What's your four-year plan?

Sat, Nov 27, 2010, 00:00

Few people are happy with the Government’s four-year plan but all agree that life will go on, whether that means emigration, securing something better for their children, or surviving their second recession in a lifetime, writes KATHY SHERIDAN

AT 73, Bernard Bryan has concerns about the taxes coming down the line from the four-year plan. “But we’re not living on breadcrumbs,” he says cheerfully.

Bryan has seen it all before. The fear in people’s eyes, the sense of hopelessness, the lonely feeling that everyone else was getting out. He was 40, married with five children and a mortgage, when his job as a time control/telephone technician folded along with the company in 1979. He didn’t get another job for 10 years.

“I remember the fear.” While he turned his hand to all sorts of odd jobs, his wife Judy took work as a cleaner, doing split shifts from dawn. At 50, he landed a job with Royal Liver Insurance, where he stayed until retirement. Their five children are still around them, all in work. “No, it doesn’t seem as bad now as back then,” he says.

But he remembers the great lesson: “You have to maintain positivity. There’s always something you can do. Keep up your sense of proportion so that it doesn’t affect you mentally. I hear people on the radio talking about suicide – but God, you know there are many ways to end one’s life. You can vegetate, you can be less of a person.

“Of course, it annoys me to hear of the huge money and pensions that some people are getting – nobody needs all that money. I can’t take my holidays in the Seychelles but I can read [the poet] Francis Ledwidge,” he says, reeling off some word-perfect lines.

But Leanne Caulfield, a 20-year-old just starting out in life, foresees only bleakness. A first-year law student in UCD and the first in her family to go on to third-level education, for her, the four-year plan is “just airy-fairy”.

“The government focused on this ‘oh look, we’re trying to make Ireland more competitive by reducing the minimum wage’ but without any clear, strategic plan for creating jobs . . .” A Facebook group set up in the past couple of days calling itself “Will the last person with a degree to leave Ireland, please turn off the lights” has picked up over 17,000 members.

The former Lucan Community College student, who works a 20-hour week to support herself and volunteers as president of the Irish Second-level Students Union, is embarrassed, baffled and dismayed: baffled that the Taoiseach still earns more than Barack Obama; embarrassed at the bailout jokes in the messages from European students coming here for a European secondary-level students’ convention; dismayed that even young law graduates offering to work for nothing are getting nowhere. “And that’s only in law. Student teachers are looking at Dubai now.”

In UCD, Caulfield sees a two-tiered world: one where children of well-off families have no worries; another where people are struggling to stay afloat. “The increase in the registration fee is not as severe as expected but education grants will be cut, which will affect students whose parents are just over the [eligibility] line.”

Her big fear is that she will be forced to emigrate when she graduates in four years. “I’m proud of our heritage and language. It’s sad and really depressing to feel we might be forced to go abroad.”

But there are still people in work, even in construction. Emma King’s husband, Andrew, is one of them. He is a member of a site-management team with Sisk, “a 151-year-old construction company that has been through world wars and recessions and is now picking up the tenders other contractors lost”, says King.

Though just 25 years old, with a first-class degree in education and training, King’s perspective is radically different from most of her peers’, 20 of whom left for Australia in the past year. For one thing, she has ambitions to start a business, if she can overcome the financing obstacles; for another, all her hopes and fears are filtered through her little boys, Sean and Joey.

“There was nothing surprising about the four-year plan – most of it is necessary,” she says. “As parents, we don’t want these fellas [Sean and Joey] in 20 to 25 years time paying off the debt that we racked up. They’re not going to notice now if we can’t get them the best of toys or the newest of clothes, so we’ll take the hit if their job prospects are better at the end of it.

“What would worry me most are the cuts in the public service. There were 39 kids in my class in St Brigid’s [a primary school in Celbridge] and no classroom assistant, and I really don’t want to see Sean’s climbing to that. There are 30 in his class now, in a brilliant school. The principal, Raymond King [no relation], is a very resourceful man, so hopefully we can hold what we have.”

