Precarious Living: Squatters’ rights in Ireland

The debate regarding the ethics of squatting versus the ethics of leaving property abandoned is not an easy one to solve. In Dublin today it is impossible to walk through the city and its suburbs without seeing numerous abandoned buildings. Squatting, or adverse possession as it is legally known, is defined as ‘possession of land that is adverse to the possession of the paper owner’. This has been a topic of contention for the courts since the 1800s.

Ireland’s adverse possession laws are ingrained in the Statute of Limitations Act 1957. In order to gain adverse possession or ‘squatters rights’ you must have continuous possession of the land for 12 years without permission of the paper owner. This is extended to 30 years if the land is owned by a state authority. You must also show an intention to exclude other persons, including the true owner from the land. In speaking with Dr. Noel McGrath, a property law lecturer in UCD, he noted that Ireland has adopted a somewhat pragmatic approach regarding adverse possession. While it may seem that Irish law has made it quite difficult to obtain land through ‘squatters rights’, Dr. McGrath expressed that our law is in fact more generous than that of the UK, where the Land Registry will contact the paper owner of the land if there is a claim of adverse possession.

For most people, the concept of adverse possession is generally associated with people squatting in property. While many may imagine squats as occurring in dirty, distressed buildings by people with no other choice, often squats are arranged by artists and activists. The first popular political squat in Ireland occurred in Arran Quay in 1995. Since then there have been numerous squats throughout Dublin. The Disco squat only lasted a day during the early 2000s in a property on Parnell Square but it set the framework for future squats to occur.

Barricade Inn and the Grangegorman squat are two examples of recent communal squats. Barricade Inn survived for just over a year between 2015 and 2016. It was based in an abandoned hotel on Parnell Street and contained a vegan café, space for gigs, an arts-and-crafts room and a general social space. The Grangegorman squat, which was closed in 2016, was located in three houses and various warehouses on a derelict plot of land. Both these squats prided themselves on a community atmosphere and a rejection of mainstream society. Grangegorman regularly held open days for the public, opportunities for people to help in their garden and poetry nights. Numerous smaller squats continue to exist across Dublin. Many of these are organised by creatives and young people who reject our current private property system and sky-high rents.

However, these squatters are unlikely to ever be able to claim ‘squatter’s rights’. There are no recorded cases of a communal, creative squat continuing undisturbed for 12 years in Ireland. Once informed of these squats, either by the media, neighbours or from observing the property themselves, owners, who may have ignored the land for the past number of years, are quick to take action. Only a few weeks ago a fund was granted permission to evict around 20 squatters from a property after agents for the fund identified that the house and been broken into and the lights were on. In reality, the law surrounding adverse possession is only really utilized and successful in cases surrounding farmland. A recent case where a bank tried to argue the adverse possession rights of a man who had been farming land since the death of his father is an example of this. It was ruled the man did have ‘squatter’s rights’ as he had his cattle on the land, had his own herd number, applied for various grants and payments, and was the only child with an interest in farming.

Another issue that faces squatters is that of proving the paper owner no longer has possession and those squatting had the intention to exclude them and other people. It is very easy for the owner to exercise possession. According to the High Court, “limited acts” on the part of the owner are sufficient. This was exercised in a 2004 example where a man who had been living in a house for 16 years lost his case as the original owner had been paying insurance on the property. The court has also expressed that you must make your intention to exclude others “clear to the world”. However, what this actually means is open to interpretation.

“in theory adverse possession goes against the concept of not allowing people to profit from their wrongdoing, however in practice it may sometimes better serve a community’s interest”

Squatting has always been a controversial issue. Dr. McGrath mentioned that in theory adverse possession goes against the concept of not allowing people to profit from their wrongdoing, however in practice it may sometimes better serve a community’s interest. He also noted that it is a necessary staple of the law as it protects people who may not have the ability or resources to file all the appropriate paperwork when transferring land, such as in the case of a family farm. This law is also not immune to being abused by the wealthy. The broadcaster Pat Kenny famously tried to claim a piece of land valued at €1 million through adverse possession in a dispute with his neighbour.

It is difficult to walk through any town or city in Ireland without coming across an abandoned house or building. In a time when homelessness figures are rising and many young people are struggling to keep up with the soaring rental market, this can appear grossly unjust. Perhaps it appears to make squatting an attractive answer to a crisis situation. It does not seem unlikely that squatting will continue to gain in popularity for young people in coming years. However, the lack of rights squatters have, and the arduous process they must go to in order to gain any, makes squatting only a short term solution to a long term problem.