This week, rivers were dyed green, tricolours hoisted high and rebel songs passionately belted out as millions around the world celebrated whatever tenuous link they have with Ireland. On Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish. Yet, for me, and many others, the festivities over the past number of years have been marred by a bleak spectacle all too common in Ireland. Mass emigration has returned to the country at levels higher than they were during the 1980s. More than 87,000 people left the south of the country last year, bringing the total number of emigrants since 2008 to more than 200,000. With youth unemployment currently hovering at around 25%, this is hardly surprising news.
Those of us still living in Ireland don’t need figures to confirm what we know from first-hand experience. The impact emigration has had on places such as my home town, Lurgan, can be clearly seen in the half-full local bars, boarded-up shops and hallowed out sports clubs. On a personal level, emigration has taken a considerable toll, with some of my closest friends now living in Australia, Scotland and England, having escaped the depressing prospect of unemployment. Celebrating your Irishness can be a somewhat empty affair when those who you grew up with are scattered around the globe.
Last year, I left Ireland to teach English in South Korea. My departure was not so much a result of unemployment, but the result of another crisis affecting the country – the low wage crisis. Despite working full-time, I made just enough money to pay for heating, groceries and rent. Like thousands of others, my disposable income was non-existent and, consequently, I had no savings to speak of. In contrast, my South Korean employer paid me a handsome salary as well as the rent for a furnished apartment. I earned enough money to save, travel and enjoy life. Why would I not make the move? Thousands of others around the country face similar choices.
At a time when the austerity zealots are looting the economies of Europe, the imposing fact that wages have not risen in real terms since the 1980s remains the great taboo, largely unspoken in political discourse. Along with Thatcher and Regan’s suppression of trade unions came the predictable fall in the proportion of the planet’s wealth owned by working people. A example of this was starkly laid out in a report commissioned by the TUC in 2011, which found that had wages in the UK grown at the same rate as the wider economy, British workers would collectively be earning £60 billion more than they earn today. Similar results can be found in countries across the globe, not least in Ireland. Combined with the extortionate rents or crippling mortgages which line the pockets of landlords, bankers and property developers, it was only a matter of time before repressed wages became a wider societal problem.
Yet, the ‘solutions’ being proposed on both sides of the border address none of these issues. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition in the south has shown itself to be disturbingly obsessed with the will of the markets, proving themselves to be the Troika’s ‘model students’. In a society where reactionary Catholicism is rightly being marginalised, money has become the new religion. “The markets” are the new gods to be appeased, economic “experts” the high priests to be obeyed. The language used by those who worshiped the gods of Olympus is resurgent, with daily media reports on how “the markets” react to global events. Like Zeus, “the markets” can be “upset” by or “approve” of the actions of us mere mortals. “Sacrifices” must be made to please the gods or we could incur their wrath. In his St Patrick’s Day address to the US Chamber of Commerce, Taoiseach Enda Kenny boasted of these “sacrifices” made by Irish people at the altar of austerity. In a letter to the Irish Times last month, just after the Croke Park II negotiations, one university lecturer explained the impact these “sacrifices” have had on him and his family:
“Once again the government and the unions have betrayed us – as it happens as a public servant I earn exactly €65,0000. Currently with all the deductions from my salary I take home €29,000! From that figure – just to be able to get to pay my mortgage and get work and back each day it costs me €14,900 a year – that leaves my family with €14,100 to live on.
“The new pay cut of 5.5% will reduce the €29,000 by €3,575 this means I will take home €25,425. So I will now have the grand total of €10,525 for my family to live on! In the next 2 years I will have 2 college age children – the average registration fees will be about €3,500 each per year! This means that as a college lecturer I will not be able to afford to send my own children to college. I haven’t been able to tell them that there’s little point in them studying hard in the leaving cert as no matter how well they do it will take a miracle for them to be able to go to college.”
This is the reality for many in the south of Ireland today. It is the inevitable result of the fanatical dogma which recoils in horror at the thought of billionaire financiers suffering losses on dodgy gambles while, at the same time, not batting an eyelid at the spectacle of a generation of young people fleeing a country which offers them no opportunities. In the north, where the situation is little better, insecure, depressing, low-paid jobs in call centres and supermarkets are presented as the pinnacle of economic development, the dividend of a decade of peace. While our political classes busily applaud themselves for their ‘peacemaking’ and being the ‘good boys’ of Europe, young Irish people now find themselves in a situation where they are more welcome in far off places like Sydney, New York and Seoul than they are in Dublin, Cork or Belfast.
What a disgrace.