Dublin's great reckoning
AHomeless Person 16/2/2001 Homelessness has grown in Dublin since the onset of the recession; those still in work seem to want to let the crisis wash over them.
The quivering Irish finance minister's face hovered on the pub TV screen. I was in a bar in west Dublin, near where the city becomes countryside. All around lay the reality of modern Irish life: not folk music and piebald ponies but hatchback cars, convenience stores and matchbox brick houses worth half what they were before the bust.
Here live bewildered people who borrowed money because it was what everyone was doing, and who are now being killed financially. In a lively pub only a handful of people watched the RTE broadcast: not out of apathy - the Irish have been forced to study the small print of the meaning of a subordinated loan - but because most people now just want the reality of the collapse to wash over them.
A revolution this isn't. Not even a noisy bustup. Here in Dublin, Tuesday's budget has left people numb, miserable and enfeebled. An almost colonial subservience has overtaken the nation. Irish people have come to distrust their own politicians so much that they'd rather be run by fly-in diktat from the IMF and the European Union.
British students managed a livelier protest against fees than the gentle banging of pots and pans that took place outside the Dáil after Ireland's all but dead government set out the harshest budget in western Europe for years. I'd expected fireworks: instead someone blew a tune on a tin whistle and the Gardaí stamped in the cold. Kildare Street reopened to traffic and life went on.
There are vacant offices here; people begging in the streets. But this isn't a country in collapse. It is richer than at most points since its foundation - educated, ambitious, liberal and open as it never was before the 1990s. It has a good future, if the crisis doesn't block the road. People with jobs are still doing well. You'd mistake central Dublin for Manchester, with its smart shops, overpriced coffee, kind people wondering what the world now has in store for somewhere that got rich selling houses to itself and was caught out.
"We're screwed whichever way they screw us," the owner of a store selling organic vegetables told me, the sort of luxury austerity Dublin can't afford. A pensioner couple decried the elite but - like many others - they had been unthinking accomplices in the boom, talked into taking out a €4,000 loan, spent on a holiday to Australia.
"At least it was a nice holiday," they said. And that, I sense, is the mood of the place. It was fun while it lasted. This country's implosion can't be blamed only on a fat cat few. Everyone, to some extent, was at it. Irish banks lent against Irish property to Irish people. Perhaps that accounts for the relative absence of rage now, though it is chastening to be told that UK banks accounted for a quarter of lending in Ireland at the peak. Ulster Bank, part of RBS, handed out flyers on O'Connell Bridge offering loans.
Stand on a tall building in Dublin and the skyline speaks of calamity. The panorama takes in the docklands, where the halfcompleted headquarters of the Anglo Irish Bank stands as a skeletal monument to this country's economic Hiroshima. But the tallest building of the lot is Liberty Hall, headquarters to a union movement that was involved in the social partnership which saw political leaders bail out cronies regardless of economic sense. Wages here were too high. So were welfare payments and public sector salaries - both remain greater, even after the cuts, than in Britain. The bankers lit the fuse but a great many others were part of the bomb. This was the land of poverty for some and four foreign holidays a year for the rest.
Ireland's budget deficit before the crash was small, but state revenues came disproportionately from taxes on property sales. This wasn't anything like a balanced economy, however much people might claim things were fine before the banks went pop.
Nor - to deflate two other myths - is it all the fault of the euro or spending cuts. Even if the Irish state hadn't taken on an unknowable level of debt by promising to repay every cent owed by the banks, it would have run out of money. The old economy is over, and that is no bad thing. What replaces it no one knows.
On Tuesday the government told people unconvincingly that the budget was the cure. No one here believes a word of it. Even if the scale and speed of the cuts doesn't stun the economy, Ireland will surely have to default on some bank debts. Its people cannot carry the burden of their own misfortune.
Europe's bailout wasn't the answer. It was just an avoidance of the great reckoning to come. There's an old Irish joke. "This pig doesn't weigh as much as I expected, but then I never thought it would." As the drinkers in my pub turned away from the frightened politician's face on the screen, they might say as much of the good times.