Another year over, what do we know?

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

Five years on from the crash, what have we learned? There is no magic solution but we are still thinking like an island

In the end, not even sex could sell Belmayne. Nearly six years ago the north Dublin estate seared itself in the nation’s memory, with images of couples cavorting on kitchen counters, all in the desperate hope of arousing interest in an increasingly flaccid property market. At the now infamous launch party, the developer of Belmayne, Donal Caulfield, wearing a diamante-studded Roberto Cavalli beanie, promised buyers “gorgeous living” in four-bedroom houses with curved walls, all for €600,000.

The “gorgeous living” hoardings are long gone, as are the prices. No-nonsense signs on the Malahide Road now advertise houses in Belmayne starting from €245,000.

Belmayne is just one attraction in north Dublin’s property market Ground Zero. In 10 minutes you can drive from the evacuated fire hazard of Priory Hall, past the boarded-up boxes of Balgriffin and hundreds of homes from Kinsealy to Baldoyle buckling on unstable foundations.

Entering Belmayne through its massive stone portal, a throwback to a more confident era, is a pleasant surprise. The streets are tidy, as are the cream plaster and brick facades. Green spaces have just been planted, fences have been added and there’s talk of allotments.

A new Chinese restaurant has opened, two men are adjusting the sign on a new Polish shop, and around the corner the Macari’s takeaway is doing a steady trade. When it opened, in the dark days of April 2010, Macari’s was the only business here but it is now surrounded by other stores. Customers say that, overall, Belmayne has become a more neighbourly place.

“We’re quite happy here,” says the owner, Lydia Macari, who is the third generation of the chipper dynasty. “Residents are positive now and take pride in the area, houses are filling up, and the area’s more inviting. If you’re driving by, you can finally see a bit of light.”

There’s still a lot to do: a fence behind the final row of houses exposes the muddy expanse on which half of Belmayne was never built. Missing, too, are promised facilities such as schools, a library and a medical centre. Remedial construction work is ongoing, although there is no quick fix for the reality of negative equity. But in dealings with local authorities and Belmayne’s developer, resilient residents seem determined to improve what they can.

Turning things around in Ireland – which is, for some of our neighbours, the Belmayne of Europe – is a bigger challenge.

As 2013 begins, with the countdown running on the EU/IMF programme, expectations are growing on what lies ahead. Will a return to financial markets close the book on a chastened chapter or just open another?

It will be difficult to convince our European neighbours to relieve us of our legacy banking debt. As this crucial year begins, can at least minimum consensus be found on the past crisis to agree any resolutions for a common future? Recent attempts by politicians to stitch together a collective narrative – “We all partied”, “You are not responsible for this”, “We went mad borrowing” – have backfired spectacularly.

Political perspectives

“I sense among voters a higher awareness that if a political party proposes something that is too good to be true, it probably is,” says Paschal Donohoe, the Fine Gael TD for Dublin Central. “In the next general election, anyone aspiring to government who puts forward a manifesto that is uncosted or that raises unrealistic expectations will deal a terminal blow to their party.”

In Galway West, Fianna Fáil TD Eamon Ó Cuív says the country has undergone a three-step process: first, the spendthrift ways of the boom and then, early in the EU/IMF programme, a hope that there was an easy way out. “Now, having changed government with new drivers in the saddle, there is a realisation there is no magic bullet and only a minority think the need to balance the budget is not real,” he says.

“Some people might think that the day the EU/IMF leave they will remove all strictures in terms of getting the deficit down but new lenders, the markets, will be no less severe in demanding a good performance.”

Next month’s repayment of the debt relating to Anglo Irish Bank coincides with the 70th anniversary of one of the most famous speeches by his grandfather Éamon de Valera. Often dismissed for its idealised imagery of “cosy homesteads”, the speech sounds a warning to a nation in hard times not to succumb to easy temptations.

Quoting the Young Irelander Thomas Davis, de Valera said that striving for an ideal Ireland was not a Utopian pastime for the Dublin elite in the good times but the “solemn, unavoidable duty” of all Irish, at all times. De Valera’s own ideal Ireland was one made up of “people who valued material wealth only as a basis of right living”.

Lessons for the future

The journey from de Valera’s “right living” to Belmayne’s “gorgeous living” has brought the country to a crossroads where, as anyone who reads de Valera’s speech will see, no one ever danced. What Ireland does best is to get on with it.

In Baldoyle, not far from Belmayne, business is going well for FP Fogarty Belting. For 40 years the company has manufactured many of Ireland’s industrial conveyor belts that carry everything from bread to baggage. Comfort food and emigration are company mainstays at the moment but the director, Daragh Fogarty, says that, like many, he now has to work harder for less. “Customers are making big capital investments, which is a good sign that they see a future in their business,” he says. “The Irish food sector is thriving and I know we’re lucky not to be in a sector like construction, which is still on its knees.”

After buying his home, Fogarty bought an additional investment property, at the height of the boom, that is now worth a fraction of the purchase price. “I’m not blaming the banks for lending me money though it’s true there wasn’t any regulation,” he says. “Banking friends of mine had a wild life. When they went out they regularly put the company credit card behind the bar. That’s not happening now.”