Health is also a concern. “The two of them were sick this week and a single doctor’s appointment for both cost €75, plus over €30 for prescriptions. It’s ridiculous when you think that siblings almost always get sick together. But that’s the sort of thing that knocks you because you have no control over it.”

Four years is a not a realistic timeframe to fix the country’s problems, she says. “If we come close to restoring our reputation internationally that will be the best thing that could happen. That’s why it’s so important to hold on to our education standards, because internationally we need to maintain that perception that our education system is something to be proud of. We will always do our best to adapt as individuals, but it’s the health and education services that we have to take on trust from the Government. In the meantime, people will cope, once the cuts and changes are gradual. Life will go on. People will get married and have babies, get jobs and lose jobs.”

Aine Dillon, the 47-year-old principal of Scoil Bhríde in Donaghmede, Co Dublin, is also concerned about education cuts, about caps on special-needs assistants and English support teachers, “which may affect the most vulnerable children”.

Scoil Bhríde has been lucky, she says. “A lot of money has gone into the school structure and we have a good parents’ association and fantastic staff.” But she has been frightened, she says, to see the words “bankrupt” and “Ireland Inc” in the same sentence. “It’s very upsetting after only 100 years of independence, we need the intervention of outside agencies. But we can’t let this crisis define us. I know people are feeling let-down and have a sense that their children’s futures are being gambled away, and it is true, up to a point. But moaning and groaning is not going to achieve anything.

“We’ve had our pay cut by 20 per cent in the past few years but I am aware that I have a secure job. And I don’t want to be patronising but I do feel it is incumbent on people in so-called privileged positions like ours to be hopeful and positive and to shield children from the gloom and doom. They need to have their dreams.”

And it’s no bad thing that people might learn the value of money again, she says. “It’s important to have a society where people are not judged by the car they drive or the number of houses they have. There has to be a balance. Children get a lot of joy out of very little and parents shouldn’t feel guilty that they can’t get them the latest thing. What they really appreciate are things that get them time and attention from adults, like playing or just walking the dog.”

But it’s all interwoven. When the parents pull back on their spending, there is an inevitable knock-on for a retailer like Margaret Lynch, exactly the kind of local enterprise Leanne Caulfield’s peers might rely on for part-time work. Lynch has weathered several recessions since she opened the big convenience store (now Lynch’s Centra), in Celbridge 20 years ago, but the last two years, she says, have been incredibly difficult. She now opens from 6.30am to 11pm and works a 70-hour week to compensate for the loss of staff and their reduced hours. She employs 15 – as opposed to 22 before – and sees no hope of growth in the next few years, and therefore no new employment.

“The four-year plan with its VAT increases and increased taxes and rates are all going to have a knock-on effect. The banks are not lending so there will be no development or refurbishment. There is nothing for business, only heaps and heaps of regulations and paperwork.” Even the euro off the minimum wage has no effect on her. “That’s because no one in my business is on it. The staff’s hours are already reduced and I certainly wouldn’t want to knock a euro off their rates.”

Her office manager, Oonagh Cusack, says she is “scared the whole time. Every week, there’s something new. My partner is a taxi driver, based in Tallaght. He got just €10 for four-and-a-half hours’ work recently. His last day off was on March 9th for a family wedding.”

None of these people did anything wrong or lived high off the hog during the boom years. Nor did John Hanlon, a straight-talking 57-year-old manufacturer and employer. In fact he did everything right. He has been running Sturdy Products for 30 years, manufacturing oil tanks, waste bins and coal bunkers, among 400 other products. in Blessington, Co Wicklow. “We didn’t live the high life in the good years, we saved hard and we’re not beholden to the banks.” The company has had to halve its staff of 60, salaries are down by 20-30 per cent and everyone is working much longer hours. “They’re working to save the company. This is about survival.”

The four-year plan, he says, is “good for multinationals, consultants and high earners; bad for SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises]”. There was no reduction in rates or local authority charges, nothing to address the Labour Court craft-union pay agreements and nothing in the plan to incentivise growth, he says. But above all, he sees nothing that shows leadership.

