How the Celtic Tiger stepped over Finglas

The sapping of the community’s skill base, and the deep social problems that go with that, have been the legacy of the Celtic Tiger for Finglas South and West. By Jack Copley.

The neighbourhoods of Finglas South and Finglas West form a large triangle, lying to the west of the Finglas Road. Cycling up through the middle of the estate you realise it lies on a hill. When you reach the line of shops on Cardiffsbridge Road you can look over your shoulder and see the Dublin Mountains as they rise from the sea in the east and then vanish behind a row of houses in the west.

Houses are identical bar varied coatings of paint. Large grassy spaces divide estates and an enormous modern church towers over the community. The view of the mountains is one of the few features that distinguishes Finglas from most other working class Dublin suburbs.

Finglas South and West (FSW) comprises council estates built from the late 1950s to the 1970s, originally to house people cleared from Dublin’s inner-city tenements. The picture painted of FSW during the Celtic Tiger boom was one of a neighbourhood plagued by murderers, robbers and drug dealers leeching from Ireland’s newfound wealth, products of moral corruption and shoddy parenting. It would be rare to see an article with more than a passing mention of the underlying hardships faced by the local people.

Most commentators agree that the Celtic Tiger economic boom was in fact a tale of two booms - the first from 1994-2001 and the second from 2001-2007. The first half of the Celtic Tiger was characterised by enormous export-led growth, largely fuelled by US corporations based in high-end technology situating themselves in Ireland and exporting products to the European market. The second half of the Celtic Tiger was based on an unsustainable housing and construction bubble and huge amounts of debt, while exports declined.

While there is little disagreement on the nature of the Celtic Tiger from a macro-economic perspective, there has been some debate regarding its social effects. The dominant perspective is pro-Celtic Tiger - celebrating the increased wages and standards of living, insisting that more ‘good’ jobs were created than ‘bad’ jobs and denying that there was any increase in income inequality. ‘The Best of Times: The Social Impact of the Celtic Tiger' (2007) proclaims that “the Celtic Tiger... certainly deserves two cheers and perhaps even three”. While there have been some authors who have pointed out the negative effects of the economic boom (Peadar Kirby being one of the best examples), they remain in the minority.

There has been very little discussion of the impact of the Celtic Tiger on individual neighbourhoods and communities. Meanwhile, harsh austerity measures are being pushed through under the pretence that everyone lived too large during the boom – meaning that now we must all tighten our belts. This article studies the neighbourhood of FSW during the Celtic Tiger and attempts to solve a certain paradox - namely, why did FSW seem to continue to suffer during Ireland’s finest hour?

Worrying trends

The SAHRU and the Haase & Pratschke indices are measures of relative deprivation used by the health services in Ireland. They show the deprivation level of each electoral district in the country relative to all other electoral districts in  that year. According to the SAHRU index, every electoral district in FSW remained in the ‘most deprived’ category from 1991 to 2006. The Haase and Pratschke index, which is more detailed, showed that every electoral district in FSW suffered from higher relative deprivation in 2006 than in 1991.

In 1991, some 59% of people in FSW had primary education only. This declined to 39% in 2006, with most of the improvement occurring between 1991-1996 (before the Celtic Tiger had a chance to make a significant impact). However, the FSW position hardly changed at all relative to the rest of Ireland - signaling that the much-heralded economic boom did nothing to alleviate the deep inequalities in primary education.

The story for third level (university) education is even worse. The proportion of people in FSW with third level education rose by just 7% between 1991 and 2006, while at the same time rising by 18% in Ireland generally. By the end of the boom FSW was in a far more marginalised position, regarding university education, than before.

The growth in lone parent households in FSW during the Celtic Tiger greatly outstripped the increase at the national level. The proportion of households in FSW headed by a lone parent rose from 19% in 1991 to 49% in 2006. While this must be somewhat attributable to the legalisation of divorce in 1995, that does not explain the same trend in the years before 1995 nor why it rose so much faster in FSW than in Ireland generally. However - regardless of the causes - these statistics hint at the shocking poverty rates in FSW. In 2003 nearly half of all Irish lone parent households lived in poverty, and in 2005 their levels of consistent poverty were four times the average. From this we can gather that by 2006 half of all households in FSW belonged to the most poverty stricken and disadvantaged household type in Ireland. Clearly the Celtic Tiger did nothing to hold back the tremendous rise in lone parent households in FSW, so that by 2006 FSW was in a far more disadvantaged position than in 1991.

Criminal offences rose significantly in Finglas throughout the 2000s (there is no available data on the 1990s). In fact, for every incident type but one, the number of offences was higher in 2008 than in 2003. Most spectacular was the increase in Controlled Drug Offences - which rose by 2000% between 2004-2008, while rising by less than 240% at the national level.

In 2007 residents reported that serious anti-social behaviour and gang killings were occurring far more than in the 1990s. One resident said “people are afraid to leave their houses in the night time... The other thing that intimidates people as well, and that’s one of the big differences... from ten years ago, is gangs hanging around 24/7 when it used to be a weekend thing.”

