Ireland’s young flee abroad as economic meltdown looms
Ireland’s young flee abroad as economic meltdown looms
Many young people are seeking to emigrate rather than face a life of hardship as the republic lurches towards financial collapse
Homeless man Ireland A homeless Irish teenager begs on Merrion row, just around the corner from government bulidings in Dublin, Ireland. Photograph: Kim Haughton for the guardian
Student Niamh Buffini works hard and plays hard. As Ireland’s No 1 taekwondo martial arts practitioner – she is rated 12th in the world – her ambitions include winning Olympic gold for Ireland.
But by the end of this month her future will have been decided by forces not just beyond her control but seemingly those of her government also. Ireland is on the cusp of insolvency. Some economists argue that it already is.
Buffini will soon learn if her fees at the Institute of Technology in Tallaght, south Dublin, have climbed beyond her means. Her father is a self-employed builder, which has recently become a euphemism for “unemployed”.
“My class size will have dropped by 50% by next year,” Buffini said. “Even lecturers took part in the recent student protests over fees because society here is going to be left with very few educated people. My best friends have already left – they’re doing bar work in Spain and Australia.”
Last week was not a good week for Ireland. Speculation about a European Union-backed bailout pushed its borrowing costs to unprecedented heights.
At Buffini’s college on Friday, the day began with a protest by construction workers who were supposed to have been working on a new wing. Their paymaster Michael McNamara – the country’s premier construction firm – had been put into receivership under the weight of debts of €1.5bn (£1.27bn), leaving them jobless and out of pocket for work they had already completed.
So far the workers’ demonstrations have remained largely peaceful. Indeed, many Tallaght students seemed shocked by the violence they witnessed in TV reports from London involving their British counterparts. But that may change.
Economists are sought-after celebrities in Ireland at the moment and none is more famous than Morgan Kelly. His doom-laden words are lapped up by a nation addicted to Celtic melancholy.
Kelly, of University College Dublin, was laughed at, scorned and even threatened when he correctly predicted, as long ago as 2007, that Ireland’s property bubble was heading for a spectacular explosion.
Now he is forecasting mass mortgage defaults and an ugly popular uprising. The first stirrings are already visible, he says, with “anxiety giving way to the first upwellings of an inchoate rage and despair that will transform Irish politics along the lines of the Tea Party in America”, giving rise to a new “hard-right, anti-Europe, anti-traveller party”.
The fact that Kelly got it right last time means that his dire warnings are now being given serious consideration this time around, but so far there is no evidence that the Irish are turning into racist extremists.
Polish immigrants, whose arrival in Ireland less than a decade ago increased the workforce by an astonishing 20%, have left in orderly fashion and with no complaints about their treatment. More worrying is the trend for the young Irish to follow them abroad.
Mark Ward, president of Tallaght’s student union, says that 1,250 students are leaving Ireland every month. One in five graduates is seeking work outside the country. The Union of Students in Ireland believes that 150,000 students will emigrate in the next five years.
Ward, a 26-year-old marketing graduate, said: “The government’s to blame for bankrolling the banks who were lending to their property developer friends. They all thought the party would never end.
“Students shouldn’t have to pay for the mistakes of the government and their developer pals. It’s going to take years to sort this mess out and it won’t be just my generation which will be blighted big time.”
Is the social fabric of Ireland beginning to unravel? The Kingdom, one of the country’s much-loved local papers, recently reported that nearly 200 Gaelic footballers and hurlers have left Kerry to play in Britain, Australia and the US in the first seven months of this year. The true figure is probably double that.
The charity Barnardo’s said that children were asking it for food because there was not enough for them to eat at home. “Some of our services are being asked by children if they can take food home for later because there just isn’t enough,” said Carmel O’Donovan, a project co-ordinator with Barnardo’s.
And it’s not just the most vulnerable who are feeling the pinch. Greystones is a wealthy Wicklow seaside town whose most famous resident is Sean FitzPatrick, the former chairman of nationalised Anglo Irish Bank. Emer O’Brien, an interior designer, and her architect husband Killian are struggling to repay their mortgage.
“It is awful, a bit like waiting for a bomb to explode but simply not knowing when,” she said. “I don’t think anybody has any faith in any of the politicians to fix this problem. Over 70% of education and health spending goes on pay and pensions, so all the cuts in those departments are coming from front-line services.
“I hope I don’t get sick in the coming months because there’ll be nobody to tend to you in the hospitals. Of course, a lot of people would be heading across the Irish Sea or the Atlantic if only they could sell their houses, but we can’t do that either. So basically we’re stuck on the Titanic as it goes down.”
Next month the government will deliver its latest austerity budget with the aim of slashing a further €15bn from public spending on top of the €14.5bn it has already been forced to cut. But Kelly has argued that the public sector cuts are “an exercise in futility” when compared with the €70bn bill for Ireland’s bad banks. “What is the point of rearranging the spending deckchairs, when the iceberg of bank losses is going to sink us anyway?” he asked in the Irish Times last week.
Put at its starkest, for the next six to seven years, every cent of income tax paid by Irish citizens will go to cover the banks’ losses.
At the Capuchin Friary in Smithfield sausage breakfasts are being served to Dublin’s growing band of homeless and needy people. “There’s new faces arriving every day. At first they’re embarrassed to be here but we put them at their ease,” one of the volunteers said.
Gerry Larkin, the drop-in centre’s security manager, has noticed that occupants of the many neighbouring apartment blocks which were supposed to regenerate the city’s down-at-heel north side are now taking their places in the queue for food parcels.
He said: “Some of them have got into trouble with their mortgages and they’re asking me at the door: ‘Any chance of coming in, can you give me even a bit of food for the kids?’
“We’ve gone from 150 breakfasts during the boom years to 450 now and another 700 coming in for lunch.”
Five nights a week Niamh Buffini trains in her local martial arts club, nurturing her dream of winning gold for Ireland. “I’m always upbeat, but with my friends the chat about how bad things are is never ending.
“I’m an optimist by nature and I hope we can get out of this. The best I could say is I couldn’t see it getting any worse.”