Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Justine McCarthy: The €15.90 chicken wrap that proves Michael D Higgins has a point

We have nurtured an economy hostile to solidarity. Why is the Government allowing rip-off culture to flourish?

'There must have been 24-carat gold filings blended into the mix of chicken bits, cheese, lettuce and crispy bacon, otherwise known as a fried rasher, to warrant that price.' Photograph: Eric Luke

Expect to see a new dish of the day on a menu near you very soon – the goose that laid the golden egg, basted and battered. Ever since the Government caved into the hospitality sector’s intensive lobbying to retain its emergency VAT rate of 9 per cent, the cost of eating out, or even sipping a cup of tea, has reached staggering heights.

One of the most indigestible greedflation examples I recently spotted was €15.90 for a Caesar chicken wrap in a retail park daytime restaurant. Chips on the side cost extra. There must have been 24-carat gold filings blended into the mix of chicken bits, cheese, lettuce and “crispy bacon”, otherwise known as a fried rasher, to warrant that price. Even more galling was that, in another restaurant immediately next door in the same retail park, an identical wrap was priced at €8.50. How can one outlet charge almost double the price of the other’s when, presumably, both pay roughly the same rent and appeared to employ a similar complement of staff?

Before restaurant representatives dash to pen furious letters to the editor protesting that this particular case of wraponomics is an exception rather than the rule, let it be said that this reflects a surging trend in rip-off-pricing that cannot be justified by increased energy and food costs. Other examples on a postcard, please.

As people still delight in shaking off the cabin fever of Covid lockdown, there are as many reasons to be cheerful as there are to suspect that the human need to get out and reconnect with others is being exploited for commercial profit. The appetite for an astronomically-priced sandwich you could rustle up at home for a couple of euro is superseded by the hunger for human contact. The thirst for a cappuccino costing €4.20 – yes, really, and €4.90 when it comes with a sprinkling of turmeric – turns some customers into collaborators willing to pay prices reminiscent of the Celtic Tiger economy, before it crashed in flames.

READ MORE

Eating out more expensive in Dublin than London, Paris and Rome, survey saysOpens in new window ]

President condemns ‘obsession’ with economic growthOpens in new window ]

Just because you can afford it doesn’t mean you should pay a ludicrous price. If we all walked out and went next door, the message might sink in that, actually, we’re people, not patsies. This is the essence of what President Michael D Higgins was talking about in his address at a Tasc think-tank event in Áras an Uachtaráin last Friday, but it got lost in the cacophony of indignant economists hitting their keyboards with self-righteous gusto. Speaking in the context of climate change, the President espoused economic solidarity and a departure from the profit-is-king school of thought, warning against the prevailing “emphasis on insatiable consumption and wealth accumulation”.

In a reception for think tank Tasc, Michael D Higgins condemned ‘neo-liberalism’ and urged country to ‘rebalance economy, ecology and ethics’. (Áras an Uachtaráin)

There is an ever-deepening impression that the State would pawn the Rock of Cashel to prop up business while happily letting the citizens defend their own interests

The contrasting economic policies the Government applies to the hospitality sector and the home rental sector show a microcosm of the growth-obsession that Higgins ventilated. With one hand, the Cabinet extended the special 9 per cent VAT rate for hotels and restaurants and, with the other, it terminated the eviction ban at the height of a severe homelessness crisis. Its rationale in dropping the VAT rate by 4.5 per cent was to mitigate inflationary market forces, while its interventions in housing are historically predicated on the theory of letting the market set the price.

There is an ever-deepening impression that the State would pawn the Rock of Cashel to prop up business while happily letting the citizens defend their own interests. After it was reported on Tuesday that food inflation had eased by 0.2 per cent in April, the money ministers, Michael McGrath and Paschal Donohoe, politely suggested that companies might pass any price reductions on to their customers. They might as well have asked them to replace the zeros in their bottom line with love ‘Xs’. Despite congratulating itself on having an Arcadian bounty of prime beef, cheese, milk, butter, pork, lamb, prawns, salmon, strawberries, blackberries and various libations, this country has the second-highest food prices in the EU. Why is there no Government intervention in that market?

The last time Ireland let loose its rip-off-republic id, the minister for enterprise, trade and employment at the time, Mary Harney, was condemned for advising people to “shop around” for value, yet the same principle still applies. State regulation on behalf of the buying public is paltry. Bills for groceries, home repairs, medicines, mortgage repayments and home heating have got so big they barely squeeze through the letter box.

There are, of course, excellent restaurants and hotels in Ireland and many great-value cafes and pubs but spiralling prices have reached the point in Dublin where it is increasingly difficult to get a cup of tea and a sandwich for less than €10. The capital is pricing itself out of existence. In March, a couple visiting from South Africa for St Patrick’s week were so shocked by the cost of everything that they decided to buy nothing beyond their essential needs during their stay. Considering that the hospitality sector’s lobbying pitch was that the low VAT rate would generate increased tourism revenue, could there be a better metaphor for biting the hand that feeds you?

We live in a country where we are constantly reminded that the Swanee is only waiting to wash us away the day the multinational behemoths pack their bags and leave. That refrain consistently undermines the peoples’ contribution, as evidenced by the exchequer returns for the month of April alone showing income tax accounted for €3.1bn compared to €308 million worth of corporation tax. As President Higgins said in his Tasc speech: “Let us not forget that this surplus has been made possible by an educated and hard-working population as well as by foreign direct investment.” Unfortunately, that insight, too, got lost in the economists’ outcry.

The OECD has reported that real earnings have been pushed down by inflation in Ireland and still a culture of price gouging is allowed to flourish. Hotels do it without shame or censure to cash in on big cultural and sports events. Under the gaze of a passive State, solo travellers are still sometimes penalised with single supplements; domestic customers continue to be charged inflated energy prices; banks, insurance and utility companies discriminate against anyone without access to or adeptness with technology. There is little doubt that we have nurtured an economy hostile to the ethos of solidarity.

Last weekend, a man arriving in Dublin from London was charged €82 for a 37-kilometre journey from the airport to Foxrock Church in Deansgrange, a drive which the AA estimates as costing €4.63. How can people switch to public transport and leave their cars at home when a short taxi drive costs the equivalent of a flight to a sunny island off Africa?

If the Government wants the people to help save the planet, it must help the people. Allowing a rip-off culture to flourish under its nose is no way to do that.

Have you come across astonishingly high prices, like the €15.90 chicken wrap? Tell us your story

Dublin ranked worst for public transport in Europe due to price and ways to buy ticketsOpens in new window ]