The trends outlined above fly in the face of the mainstream understanding of the Celtic Tiger. If the Celtic Tiger created mountains of professional and technological jobs during the 1990s, and then brought about the debt-driven ‘best of times’ in the 2000s, why did FSW seem to fall further and further behind? Contrary to the conservative media, the answer is not the loose morals and degenerate attitude of Finglas residents. A large part of the answer in fact lies in exactly what jobs were really created during the boom, and where they were concentrated.

Good jobs and bad jobs

In 1996, before the Celtic Tiger had truly taken hold, FSW was very much an industrial working class neighbourhood. Manufacturing workers made up the largest job grouping and most of these were skilled workers. Smaller numbers of residents worked in construction, transport, retail and clerical work - and less than 1% of people in FSW were higher professionals. At this time more than half of all (employed) Irish industrial workers belonged to and were protected by trade unions.

Nevertheless, one in three men of working age in FSW were unemployed in 1996, with higher levels in certain estates. It was a plague on the area - and many other working class Dublin neighbourhoods. Therefore, one of the biggest gains that FSW saw from the Celtic Tiger was the reduction in unemployment to about 15% in 2002.

However, this decline in unemployment was not achieved by skilled manufacturing workers regaining employment. Instead, the occupational character of FSW was totally transformed by the Celtic Tiger. Manufacturing employment fell by half between 1996-2006 and the percentage of skilled manual workers fell by nearly as much - far faster than the decline in unskilled manual workers.

Yet, people did not seem to be flooding into the other occupations: the proportion of people in construction, transport, retail and clerical work remained pretty stable. So where did the unemployed, skilled industrial workers go?

During the Celtic Tiger years, a large increase in FSW residents defined their jobs as ‘Other’ on the Census form. By the 2002 Census, ‘Other’ overtook manufacturing as the largest job grouping in FSW. The obvious question is: what jobs does ‘Other’ include?

Unfortunately, according to Census data, the largest job group within Other comprises people who left the ‘Occupation’ section blank on the Census form. Fortunately, University of Maynooth scholar Proinnsias Breathnach faced the same problem when studying occupational change in Ireland. He found that nearly three quarters of those with unstated occupations were unskilled workers, and that most of these were sales workers, “primarily sales assistants, checkout operators and petrol pump attendants”. Most sales jobs are part-time, insecure and casual - and are therefore difficult to fit into any specific ‘occupational category’ on a Census form.

So, do Breathnach’s conclusions also apply to FSW? Yes. It is overwhelmingly likely that the ‘Other’ category in FSW has at least as many unskilled workers as the national level. A number of academics (see O’Hearn (2000) and Breathnach (1998)) have shown how the high-skill, high-paid jobs created in the 1990s by US technology corporations created a new class of Irish workers (concentrated in Dublin) with big spending habits. This consumption created a parallel need for unskilled service workers in areas such as catering, retail and entertainment. Official statistics shows that the growth in ‘Other’ workers in FSW in the 1990s corresponded with a large increase in Dublin’s retail sales, and as retail sales declined after 2000 there was a similar decline in ‘Other’ workers in FSW - and a significant rise in unemployment.

Superficially it appears that FSW’s workforce reaped grand rewards from the Celtic Tiger: a large decline in unemployment and an increase in non-manual jobs. However, delve deeper and it becomes clear that the decline in unemployment was mostly achieved by a huge increase in unskilled, insecure and part-time service jobs. Rather than experiencing the ‘best of times’ described by mainstream commentators, the people of FSW wound up servicing the consumption of wealthier Dubliners who really gained from the boom. Furthermore, when this consumption declined (as Ireland shifted from an export-based to debt-driven economy in the 2000s) the people of FSW once again found their community marred by rising unemployment. By 2006 - before the economic crisis had even hit -nearly one in five men were out of work. It is this roller coaster of bad-to-worse job prospects that lay at the root of the negative social trends tormenting the neighbourhood.

Since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger mass unemployment has once again become the norm in FSW, as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s. But this time something is different - FSW can no longer be called an industrial working class neighbourhood. Its residents have had their livelihoods uprooted and transformed after more than a decade of deskilling and deindustrialisation. Why? To serve and cater to the better-off. Monotonous, insecure, part-time service work has taken the place of skilled, manual careers as the standard line of work for people. It is this sapping of the community’s skill base, and the deep social problems that go with it, that have proven to be the lasting effects of the Celtic Tiger on FSW - clearly not the reduction in unemployment. While this may have been accompanied by rising wages and welfare rates, it is important to remember the words of the great economic sociologist Karl Polanyi. He wrote that the chief sickness caused by the market’s transformation of people’s lives was not their impoverishment in money terms, but the way in which it wreaked “havoc with [man’s] social environment, his neighborhood, his standing in the community, his craft... [The] problem of poverty was merely the economic aspect of this event.”

Huge swathes of Dublin, from Coolock to Clondalkin, likely faced similar fates to FSW over the last two decades. Now that the Celtic Tiger has run itself into the ground, there are calls at home and abroad for these communities to ‘take their medicine’ - to face austerity with an accepting smile, knowing that they had lived beyond their means during the boom years. Those calling for this would do well to remember the meagre scraps that were thrown to working class neighbourhoods during Ireland’s ‘finest hour’.