Social effects of the Celtic Tiger
In a world where bad news secures undue publicity, it is important to take stock at regular intervals and to count your blessings. The effects of the Celtic Tiger have transformed Irish society. Emigration is a thing of the past. Levels of poverty have been greatly reduced. And while shortfalls and failings exist in the provision of services, significant advances have been made and a more egalitarian society beckons. In all of these matters, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has reported positive findings.
Publication of this research will bolster confidence at a time when foreign trade competition and a softening of the domestic housing market could have the opposite effect. By measuring how far we have come in such a short time, self-confidence in our ability to surmount new economic challenges and to maintain social progress will be enhanced. In addition, the task of re-imagining Irishness in order to welcome and integrate tens of thousands of migrant families may not appear so daunting.
Social researchers from the ESRI and other institutions have examined the impact of economic growth since the early 1990s and concluded that the gloomy view - which attributes wider social inequality, declining community life, a more selfish, materialist approach to life and many other social ills - is not justified by the evidence. They acknowledge the difficulty of balancing changing attitudes to sexuality and marital breakdown against rising expectations of intimacy and affection, and improved social opportunities against certain crime rates, but conclude that social effects have been broadly positive.
The provision of an abundance of jobs, many well paid, was the greatest social contribution by the Celtic Tiger. That development ended the scourge of emigration and gave people hope and opportunity. Growth in income and living standards was dramatic and widespread. And levels of deprivation, economic insecurity and consistent poverty all declined. It is readily acknowledged that Ireland is still unequal by European standards in terms of opportunities and outcomes. But, while a wide gap between rich and poor remains, all are better off.
One of the more interesting findings rejects the notion of commuter families living in isolated, soulless housing estates. Instead, such families are attached to their communities and support networks remain strong. Economic success has encouraged couples to marry and have children. Irish people are healthier, happier and live longer.
In spite of these advances, we face - as Taoiseach Bertie Ahern acknowledged - difficult and complex social challenges. He identified them as the provision of social housing, childcare and the integration of newcomers. These are clearly his political priorities. But public transport, healthcare and social services require equally urgent attention. Great strides have been made in the past 15 years that are reflected by young people's pride in their national identity. We are still, however, a deeply divided society.