The wild and crumbling Atlantic Way: Donegal’s mica crisis is out of our government’s reach
14th June 2021
Imagine this: on the glorious green of Ireland’s northwest coast you meet your future husband. You get married, buy a plot of land and start building your dream home. A few years later, you can finally move in, just in time for your first-born child’s arrival. You paint and furnish with an array of red curtains and yellow cushion covers, only reminiscent of the early 2000s, until your heart is content with the place you now call home. It’s your safe haven, your everything. It’s 2004 and apart from the imminent struggles of the financial crash which make you contemplate up and leaving your cherished home for a country offering greater stability, Donegal is where your heart belongs. Within the four walls that offer you shelter and warmth, the walls which will host every birthday celebration and death condolence, you are protected from the elements of the wild Atlantic coast. When your children are homesick while in college, they will always find comfort and security here. Nowhere else can offer you the emotional comfort and stability that your first home can. That is until the cracks begin to show, deepening and widening with every gust of wind and raindrop that the coastline has to offer. It’s 2010 and you wake up panicking in the night with the realisation that your forever home is falling down around you.
Inishowen, Donegal’s most northerly peninsula, and surrounding areas (and some parts of Mayo) are existing through the worst localised humanitarian crisis of recent times. As homes were being built during the late 1990s and early 2000s, hopeful newlyweds were unaware of the catastrophic issues that would face them some fifteen years down the line.
“Locals recall noticing cracks in the plaster of their walls, both inside and out. But, as ignorance is best served with a side dish of bliss, these cracks were suspected to be nothing more significant than settling cracks, as the properties relaxed into their picturesque surroundings with views of Lough Swilly.”
However, there are only so many servings of ignorance that can be swallowed before you burst from worry with the ultimate acceptance that something more sinister is wrong with the infrastructure of your home.
Locally sourced concrete building blocks from as early as the 1980s have, of recent years, been found to be disproportionately mixed with high quantities of mineral mica, which weakens the concrete over time and causes the blocks to disintegrate and crumble. Worsened by dramatic weather conditions, which all north-westerly homes are not shy to, it is estimated that over 5,000 private homes and many more council and social homes have been infected with the defective blocks. An almost taboo subject in the 2010s, something to be embarrassed by and ashamed of, accepting that your home is inescapably crumbling down around you is not a reality anyone ever wanted to face. But the reality is that the number of family homes impacted by these defective blocks continues to rise. If not your own, then it’s your neighbour’s house, your brother’s or sister’s. Every life in the north of Donegal has been impacted by the money-saving, material-stretching tactics of family trade from over twenty years ago.
The cracks widen. Gaps appear around windows and doorframes, exposing your family to the elements. Moisture ingression puts your furnishings at risk of growing mould. Just down the road, another woman’s son cries to his teacher that Mammy and Daddy are worried, and he now sleeps in his sister’s bedroom because his could fall in on him at any minute. It’s not safe to stay in here anymore; you need to get out. But it’s not so simple. On top of the psychological burden of leaving, the financial burden is insurmountable.
In January 2020, the Irish government launched a redress grant scheme that would cost hundreds of millions of euros to rebuild the houses affected by defective blocks. The scheme, which was to be administered by respective county councils predominately in Donegal and Mayo, would give homeowners up to €275,000 if found that their house must be entirely demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. If your house doesn’t require complete demolition, then you’re unfortunately eligible for substantially less funding. The scheme was developed following years of campaigning by the Mica Action Group who brought light to the situation. In 2016, Prime Time revealed that the defective building blocks sold and bought in Donegal were not fit for purpose. The next year, a government-appointed expert panel found the blocks currently in use from the same supplier also not fit for purpose. Although the scheme was originally welcomed with open arms, a step in the right direction, it too is ultimately not fit for purpose.
“To be accepted onto the grant system, stressed parents and worried owners of these crumbling homes must pay a minimum of €5,000 for an engineer to confirm that the blocks are defective. All it takes is one look and it’s obvious that these buildings are no stronger than the box of Weetabix.”
This charge is one part of the current scheme, which will eventually reimburse you with 90% of your total expenses, leaving you, the heartbroken homeowner, liable to cover the remaining 10%. The scheme also only allows the exact same sized building frame to be reconstructed and one house can hold only one application, meaning if you apply and successfully rebuild but are met with the same trauma again a few years later, you cannot reapply. Donegal’s homeowners deserve more, 100% redress and no less.
In recent weeks and months, an outcry has poured from the hills attempting to beckon the attention of the Irish Government. Stemming from a place of sheer frustration, the mica crisis can be compared to the pyrite scandal which hit the east of the country in recent years. When pyrite is exposed to moisture and oxygen, a series of chemical reactions occur leading to the cracking and heaving of ground floors and walls where the expansion is in highly compacted areas, such as dwellings. In response to these structural damages, the government put in place the Pyrite Remediation Scheme which covers 100% of the costs of repairing affected homes. What is the difference between a house in Dublin infected with pyrite and a house in Donegal infected with mica? How can our government condone anything shy of 100% remedial funding for a family home crumbling down around young children forced to share a bedroom, a retired couple who retreated to the Atlantic coast in search for serenity and peace or a newlywed husband and wife settling in fear that their home is now worthless? The answer: the short 150-mile distance from Inishowen to Dublin is a long enough stretch for our government to ignore a crisis stripping people of their human right to adequate and safe housing.
Although the suppliers of these defective blocks are at fault, the gravity to which our government is failing the affected counties is unsurprising, yet heart-wrenchingly frustrating. Just last week, following a presentation on the mica crisis, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar questioned whether it is reasonable to ask the taxpayer to fund the reconstruction of quite large houses given that the average cost of fixing pyrite affected homes was just €65,000. Described as being utterly “out of touch with reality”, the Tánaiste’s comments are a “calculated distraction by portraying the situation as affecting rich homeowners”, according to Cllr Jack Murray.
And so, you take to the streets and protest for your voice to be heard. You’re just one family of thousands whose forever home is cracking at the seams. Over 10,000 people gathered on Buncrana’s Shore Front two weeks ago to demonstrate that they will not be forgotten, and a further 1,500 protested in Letterkenny. Although these demonstrations gained attention and showed the resilience of Donegal’s people, it wasn’t enough. Your house is crumbling and so is your hope.
To show support for families affected by the mica crisis, you can join the thousands of protesters who are expected to march up to the gates of Dáil Éireann on Tuesday 15th June if it is safe for you to do so. If our government won’t acknowledge an issue too far beyond their reach, then the forgotten homeowners in Donegal will bring the problem to their doorstep. Donegal and other affected areas deserve a 100% redress scheme, and no less.
Featured photo created using Canva + second photo author’s own