Tighter financial regulation is an important lesson of the recent crash that will stand to the country, says John McHale, professor of economics at NUI Galway. He is also a member of the Fiscal Advisory Council. “With the economy stabilising, even a slow return to growth in domestic demand could see things turn around surprisingly quickly,” he says. “When a boom comes again, if the Government goes back to the old habits of spending money when it has it – the McCreevy philosophy – the Fiscal Advisory Council would be quite outspoken in its response.”

Other economists, such as Michael Taft of the trade union Unite, say such views prejudice an already limited debate on Ireland’s next chapter. “We tend to think as an island, not interested in how other countries dealt with their crises by maintaining demand or keeping people at work on a part-time basis,” he says. “Instead we just say, ‘We’re spending too much’, and cut.”

He is concerned at the lingering damage of crisis-era attacks on the public sector. “Beating the drum against one way of doing things, the public way, means you have only the other way: the private way,” he says. “That doesn’t give choices, strengthen democracy or improve people’s capacity to participate as citizens. Instead, they are reduced to participating as consumers.” As Ireland heads toward the bailout door, Taft would like to see broader debate about the consequences of economic decisions. A century on, he says, the time has come for people to embrace the slogan of the 1913 Lockout: “No decision about us without us.”

Will it be an inward debate or is Ireland ready to hear unvarnished truths from foreign perspectives, such as that of New York-based writer and builder Barry McKinley? “The sense of entitlement that developed during the Tiger years has all but disappeared, but I have a feeling that as soon as we can afford our bad habits, we’ll happily go back to them,” he says. “Nevertheless, we’ll come back from the brink: we always do.”

The danger of predictions

The economic meltdown has been a disaster for some and has offered clarity to others. But, after discarding God and losing faith in Mammon, who decides in modern Ireland what de Valera’s idea of right living actually means? Is there anything wrong with a little gorgeous living now and then, once it’s not lying spreadeagled on an overpriced kitchen island? With many people struggling to get through this month, let alone this year, it may seem cruel or Utopian to be thinking about a better future. But, like all new year’s resolutions, thinking about the next step is not about senseless self-denial now.

Thinking about a better tomorrow in a tough today has a long Irish tradition, from Davis to de Valera. “De Valera’s language is quaint but the idea is not so off the wall,” says Éamon Ó Cuív. “Right living might be an old-fashioned term, but if you put it into a modern context, he is saying that economic success is simply a means to an end, of ensuring everyone in this country has the best quality of life possible to enjoy our culture, our environment and our community.”

Other voices What’s changing in Ireland?

PASCHAL DONOHOE Fine Gael TD, Dublin Central

Has Ireland changed, for good or ill? Entire families emigrating was the worst change; the amazing performance of high-tech businesses is a sign of the best kind of change.

Will change persist or will old ways return? Banking union and strengthened euro governance will make it difficult for old ways to return.

Has there been any change in the political culture or in the expectations of the electorate? All policies have costs and consequences. You might defer them but you cannot avoid them.

What have you learned about yourself and about Ireland? For myself: never take anything for granted. For Ireland: our strength is awesome but digging so deep for so long comes at great social cost.

JOHN McHALE Professor of economics, NUI Galway

Has Ireland changed? Financial regulatory and supervisory regime are greatly improved, and there are stronger fiscal rules and institutions.

Will change persist? Institutional changes will persist after the bailout, making boom-bust cycles less likely.

Has there been any change in the expectations of the electorate? It’s surprising there hasn’t been more focused demand for institutional change and accountability across the public and private sectors.

What have you learned? Irish pragmatism has been an asset. The challenge is to combine this with demands for reforms of institutions that have clearly failed.

BRENDAN CONNELLAN Former Wall Street trader, now a New York-based playwright

Has Ireland changed? During the boom Ireland become much more crass. Now there’s an effort to reclaim our interest in the arts, which may not pay the bills but makes us happier.

Will change persist ? There will be no going back to the comfortable ways of a cosy little island being pleased with itself.

Has there been any change in the political culture? It’s likely there will be a new party in Ireland within two years, something like the PDs of old, that will have 20-25 per cent of the vote in no time.

What have you learned? Ireland is more robust than it seems and is perversely well suited to buckling down in a crisis but tends to repeat its mistakes in a cycle.

MICHAEL TAFT Research officer with the union Unite

Has Ireland changed? People are having to live with a lot less.

Will change persist? Even though there are limitations on the economy, there is not just one programme to which everything is reduced. There are choices to be made.

Has there been any change in the political culture? It’s the same political rhetoric; it could be called a one-policy state of squeezing wages, services and the idea of a public realm.

What have you learned? There is a loss of morale and confidence. A lot of people are hanging on but I don’t think they can be led into a selfish life.

RALF SOTSCHECK Ireland correspondent of Germany’s Tageszeitung daily

Has Ireland changed? The relaxed vibe is gone, in favour of the “time-is-money” philosophy. One indication: more car horns.

Will change persist? The banks haven’t changed their ways. Without fundamental bank reform the next crisis is a certainty.

Has there been any change in the political culture? Ireland’s political culture has been based on greed and corruption for 40 years. People are sick of the choice between cholera and plague.

What have you learned ? The EU has become a rich man’s club that protects rich people at the expense of middle- and lower-income people.