Do you think Ireland today is a better place to live than the Ireland of 20 years ago? That was the question Pricewatch asked of Twitter users last Saturday night.
We asked it because sometimes reading commentators – professional and otherwise, across all media platforms – you would be forgiven for thinking that things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse in recent years, with vast swathes of society thrown under the bus in the name of progress.
By some accounts the late 1990s was a magical time when all was well with our world in terms of healthcare, housing and happiness. Or at least more was well with it than is the case today.
But Pricewatch well remembers the 1990s, and it was a long, long way from amazing. By almost every measure Ireland today is a more inclusive, progressive and safer place to live than it once was, and the oppressive control exerted by church and State have been dramatically lessened. People live longer, cars are safer, roads are better, homes – if you are lucky enough to have one – are warmer and food is better and cheaper than it was.
All told, our Twitter poll attracted 3,344 votes in just 24 hours. While it was neither scientific or representative it was interesting all the same, and suggested that a significant majority believe things are better now than they once were, with 64 per cent voting yes and 36 per cent rejecting the notion.
When we were done with the polling we turned our attention to ways things have improved and ways things have worsened. Here are just some of those ways in absolutely no particular order.
Plus: A couple of weeks ago both the north- and south-bound lanes of the Dublin Port Tunnel – it runs under the city from close to the airport to the docks down by what was once known as the Point Depot – were closed after a truck shed its load. Within an hour the city centre was gridlocked as hundreds of articulated lorries – diverted from their usual underground route – made their presence known along the quays. It brought back memories of Dublin in the rare auld times when such gridlock was a daily occurrence and heavy goods vehicles were an ugly – and sometimes a lethal – menace. The motorways that snake their way across the State have also made travel faster and safer.
Plus: Supermarkets in the 1990s were drab and dull, own-brand products were revolting, and there was literally no chance you would ever find some class of weird flamethrower kit for sale in the middle aisle. Everything started changing in 1998 when Lidl moved into the Irish market. A year later do did Aldi. Growth was slow in the early days as a distrustful nation proved reluctant to swap the branded products they had been reared on for unfamiliar labels. Yet the discounters stuck with it, and built better relationships with Irish suppliers and we are the better for it. Today more than 20 per cent of shoppers go through their doors regularly, and while they are not without their critics they have saved us a lot of money.
Minus: The small shops which thrived in Irish towns for generations are under threat like never before as supermarkets and online retail giants scoop up shoppers' money and kill high streets. Earlier this month the Minster for Communications Denis Naughten suggested pensioners travelling to Aldi and Lidl were to blame for the imminent closure of village post offices around the country. Addressing a controversial An Post plan to shut 159 post offices, he said communities themselves had voted for it "with their own feet", adding that it was "the fact of it, and some people have failed to acknowledge this, but the local community have bypassed some of those post offices, have gone to the bigger towns, have not used the local shop. I listened to a postmaster during the week who made the point [that] they were going to some of the German retailers in the bigger towns, collecting their pensions there, and passing the local post office and now are complaining that the local post office is closing." There is a lot of truth in that.
Plus: Online booking was a thing of the future in the late 1990s and cheap travel was a Superbus to London. Flights to London from Ireland cost £200 (or €450 in today's money) compared to less than a tenner now. We were under the thumb of travel agents, and had to rely on tiny thumbnail pics in glossy brochures to make our holiday decisions. Today online booking platforms, Trip Advisor and Airbnb have given budget-conscious consumers enormous control of travel plans and prices have tumbled as a result.
Minus: More than 10,000 people are homeless. and almost 150,00 children are living in poverty.
Minus: A recent Daft.ie report found that average rent in the Republic is €1,304, which is over €560 higher than in 2011 and more than 26 per cent higher than the high point during the Celtic Tiger years. Rents grew by 12.4 per cent in the year to June as stock remains the lowest on record. In Dublin rents are 34 per cent, or almost €500 a month, higher than the previous high. While figures from the Residential Tenancies Board are less gloomy, showing average rents nationally at €1,060 per month, up by just over 7 per cent year-on-year and €1,527 in Dublin, up 7.7 per cent year-on-year, they are still incredibly bleak.
Minus: Airbnb might be great for finding holiday homes on the cheap but it is exacerbating the rental and homelessness crisis. The company recorded 640,000 "guest" stays in Ireland during the summer, which it said would bring in about €57 million to the Irish economy. But with so many properties across Ireland, especially in urban areas, used exclusively for short-term Airbnb rentals, medium and long-term renters are struggling to get a look-in. How bad is it? Very bad. According to daft.ie more than half of the available rental properties in Dublin are being listed as short-term tourist lets. In May the site said it had 1,258 properties available for long-term rental. On the same day, the independent monitoring website Inside Airbnb showed the stock of Dublin properties to let on Airbnb from professional listers, as opposed to people temporarily renting their own homes, stood at 1,419. The Government has promised to introduce some kind of regulation or licensing of short-term renting – such as via Airbnb. Cities such as Berlin and Amsterdam already limit the amount of time for which properties can be rented on such short-term arrangements.
Plus: All told, 89 per cent of the Irish population now have access to broadband, with the vast majority using smartphones to go online, according to recent figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO). While the number of households with an high-speed internet connection is unchanged from 2017, it is a 17 per cent jump since 2010 and a jump of around 100 per cent since 1998. When asked what they do online most people say they use the internet for finding information on goods and services, followed by email and reading or downloading online news and accessing social networks. Weirdly, no one in Ireland is looking at pornography, at least according to the CSO figures.
Plus: With Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Netflix, NowTV, Amazon Prime, Audible, legally grey set-top boxes and plain illegal downloads at our fingertips, we have never had so much music, films, television and literature available to us at such a low cost.
