Executive's tens of thousands of properties.

The notion behind the creation of the Housing Executive - that the State has a duty to strive to ensure that citizens have decent living conditions - cannot survive immersion in the neo-liberal ideology now holding sway.

When was it decided that the Housing Executive should be written off? And by whom? Which elected representatives were involved? What was their parties' reasoning? How did they check that they had public approval? What element of democracy can be pointed to as part of this process?

Which was the more democratic development - the creation or the destruction of the Housing Executive? The marching on the street or the manoeuvring behind closed doors?

The Assembly had no direct involvement in the decision to get rid of the Housing Executive.

In my own estimation (an estimate is all it can be) as few as 20 people - all, or almost all, of them unelected - played a part in the decision to bring in the wrecking ball.

Standing contemplatively at the top of the steps, pondering how to halt the dismantling of the Housing Executive, it struck me it would be pointless to begin in the building behind me.

Democratic street politics have been trumped by discussions in the dark among unaccountable individuals whose names would have zero recognition among the people in whose name they presumably think they are acting.

It should be the duty, then, of Members of the Assembly to assert the Assembly's right to give or withhold assent to proposals relating to matters devolved to the Assembly.

MLAs who have been at Stormont somewhat longer than myself and Gerry Carroll may be able to explain how the sell-off of public-sector housing might be halted by parliamentary - Assembly - means alone.

In the meantime, what's mad is not being involved in the Stormont institutions, but in imagining that such involvement alone can deliver real change.

We mustn't allow ourselves to be bedazzled.

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