“There should have been major reductions in salaries for government officials and politicians. If a boss expects his staff to take cuts, it’s no good if he’s still driving around in a flash car and living it up. It’s not about trying to hurt them and it’s not going to save a huge amount of money; it’s about leadership. And there’s no talk of retribution in this plan, towards the bankers, officials, even the politicians who got us here. People are frightened. No one believes them anymore. Money is flowing out of the system.”

Is there any hope? “There is hope,” he says. “We’re a fighting nation. We will get through it. I’ve worked abroad and seen the Irish grit their teeth and show that we’re better.”

But Peter Marriott, a 37-year-old Welshman married to an Irishwoman for the past 10 years, thinks the Irish have some way to go in adjusting expectations. Ten years ago he was earning £100 a week helping to run the four butcher shops owned by his family in Wales. The moment he arrived in Ireland he landed on a construction site and was suddenly on £800 a week, sometimes up to £1,500. He knew it couldn’t last “but I used to be called a killjoy for saying it”.

Come the bust, he had saved over £50,000 and had no debts but his mortgage. But his savings are running out, interest rates will go up and “hammer us”. He’s not sure if his wife – a teacher – has yet grasped the reality that soon she may have to find £2,000 a month from her salary to cover their outgoings. Meanwhile, he is taking Fás courses and urgently looking for a new direction.

The Irish complain about standards, he says, but they are always waiting for someone else to speak out (so he’s not surprised Irish people don’t protest), while clinging to the expectations of another era.

“The 18 of us on the Fás course – made up of Irish, Serbians, Croatians, Polish – laid bets on how much would come off the dole in the budget. The Irish all said €20, the others all said €60 or €70. The Irish are unreal, saying things like, ‘We couldn’t live on that.’ They never saw the rainy day coming in the boom and they still don’t see it. But for sure, it’s going to get a lot worse.”

Paddy O’Sullivan, a 41-year-old father of two small children, was laid off last week from his job with a sub-contractor on Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport, his second lay-off in two years, having returned from the US with his wife, in 2002, to start a family. “We’re seriously stretched now. I took a €25,000 cut after the first redundancy, then another €5,000, then 12 months later a mandatory 12 per cent cut. But I have the same bills as I had in 2008.”

As for the four-year plan, he says: “When you’re on social welfare, it’s a four-day plan. But the four-year version looks fairly unimaginative. It’s always about cuts and austerity. They’re talking about two-and-a-quarter per cent growth but when you listen to the economists, they say it will be flat. So is the plan worth the paper it’s written on? It could be defunct by Monday.”

Then again, by some alchemy O’Sullivan could be back in the job by Monday. He applied for a job as general manager of a restaurant – an area in which he has vast experience – and within 24 hours got a call for an interview on Monday. “The result of that will determine how I’ll be feeling after the four-year plan.”

Luck can come in a myriad of disguises. Declan Shaw, a highly qualified, 27-year-old architect, had a nice mother to come home to in Greystones when his intensive search for work in London and Dublin failed. And because of his age, he hadn’t enslaved himself with a mortgage. He is also possibly one of the most cheerful unemployed people on the planet, sanguine about drawing the dole (which he says will be paid back several hundred-fold when the tide turns), and enjoying the time he has to read.

“I’m not unhappy. I would like a job but I don’t care about money. I really like being in Ireland. I have the perspective that Ireland is more fun, more authentic, when it’s down at heel.”

And in four years? “It’s going to be fine, because it can’t be awful forever. In the long-term we will look back on it as something we endured and got through – and hopefully, some prices will have come down in the meantime.”

How the recession is affecting others

I see two worlds in college. A lot would come from better-off families and don’t have to worry. But a lot of my friends are struggling.

Leanne Caulfield, student

The biggest disappointment is the lack of leadership from government . . . If the boss expects staff to take cuts, it’s no good if he’s still driving around in a flash car.

John Hanlon, employer

Everyone here is above the minimum wage already. I certainly wouldn’t reduce their pay.

Margaret Lynch, retailer

I just got called for an interview next Monday, 24 hours after I applied. There are still some jobs out there.

Paddy O’Sullivan, laid off last week

I really like being in Ireland. I have the perspective that Ireland is most fun when it’s down at heel.

Declan Shaw, unemployed architect