The Irish Constitution Puts Property Rights Before Human Rights

DM, Baile Átha Cliath

Ireland has among the strongest property rights recognition in the world. Article 43 of Bunreacht na hÉireann purports to recognise private ownership of external goods by virtue of the “rational” nature of man. It elevates the status of property to that of a positive right and affirms that the state will make no law abolishing this right of private property.

There is no doubt that this robust recognition of property rights is a remnant of Ireland’s bloody colonial past and the collective memory of dispossession and oppression. However, this single article of the Constitution has an echo across all socio-economic issues in the country.

The capitalist idea of a free market is predicated on a right to property. This right to own land to the exclusion of all others, and to be vindicated in this ownership is a feature of bourgeois ‘democracies’ across the world. If the private ownership of property is a path to economic justice, why has no economy in the world achieved this?

The fact of the matter is that the ownership of private property, and the exploitation and accumulation of land are not anomalies of a capitalist system, but inevitable ends. A structure that incentivises greed will lead to hoarding. A structure that incentivizes profit will lead to profiteering. This is simply what is happening across the world today.

With record homelessness in Ireland, it is time for a national conversation on whether these property rights are helping us achieve the ends of social and economic justice. Strong property rights allow vulture funds to own large blocks of flats and charge exorbitant rents. It allows landlords to cram multiple people into single rooms. It allows over-privileged families to own homes across the country despite them being physically incapable of occupying any more space than the rest of us. It allows oligarchs from across the world to invest in homes that remain empty for practically the whole year. Importantly, property rights defend all this with the might of the government and the tax of the proletariat.

Imagine if, instead of protecting the right to property, the Constitution protected the right to housing. If the might of the government vindicated every individual’s right to shelter. If the Gardai were called in every time a landlord tried to cram six adults in a room meant for one, or tried to charge half a months’ wages for a dingy attic. Imagine if the landlord class did not exist, and all homes were organized and run by cooperatives – and essentially no one had the power to make anyone else homeless.

Perhaps it is time for property rights to become more humane.

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