Ireland's tainted economic Renaissance: exceptional times marred by insensibility

These are exceptional times in the life of this country. In a decade or two from now and certainly in a century, the years we are living through will be regarded as a renaissance. Spectacular economic growth and job creation. Success in achieving peace in Northern Ireland even if the last ingredients of peace have yet to be embedded. The transformation of our cities and the environment, and by no means all of this transformation disfiguring. A flourishing of literature, music and theatre. Impressive success in sports from football, to rugby, GAA and horse racing. Glowing recognition in Europe and around some of the rest of the world for these successes. A buoyant confidence in a country that had lost self belief half a century ago. A sturdy unself-conscious identity.



These are not inconsiderable accomplishments and their celebration is not misplaced. It is also fair to acknowledge how politicians contributed very significantly to this success. Gratitude extends back at least as far as Sean Lemass, who changed the direction of Irish economic policy from an inward orientation (for which he himself was mainly responsible) to an outward one. Credit to the likes of Patrick Hillery and Donough O' Malley for initiating investment in education, a policy creditably followed by governments since then. Credit too must go to the government of Garret FitzGerald, which stabilised a very precarious fiscal situation in the mid eighties. Credit in large measure also to Charles Haughey who instigated the economic revival and to the governments that followed in the wake since 1992, principally for not making a mess of it.

Now there is a lot to be critical about those administrations but it is fair also to afford them credit for it was not for no reason that the success we have enjoyed has come about.

And yes, there has been a negative side and what is most disappointing is that we could have achieved this success, without causing such social and economic division, without creating such a spectacularly unequal society.

Michael McDowell claimed during 2004 that some inequality was inevitable, indeed welcome, because it was the engine that drove economic growth. All but strict egalitarians would agree that economic incentives have a role in generating wealth, and a corollary of that is some inequality in the distribution of income and wealth. Such inequality would not necessarily be problematic if inequalities in income and wealth did not spill over so devastatingly into every other sphere of life.

But when inequality of income, for instance, carries over into inequality in health, in education, in power and influence, in access to the arts, in respect, then major problems arise. That is what has happened in Ireland. Also the scale of economic inequality is so far beyond anything justifiable in terms of necessary incentives that it, on its own, has created endemic unfairness.

The 15,000 richest people in Ireland have wealth in excess of €3.5million. Meanwhile the income of one in four households, with families of four is around €22,000 (around €420 per week) or less. Nearly three quarters of a million people live on incomes of €180 per week (€9,360 per year) for a single adult. According to the ERSI one in four children in Ireland lives in poverty (as defined by the above thresholds), which amounts to over 250,000 children living in poverty.

There are nearly 400,000 people aged over 65 in Ireland now, of whom 114,000 live alone. More than 44 per cent of elderly people live in poverty (again as defined in accordance with the above thresholds), which is hardly surprising given that the old-age pension is €179.30 a week, even after the "caring" budget of 2005.

Child benefit is a miserable €141.40 per month, that is less than €1,700 per year for the first child, and the government congratulates itself on its munificence!

In a report published by Dublin City Council in 2002 (Profile of Households Accommodated by Dublin City Council) it was revealed that nearly two-thirds (62.5 per cent) of all households were in poverty, and these included 16,500 children. More than 70 per cent of women aged over 65 living here were living in poverty.

These inequalities spill over devastatingly into other spheres, notably into health. A shocking insight into the scale of these spill-overs was revealed three years ago in a report, Inequalities in Mortality 1989-1998: A Report on All Ireland Mortality Data published by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland. It revealed the raw data on death rates for the major diseases that shows inequalities previously unimagined between the rich and the poor.

It revealed, for instance, that the early mortality rate for the lowest occupational class for all heart diseases was 120 per cent higher than in the highest occupational class. An average of 4,600 people died of strokes during the period, almost all over 50 years of age. The early mortality rate here was 2 and a half times higher (150 per cent) for the lowest occupational class, compared with the highest occupational class.

Nearly a quarter of all deaths in the period were caused by cancers. For cancer of the oesophagus, the early mortality rate for the lowest occupational group was nearly three and a half times (250 per cent) that of the highest occupational group; for stomach cancers it was over twice that (110 per cent); for pancreas, 60 per cent more. Early mortalities for suicide and accidents were also multiples for the lower occupational groups as compared with the highest.

That we should have allowed such gross inequalities to emerge, especially at a time of such economic success, is testimony to a changed culture in Ireland, to a new indifference to the welfare of neighbours, to a rabid individualism that has eroded that sense of community which used to be a feature of Ireland.

The renaissance is a tainted one, tinged with insensibility, acquisitiveness and conceit.

Vincent Browne