Irish prosperity has its downside

A boom decade brings growing dissatisfaction with negative changes in the quality of life.

Ask Dublin taxi driver Christie MacMannon what he thinks about the traffic he finds himself snarled in for hours on end, and he tells you in one word: "Horrendous."

Owning a car, which until recently was just a dream for most people here, "is a bit of a status symbol now," Mr. Macmannon explains. "You get a bit of education, you go off and work for one of these multinationals where they pay you reasonably well, and you buy a car."

A decade of record growth, fueled by a boom in foreign investment in high-tech industries, has brought unprecedented prosperity to Ireland.

The economy has grown by an average of 9 percent a year for the past 10 years and earned Ireland the sobriquet "Celtic Tiger." Unemployment is down to nothing, and the government has promised tax cuts and wage increases that will see everybody's income jump by another 25 percent over the next three years.

"But for all the economic progress that's been made, it's not matched by the feel-good factor," says Patrick Delaney, head of Ireland's Small Firms Association. Some people, he adds, are even beginning to wonder whether it has all been worth it.

"We've been caught unawares by the rapidity of the growth surge we've had," explains Daniel McCoy, an economist at Ireland's top think tank. "There's a price to pay ... and we've just been killing ourselves in terms of quality of life."

Dublin commuters have plenty of time to add up that price as they sit in traffic jams that were unknown a few years ago. They pay it too in their home mortgages. They worry that an influx of foreign workers will test traditional Irish hospitality. And they are afraid that a tide of consumerism will drown their old values.

The gridlock in Dublin is the most visible of these perils. More people are going to work, public transport cannot cope with the new numbers, there are nearly 50 percent more cars on the roads than there were nine years ago, but few roads have been widened or new ones built.

Dublin's director of traffic Owen Keegan describes his job, only half-jokingly, as "managing the speed of the descent into total chaos," rather than implementing solutions. The government development plan has earmarked $42 billion to build new infrastructure over the next five years, but existing projects are way behind schedule, Mr. Keegan says.

"Everyone wants improved transport infrastructure" such as a new light railway that is on the drawing board, "but everyone reserves the right not to have it built near their homes," Keegan adds. "The traffic situation will get a lot worse before it gets better."

Not only are more people going to work, but they are having to travel farther, because home prices in convenient locations have gone through the roof. The price of the average house in the Dublin area has doubled over the past five years to more than $180,000, beyond the reach of most first-time buyers. This hurts especially hard in a country where 4 families out of 5 have traditionally owned their own homes.

Marguerite Delaney, a clerk in a government office, managed to buy a house a year ago with her boyfriend. "It's a new, three-bedroom, semi-detached, and it's grand," she says. But it's 10 miles out of the city - an hour away from her job - and she can only afford the mortgage because she rents out the two spare bedrooms to lodgers. "Very few of my friends are able to buy," she says. "I really do pity them."

One factor driving up house prices is the surge in demand from immigrants. The boom is drawing some 18,000 Irish a year back home, and attracting another 18,000 foreign workers annually, as well as some 12,000 asylum-seeking refugees.

The government is actively recruiting nurses in the Philippines, Latvians and other Eastern European workers are taking the lower-paid jobs that few Irish people will do any longer, and Nigerians in search of asylum have made Ireland a favored destination.

After centuries when only the Irish lived here, and the only direction anyone ever traveled was out, Ireland is finding this unfamiliar and unexpected influx of outsiders hard to deal with.

Last week, for example, it was revealed that 19 Moldovan immigrants with valid passports, visas, and Irish work permits had been flung into jail for a week by immigration officials while they investigated the new arrivals.

"Our emigrant past has been all but wiped out in the popular mind," laments Peter O'Mahony, head of the Irish Refugee Council, a voluntary organization. "The word 'refugee' translates as 'unwelcome foreigner' to many people."

Racist attacks are on the increase, according to police figures, and "foreigners are at very high risk of being treated with suspicion as they enter the country and as they go about their business," says Mr. O'Mahony. Offering a friendlier welcome "will be a big test in terms of our developing as a nation, and it will be difficult for us," predicts Mr. Delaney of the Small Firms Association.

Delaney is also worried about how people under 40, who have known only economic good times all their adult lives, will cope with a downturn when it comes. "A whole generation has never known recession, and they don't have that sense of prudence in their personal finance that older people have," he says.

Indeed, the tax giveaways and other income boosts that Irish consumers have enjoyed in recent years have fueled a spending spree. They save only 6 percent of their disposable income, compared with nearly 20 percent in 1983, according to a report by the Irish Association of Investment Managers.

This rash of conspicuous consumption, worries Des Geraghty, head of Ireland's biggest trade union, only points up how the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. "I don't want to see materialism dominate the Irish psyche," he says. "We've a good tradition of social responsibility, and I hope people don't get so fond of grabbing that they lose sight of these values."

Back in the traffic jam, Christie MacMannon is philosophical. "The traffic is a serious problem," he acknowledges. "But Dublin is the best city in the world. Of course, I'm a bit biased."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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