In the course of a discussion that took place in this House last night Deputy Cosgrave paid a tribute to the medical graduates of the Universities in this country and said in the course of doing so that their contribution to the improved public health of this country was considerable. The Minister for Local Government and Public Health sitting in the front bench intervened and said "Any improvement in public health is probably much more due to improved housing." I want to read a copious note which I took while Deputy Tom Kelly was speaking on housing in this House two nights ago, and I want my note of what Deputy Tom Kelly said to serve as a comment on the Vice-President's interjection last night. My note is as follows:—
"There are 1,600 basements in the City of Dublin occupied to-night. I do not suggest that the whole 1,600 are unfit for human habitation but I do say from my knowledge that the larger number are and should be closed up. Life in them and the conditions under which people live in them are beyond description. In the tenements themselves, especially where families are growing up, the situation is very bad. A sheet has to be hung across the room at night to divide the sexes and sometimes the boys have to go out on the lobby while the girls undress. Sometimes the overcrowding is so dreadful that the very smell of the room sickens one. A reporter came to me one day after hearing me make some statement on this subject. He asked me if it was really true and where would he go. I recommended him to go to a certain street on the North side. He went there and he came back next day and told me ‘I got sick'. I asked ‘Do you mean figuratively?' and he said ‘No, physically sick, and I had to leave.'"
That is my note of what Deputy Tom Kelly said of the housing conditions in this city. I have a peculiarly good reason to know how well Deputy Tom Kelly is qualified to speak on that question. Deputy Tom Kelly and I were both born and reared in the middle of the slums of this city and we know them pretty well. For that reason I venture to quote still further from the note which I took of what Deputy Tom Kelly said. He continued:—
"There is scarcely a member of the Housing Committee of the Dublin Corporation who has not had, day in and day out, for at least six days in the week, a constant stream of people coming to him looking for Corporation houses—all sorts and conditions of the poor, many of them bringing with them terrible evidence of the conditions under which they live. Many of them come in with clear glass bottles in their hands in which there are filthy sewer slugs that crawl up the wall at night and horrible looking beetles of a colour which I could not describe. Children are brought in with their faces all marked with bug bites. At night the mothers have to tie a cloth over their faces—that is, the faces of the children—in order to protect them. As for evidence of sewer rats, over and over again have I got it. Over and over again, have these people implored me: ‘Mr. Kelly, do not let us have to put in another summer here.' Just imagine, when all other civilised people live under decent conditions and enjoy the summer, that is the time slum dwellers hate most, because that is the period when the vermin are most active. Face to face with our responsibilities! Every day in the week, every member or most of the members of the Corporation are faced with these things. They are faced with the imploring cry: ‘Take us out of this terrible place'."
It is right that the Minister for Local Government and Public Health should be called upon to-day to face his responsibility in connection with that situation that is described by Deputy Kelly. He has had the pleasure of being complimented in this House on the Bill under which he is to deal with rural housing. As I have pointed out here before, it is comparatively easy to deal with rural housing. All you have to do is to inform the local authority that the Government will make grants for that purpose and that it is the Government's wish to enter freely into debt in order to build houses. There are no administrative difficulties of any serious character in the way of going ahead. Signs on it, we are building labourers' cottages all over the country in great numbers. To my mind, that is simply the easy, and, it must be added, the popular part of housing reform. But the difficult part, the part that is going to give raise very possibly to material unpopularity, the part that is going to present serious problems, the part that requires genuine action on the part of the Minister himself, is the solution of the city problem. That has not been done in the way in which it should be dealt with. The Minister himself has said here on another occasion that if the programme which was at present being carried out in regard to slum dwellings in the city continued, he could see no hope of the solution of the Dublin slum problem in his lifetime. It may be that the Minister for Local Government and Public Health thinks that he has discharged his responsibilities when he expresses himself in that sense, but I do not think he has, and I feel sure that, on reflection, the Minister for Local Government and Public Health will wish to add to that warning a statement that he is not prepared to stand idly by in the knowledge that there is no prospect of a solution of the slum problem in our cities in his lifetime. If he has made up his mind that the local authorities are unable to overcome the problem which confronts them, then he should take the advice which Deputy Tom Kelly gave him later in his own speech, and that was that if the Government are not satisfied with the work which the local authorities have been able to do in regard to slum clearance in our cities let them take on the job themselves. I want to repeat that challenge to the Minister now. If the Minister has no more hopeful message for the country than that he can anticipate no abolition of the slums in his lifetime without a radical change in the attack that is being made upon them, the time has come for him to take over the problem himself, and he cannot hope to escape the responsibility for disposing of it, not only in his life time, but in the course of the next five or six years.
The plea has been made by the Minister for Finance to deputations which approached him on behalf of local authorities that he was not in a position to advance them sufficient money to deal with the problem as promptly as it should be dealt with. I understand that deputations also went to the Minister for Local Government and Public Health and asked him to press upon the Minister for Finance the urgency of finding the money, and if one can judge of the truth from what Deputy Tom Kelly hinted in his speech, both these Ministers told the Dublin Corporation that they could offer them very little assistance and that they must try and borrow on their own. Why were these Ministers in the position in which they had to tell the Dublin Corporation that although the Corporation was ready and willing to abolish the slums, if they had the means whereby to do it, they, the two Ministers responsible, could do nothing to help them? Was it for the want of goodwill on the part of the Vice-President? I do not think it was. I think the Vice-President is as anxious to get the people out of the slums of this city as any man in this House. Was it for the want of goodwill on the part of the Minister for Finance? I do not think so. I think the Minister for Finance is familiar with city conditions, albeit conditions of another city than Dublin, and I am satisfied that he is as anxious to get the people out of the rooms which Deputy Tom Kelly described as is any man in this House. Was it because these two Ministers felt that we were coming to the end of our financial resources, and that they dare not requisition the money necessary to solve this problem because they would be unable to raise it? If that is the case, is it not time that this House should ask itself the question why they have allowed the Executive Council to manoejoinuvre the country into a position when that can be true? There are people who, according to Deputy Tom Kelly, are being afflicted with sewer rates, who are being eaten by vermin, and whose health is being jeopardised by sewer slugs crawling on their walls.
We are here representing the people, and our duty is to protest their legitimate interests and no more. Why can we not do it? So far as I am aware the only reason is because we have not got the money. If we had the £17,000,000 that Mr. Neville Chamberlain, the English Chancellor of the Exchequer, delighted in having collected from this country over the last four years, is there any Deputy in this House will deny that we could clear not only every tenement house in the City of Dublin, but that we could clear every tenement house in every city in Ireland, and do that without asking another penny from the public purse? If that is true, are the consciences of Fianna Fáil Deputies at rest when they realise that during the last four years they have spent £17,000,000 fighting President de Valera's private war? Are their consciences easy when they go to their comparatively comfortable homes and realise that they have condemned 15,000 families in the City of Dublin alone to live in one-room tenements, because they want to spend £17,000,000 fighting President de Valera's private war?