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IT Sunday: Ireland is sleepwalking into a social disaster as energy poverty rises

Fintan O’Toole calls for energy crisis to be treated as a public health emergency while David McWilliams examines housing wealth


Welcome to IT Sunday, your weekly briefing of some of the best Irish Times journalism for subscribers.

Ireland’s energy infrastructure was back in the headlines this week, first with IDA Ireland clashing with electricity market supervisors over moves to impose penalty tariffs on big business to avert the threat of winter blackouts, and then later in the week came two warnings from Eirgrid over tight reserves on the electricity supply, which were later lifted.

However, ongoing squeezes on Irish electricity supplies combined with the prospect of gas shortages have sparked fears that homes and businesses could face power cuts this winter. There are fears too over how people will pay their energy bills, and in his column this week Fintan O’Toole, writes we “should think of the staggering increases in fuel bills now facing Irish households as a public health emergency. Because, in a very real sense, it is. These bills will tip many families who are ‘just about managing’ into poverty. The link between poverty and chronic ill-health is all too well established. This stuff will make people sick, and not just metaphorically. If we think about energy bills as a public health crisis, we might get some sense of the scale and urgency of the response required from the Government. The Government itself might see that, by failing to respond at all adequately, it is sleepwalking into a social disaster.”

A change to Irish law however, could bring down electricity prices, argues business reporter Barry O’Halloran in a column earlier this week. “What we need is to cut wholesale costs. Renewable energy could provide a partial solution, but not in the way the Government would have you believe . . . One route worth exploring is to change the law governing the REFIT scheme to limit wind farm revenues to the minimum price that it guarantees. But instead of refunding cash, the legislation should simply declare that they can only sell wholesale electricity at this price.”

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A big rise in notices of termination issued to rental tenants has again raised the issue of private landlords selling up and leaving the market, intensifying the already significant shortage of properties on offer. Coupled with this, a Daft.ie property report earlier this week showed rents have soared to the highest rate on record. However, if rents are so high, then why are private landlords fleeing the market? On one side, landlords are clearly happy to sell following a strong recovery in prices. But why sell a relatively safe, income-earning asset when other investment options generally either offer poor returns or are risky? Cliff Taylor examines the issue in this week’s Smart Money column.

According to the Central Bank, the net wealth of Irish households is now greater than €1 trillion, that’s nearly €200,000 for every man, woman and child in the State. While that may sound like a good thing, economist David McWilliams writes that “the problem is that most of this €649 billion is in housing assets... If people are getting rich by doing nothing, and watching house prices rise, this is problematic for a society because it rewards hoarding rather than producing. Rising housing wealth creates income and generational inequality and ultimately is a mirage, as we saw so clearly in 2008.”

Earlier this week Serena Williams announced she’d be retiring from tennis after the US Open finishes in September. Following the news, Johnny Watterson wrote that the American was an irreplaceable force in tennis for more than two decades, one who broke records and conventions all her life before bowing out to her strongest opponent: middle age.

With soaring temperatures in Ireland this week and drought and wildfires affecting much of Europe, Diarmaid Ferriter saw first hand how Greece burns while tourists fiddle with their phones. “Those who will pay the highest price for the global infernos are not us travellers from more temperate regions, but the locals whose homes and livelihoods hang in the balance as the temperatures rise.”

The return to school and college is fast approaching. While books, biros and pencils will all be on the must-buy list, the experience of the past few years shows technology is also likely to feature heavily on the shopping list for the big return. So what should you be looking at? Ciara O’Brien has it all in hand, with suggestions from the best phones to laptops to tablets to buy, with something t osuit every budget. You can see her top picks, here.

With thousands flocking to beaches all over the country this weekend to soak up the good weather, Hilary Fannin writes that the seaside town she used to visit is now almost unrecognisable. “I first came to this town in the early 1970s with my mother, who was at the time a singer in a band . . . I remember staying in a strange guest house with pink exterior walls and an interior crammed with a taxidermist’s haul of game birds in glass cases, their varnished talons shining in the dim hallway as we climbed up the stairs to bed. While my mother slept her chemically induced prescription sleep, I remember lying awake in a four-poster bed hoping that the birds couldn’t come to life again. Now, in another century, in a town almost unrecognisable as the place I first visited 50 years ago, my pal and I crossed the road to the concept store to have a cup of coffee.”

In her Tell Me About It column this week, psychotherapist Trish Murphy advised a reader who is thinking of a career change. “I’m a civil servant working in a job where I’m underpaid and underappreciated by my coworkers. My manager likes me because I work hard and we get on well, but for various reasons a toxic environment has been allowed to creep in. I have been thinking about a change in career for a long time now, to a job where I am paid and appreciated more. I’m looking in the private sector. My parents think I am crazy as I shouldn’t give up a job for life, especially considering that I have a long-term illness that tends to react badly to stressful situations. What they are saying makes a lot of sense, but I am very unhappy where I am.” You can read Trish’s reply, here.

Roe McDermott has some advice for a 30-year-old “easy-going, social, intelligent and apparently good-looking” woman who’s wondering why she hasn’t found a serious relationship as an adult.

As always there is much more on irishtimes.com, including extensive coverage of the weekend’s sport, rundowns of all the latest movies in our film reviews, and tips for restaurants to suit all tastes in our food section. You can always check out more articles exclusively available for Irish Times subscribers here.

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