Ireland’s rebound is European blarney
In a column written for the New York Times, Fintan O’Toole argues that Ireland is suffering to maintain an unreal image of slimmed-down perfection
But Ireland has two economies: a global one dominated by American high-tech companies, and a domestic one in which most Irish workers have to make their living. The first is indeed booming. Not least because of those low corporate taxes, large global corporations find Dublin convivial for reasons other than its pubs and night life. The sheer scale of Ireland’s dependence on this kind of investment for its exports can be judged by the fact that Irish gross domestic product took a serious hit in 2013 when Viagra (which is made by Pfizer in County Cork) went off patent in Europe. Broadly speaking, however, the global side of the Irish economy has remained robust.
But home is where the heartache is: in the domestic economy outside the gated community of high-tech multinationals. Outside Dublin, property prices are still falling. Wages for most workers have dropped sharply. Unemployment remains very high at 12.8 per cent - and that figure would be higher if not for emigration. There’s always been a simple way to measure how well Ireland is doing: Go to the ports and airports after the Christmas vacation and count the young people waving goodbye to their parents as they head off to the United States, Canada, Australia or Britain, where they have gone to find work and opportunity.
Other people protest in bad times; the Irish leave. And they’ve been doing so in numbers that haven’t been recorded since the 1980s. Nearly 90,000 people emigrated between April 2012 and April 2013 and close to 400,000 have left since the 2008 crisis. For a country with a population about the size of Kentucky’s (about 4.5 million), that’s a lot of people.
There’s no great mystery about why they’re going: They don’t believe in the success story. A major study by University College Cork found that most of the emigrants are graduates and that almost half of them left full-time jobs in Ireland to go abroad. These are not desperate refugees; they’re bright young people who have lost faith in the idea that Ireland can give them the opportunities they want. They just don’t buy into the narrative of a triumphant rebound.
When the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank - the so-called troika - took over Ireland’s fiscal governance in December 2010, they somehow convinced themselves that sharp cuts in public spending and reductions in wages would go hand in hand with economic growth. The IMF, for example, told us that the Irish economy would grow by 5.25 percent between 2011 and 2013. In fact, it grew at around half that rate.
Common sense would have suggested that in an economy in which private investment had dried up (Irish investment rates are now about half the average for the euro zone), there might be a problem with slashing public investment as well. After five years of austerity, it is shocking but hardly surprising that one in four Irish children are growing up in households in which no one at all is in paid employment.
Nor is it surprising that the departure of the troika at the end of 2013 and some modest signs of economic recovery have not been greeted by Riverdancing on the rooftops. Irish people were prepared to take some punishment; there’s enough Catholic guilt still around for a story of sin and atonement to have considerable psychological purchase. People do look back ruefully on the Celtic Tiger years and admit that we deserved a whipping for thinking we could get rich by selling one another million-dollar houses. But they are not convinced that the cruel scale of the punishment was necessary or that the nasty medicine has, in fact, worked.