Dublin's great reck­on­ing

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - Ju­lian Glover

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.

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