Plus: Everything from concert tickets and holidays to clothes and food can now be bought in the virtual space. Irish people spent over €5 billion online in 2017, with the spending set to grow to €14 billion by 2021. The choices available to consumers are unparalleled. And the value to be found can be amazing. The ability to take our business elsewhere has also put manners on many retailers who were happy enough to gouge Irish consumers in the past. Not only can things frequently be bought for less online, consumers who shop online have considerably more rights when it comes to returns than those who conduct their business offline.
Minus: Of the €5 billion Irish consumers spent online last year, €3 billion was spent overseas. Overseas websites do not employ Irish people, they do not pay taxes here and they contribute nothing to local communities. They also put huge pressure on actual bricks and mortar retailers in the Republic, and if current trends continue more such retailers will have to shut up shop, which could turn our town centres into wastelands.
Plus: The popularity of cycling has surged over the last decade and the number of commuting cyclists in Dublin has more than doubled since 2006. That was the year they were at their lowest level since city officials started recording data in 1980 The numbers on their bikes in 2006 was 4,839 compared with 12,447 last year, up 3 per cent on 2016 figures. The numbers in private cars fell 3 per cent last year, according to the National Transport Authority and Dublin City Council's annual traffic count. The figures also showed that more commuters were using public transport and other "sustainable" transport modes – cycling and walking – than any time since the records began, with a total of 70 per cent of all inbound trips crossing the canal made by sustainable transport. This compared to 61 per cent in 2006.
Plus: Public transport-use in Dublin has reached a record level with more than half of all city commuters using buses, trams or trains last year, the highest proportion since records began 40 years ago, and since 2006 car-usage has declined by almost 20 per cent. The Leap card which integrated all public transport has certainly made commuting life easier for people who would rather leave their cars at home.
Minus: While many people have managed to escape from the economic calamity that was brought upon us by banks and policy-makers more than a decade ago, many more remain mired in the debt swamp. Tens of thousands of people are in long-term mortgage arrears and continue to be harassed by banks who are unwilling to cut them any slack. The banks are, however, willing to flog many of the most distressed loans at massive discounts to so called "vulture funds". Last May, David Hall of the Irish Mortgage Holders' Organisation warned that a "tsunami is coming" with 17,000 mortgage holders vulnerable to having their homes repossessed because of the intransigence of banks and the "cancer" of vulture funds.
Minus: A report, released by the Department of Finance last week, projected huge increases in age-related costs in the absence of major policy changes and talk of a pension timebomb grows louder and louder. Rising life expectancy, greater numbers of older people and a fall in the rate of economic growth mean total age-related expenditure will increase significantly and could lead to a rocketing of Ireland's national debt. It is estimated that just 35 per cent of private sector workers have made any financial provision for their retirement and the rest are relying on the State pension which will involve a dramatic fall in their standard of living when they stop working.
Plus: On the plus side people are living longer and healthier lives than at any time in our history, so that has to be a good thing, right?
I think the Ireland we love went when the banks took over and put these pawns in place. Leo, Coveney and all that lot. Paul Callian
Lads, when you look back nostalgia takes over, for all Ireland's modern day problems (and there will always be problems) we are no longer beholden to the church, the Troubles are gone & we are a progressive nation...we just need a new impetus in politics,something fresh and new. Diarmuid McCarthy
People don't talk anymore and don't live beyond their phones, also people get offended to easy. I miss Sundays when everything was closed and you just hang out with family. Slow down and take off the blinkers. Peter Phillips
8th repealed, gay marriage, church in retreat, more heterogeneous society, Dublin turning into a real European capital, better infrastructure, awesome hurling, great coffee, superb food. Sean Finlay
Too much stress and pressures on people now than ever. People lead superficial lives and social media has a lot to answer for the pressure. Sadly suicide is the highest killer in Ireland today. Better yes in some ways, but I think it's a lonely place too. Johanna Whyte
No, people cared more for each other, community meant more. Ciaran Goggins
No, it feels more unsafe for some reason, higher crime, city less safe to walk around. Maybe it was because I was young & naive. Olga Carry
On the whole it's better, we still have poverty and inequality and gobshite politicians, but nothing quite as bad as the pre-millennium was, but give it time. Paul Bissett
We're wealthier, more liberal and church influence has declined significantly, housing is better, technology has made our live easier. Proinsias O Foghlú
It is much better in many ways, more modern, nicer food, better coffee, but I can't afford to live here any more. The rent takes up nearly all my income. Roos Demol
I think it's mainly better because of better technology. Nothing to do with how the country operates. Hospital crisis, homeless crisis, so-called middle and lower class incomes being squeezed into poverty. Colleges fees, national debt, corruption. I'm sure most of this was here before but nowhere on this dreadful scale. Imagine selling extremely badly needed potential social housing but selling them on the cheap to foreign interests at a cost to a taxpayer and then buying them back at a profit to the foreign interest and at a further cost to people. Eugene Mc Hugh
It's worse, the people have changed, there's a feeling of hostility around. No one is allowed to be in the middle, you have to be completely left wing or right wing, and then we have housing, healthcare, banking, crime. Anna Joyce
No....20 years ago I was just out of uni, working, renting and saving with a realistic chance of buying my own house. Didn't have to go through teen years with cyber bullying, unrealistic insta expectations of what life should be etc. Would not want to be 20 something nowadays. Olivia King
Too few characters to reply but I'll try: free third level education – didn't exist when I went to college, I got the grant. Without it I would never ever had had a third level experience. Virtually full employment – I took me 18 months of looking to get my first part-time job. Greater availability of opportunity, greater awareness...I think it's a pretty good time to be alive. I'm much happier raising my two girls today than if I'd had to do it 20 years ago. I'm 41. Hazel Tunney