European Affairs

Letter from Dublin: Irish Resigned To Working Through Hardship     Print Email
Monday, 07 June 2010

Feeling Guilty About Their Personal Profligacy, Irish Exasperated by Impunity of Bankers – and Taunts From Greek Streets.

This month Vincent Brown, a famously testy Irish television personality, took his show out to Tallaght, a Dublin working-class suburb, to assess the mood of the Irish working class. As the district with the highest “No” votes in the first Lisbon Treaty referendum, Tallaght became the research lab for visiting media struggling to explain Ireland’s antipathy. Like the rest of the country, it recanted in favor of “Yes” at the second vote in October 2009. So are Tallaght folk happy about their decision? The answer is a “no” that mixes frustration with bafflement. The mood was voiced succinctly by a local who told Brown: “They said we’d get jobs, but where are they?” In Tallaght’s situation, six months after a referendum campaign that urged them to “Vote Yes to Recovery; Yes to Jobs; Yes to Lisbon,”  they see only falling incomes, crashing employment, with 170,000 home-owners “under water” on their mortgages, “ghost” housing estates emptied of their occupants, withering main streets, ongoing threats to welfare benefits and little hope.


The mood is not confined to the working-classes.  Last week the owners of a new movie complex in Gorey (a little town of 8,000) were swamped with over 1,000 applications for 25 minimum-wage posts selling tickets, popcorn and nachos.  Over two-thirds of the applicants for these €8.65-an-hour jobs ($11) were university graduates, including accountants, bankers and one person with a Ph.D. in law. This is not what the young, confident, ambitious Irish had in mind when they worked for the precious grade levels that opened the way to university and a high-earning career.   

Last week this writer covered a meeting of Bank of Ireland shareholders attended by about 500 elderly, genteel, quintessentially middle-class people, many of them enduring hard times. They had thought they would have a nest-egg to bequeath to their children, but now some are depending on their children to cover nursing-home care while others are struggling simply to survive.

They know that a government cap on bankers’ salaries has been skirted by brazen moves delivering bonuses and big extra pension benefits for the very bankers who were involved in Ireland’s boom and bust. At the bank’s meeting, the small shareholders were confronted with a choice about a new issue of bank stock: they either buy more shares at a price many could ill-afford or see their stock holding severely diluted. For the bank, it was a formality: five institutions were poised to snap up the shares if the little people rejected the offer. The bitter truth was that these people were superfluous to a corporate world that had given them good years to be sure, but had ultimately destroyed them – and the hopes of succeeding generations – in a bonfire of  short-termist greed and hubris..

Yet, the over-riding mood of the attendees was civilized and mannerly. There was no foul language, no heckling. There were calls for directors’ resignations but they were formulaic. In fact, it was perfectly reflective of the national mood:  melancholic, powerless, cynical, and uncertain. They had put their trust in princes – bishops, politicians, regulators, bankers, property developers – and seen it destroyed.

Compared to fellow eurozone member, Greece, the Irish have been distinguished by an almost supine acceptance of their fate. Anger and recrimination have been the daily currency of Irish columnists and talk shows but there is little stomach for action. Marches and rallies designed to stir the masses have been poorly supported. There was one lackadaisical march of a few hundred people the night David Cameron was being unveiled as the British prime minister.  

That incident coincided with a tragedy in Athens when three innocent Greeks were burned to death during a mass protest in Athens and may have damped any nascent rebellious spirit in Ireland. The reactions in Dublin to the daily protests seemed to represent a country split by ideology. Epithets such as “pseudo-socialist” and “loony left-wing anarchists” were hurled at them. Irish discussions were rife with worries about the international reputation and inward investment of a little country on the other, western periphery of Europe and its ability to continue borrowing the €400m a week needed to cover its spending.  But there were also voices asking where the police and their batons were when the state bank guarantees (particularly to bond-holders) were given.

Perhaps there is also some self-examination in progress among ordinary people who surrendered to a little naivety and irrational exuberance of their own. Sure, cheap unlimited credit was released on a populace unaccustomed to such largesse. But how could an educated people regard itself as entirely blameless for the property madness -- for the people getting mortgages worth 120 per cent of their property, the second homes in Bulgaria, the portfolio of investment properties built entirely on loans many times larger than the recipients’ salaries of, say, €50,000-a-year?

A few Cassandras did warn that Ireland was living in a catastrophic bubble, that interest rates were sure to rise, that the country was living high off the borrowed money of prudent German savers. But whom did the people choose to believe? An assembly of trade unionists laughed and applauded when then-Prime Minister Bertie Ahern suggested that the gloom-merchants should go off and “commit suicide.” Most people accepted Ahern’s pronouncement that the boom would get “boomier” (his word) and that an artisan cottage in Dublin should command the same price as a French chateau.

But what choice do ordinary Irish people have? How long can a nation remain angry? Even as the Irish buckle down to the hard task ahead, their commitment is not made any easier by psychologically wounding slurs. This is why the sight of massed Greek protesters chanting “We are not Ireland…We don’t bail out the rich,” is such a blow to Irish sensitivities. There is an acceptance of responsibility among the Irish, but it cuts to the quick when the Irish Minister for Finance boasts of imposing a pension levy on Irish public servants, saying that such a measure would trigger “riots” in France if Paris tried to do the same. That image of supine acceptance is hardly designed to boost national pride.

Galling is that no political or public service figure – some of whom were being paid salaries higher than that of the U.S. President - has taken the blame for any action or lack of it, still less offered an apology. No white-collared heads have been delivered on plates, no Irish masters of the universe have been forced to do the perp walk. Instead of mea culpas, the country is witnessing a trickle of admissions, of a kind that would have been indignantly denied even six months ago.  In recent weeks, our Department of Finance has confessed that it lacks “sufficient expertise” to tackle the banking crisis and that it had no idea of the scale of the banks’ toxic property loans when it introduced the state banking guarantee in September 2008.  Ahern has admitted that his government was subjected to “fierce pressure” by developer not to abolish property-based tax shelters -- which of course, it did not do, with now-obvious consequences.

Meanwhile, in a sign of how far Ireland has traveled since its “No” to Lisbon vote, the response to the European Commission’s proposal to review national budgets (which would have been a massive bone of contention in Dublin only a few years ago) has been comparatively muted. The European Globalization Fund, with its €500 of help a year, is becoming a familiar and comforting body to workers laid off from Dell, SR Technics and Waterford Wedgwood and other multinationals that had implanted big facilities in Ireland. As for the European Central Bank, most regard it as a force for good in helping Ireland through the economic dark times.

The depreciation of the euro comes as excellent news for an economy so heavily dependent on exports that compete with the U.S. dollar. It should give temporary respite from the commentators who have been urging Ireland to leave the eurozone and regain control of its currency. 

Finally, among the many lessons to be learned from the crash is the one about emigration, Ireland’s escape valve in bad times.  As entry to the U.S. and other traditional English-speaking havens becomes more restrictive, could this be the moment when Ireland wakes up to the great continental single market on its doorstep as a source of employment?  This European zone for a new Irish diaspora, of course, will require Irish to learn a foreign language or two, and they have been notoriously reluctant about that – at least until now. But the recession has sent people rushing back to education, so this could be one of the better life-changing effects in sight in the crisis.

Kathy Sheridan is a Senior Features writer with The Irish Times.