Ireland Under Austerity
There have now been nine austerity budgets in Ireland since 2008. According to a string of recently released reports, the human consequences have been devastating. Nevertheless, in a parallel universe, the Irish media continue to praise the IMF and Prime Minister Enda Kenny in articles worthy of consideration for the prize of ‘propaganda piece of the year’.
A major OECD report looking at the impacts of the economic crisis and austerity notes that there are now 48 million people unemployed in OECD countries, an increase of 15 million since 2007, and over one-third of those have been without a job for more than a year. Three Eurozone countries—Ireland, Greece and Spain—have seen a doubling of the number of people living in households with no income from work. Who has been hit the hardest by the economic crisis and austerity? It is low-income groups, young people, and families with children. The report concludes that austerity ‘hampers progress in reducing inequality and poverty’ and that the economic losses resulting from austerity ‘are not shared equally. Labour incomes appear to fall substantially more strongly than profits or rents, and losses suffered by workers also persist for longer’.
This is corroborated by the European Trade Union Institute that also remarks that as bad as European unemployment rates may be, the situation is in fact worse because many of the jobs that have been created are part-time. Income inequality in Europe has risen since 2008, but more drastically since 2010, when the general shift towards austerity took place (Ireland, always unique, started in 2008). The report concludes that there is now a ‘full-blown exercise in the deconstruction of labour law with complete and utter disregard for existing labour standards enshrined in international, European and national law’.
Social Justice Ireland investigated how seven EU countries have been affected by austerity. It found ‘disturbing levels of poverty and deprivation’ in Ireland, Cyprus,
Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Spain. Nearly a quarter of young people in Europe are unemployed and Ireland has one of the highest rates of youth not in employment, education or training. The ‘at risk of poverty rate’ of young Irish adults between 18 and 24 years of age nearly doubled since 2008, now standing at almost 27%. The overall unemployment rate in Ireland is about 12%, but if emigration is factored in, it would be around 20%, and if discouraged and involuntary part-time workers are included, it would be above 24%. Another report about the social situation of young people in Europe reveals similar trends. It finds that in Ireland, nearly one in five young people have experienced serious deprivation, which is twice as many as in 2007, while a stunning 51% of young people have difficulty accessing health care because it is too expensive.
Community Platform—a network of 30 Irish groups in the community and voluntary sector—asked people a simple question: ‘how is the recession, and government policy, affecting your life?’ Based on the answers, it concluded that austerity has been ‘devastating for people who are on low incomes, unemployed, marginalised or dependent on welfare’—in short, those most vulnerable and who had nothing to do with the crisis in the first place. It warns that ‘the dual attack of unemployment and relentless cuts at national and local level has pushed individuals, families and communities into poverty’ and documents ‘parents going hungry to feed their children, people unable to heat their homes and a young generation at serious risk of being lost to unemployment, drugs and crime’. Thus, ‘fundamentally, the pictures emerging here are of people who are reaching breaking point as they bear the brunt of the crisis which was not of their making’.
Finally, Peter McVerry recently wrote about the problem of homelessness in Ireland, which is ‘out of control’ and ‘getting worse every week and no one appears to be doing anything about it’. In Dublin alone, six people become homeless every day. Just to keep pace with the problem would require opening a new hostel with 28 beds every week. It’s hard for homeless people to start renting because in Dublin, there are 2,500 people chasing 1,500 accommodation units and rents have increased by 18% since 2011 while the rent allowance payable by the Department of Social Protection has fallen by almost 30% since 2011. In theory, there is also social housing, but there is a waiting list of nearly 90,000. The government said it would build some new homes over the next two years, but that would only reduce the waiting list by 2%.
Such comprehensive reports from sources as varied as the OECD and Social Justice Ireland confirm that austerity was and still is the wrong solution to revive the economy.
Nevertheless, the Irish Times is pursuing the campaign it called for in 2008 to ‘educate’ the public about the alleged virtues of austerity. There are many examples, but two recent ones stand out as deeply revealing of the state of the mainstream Irish media. They illustrate a systematic pattern since the beginning of the crisis in conveying the government’s and the troika’s pro-austerity views uncritically.
First, Stephen Collins, the political editor of the Irish Times, surpasses himself in praising Enda Kenny, because—wait for it—Kenny enjoys his job. The praise is supposedly well deserved because his ‘obvious enjoyment of his job is a key aspect of creating confidence’ and a ‘key element of Kenny’s success has been his infectious optimism’. There’s a big picture next to the article showing Kenny with a big smile. Some readers may well conclude that it was simply impossible to find a single positive real achievement other than Kenny’s smile.
Second, there is a glowing Irish Times profile of Christine Lagarde, the IMF chief since 2011, written by Peter Wilson and entitled ‘Christine Lagarde: Ready To Take on Europe’. In it, we learn a series of key pieces of information about Lagarde, which only a journalist steeped in the most rigorous investigative techniques could have unearthed. She is a ‘charismatic’ and ‘tall, silver-haired woman in a grey Chanel outfit who attracts the TV cameras’, and is ‘the only person to have been on the cover of Forbes at the same time as being featured in Vogue’, and there is a ‘real excitement about’ her. She also ‘oversees a trillion euros of loan capacity’ in Europe and ‘one of her key strengths… is her durability and stamina’. This is not all: she is a former synchronised swimming champion and she does ‘20 minutes of yoga each morning’ and ‘swims when she can’, but she only ‘needs six hours of sleep’ per night. In short, ‘beneath her charm is the competitive streak of an athlete’. Finally, we learn that she makes a tax-free salary of more than $480,000 a year, quite insulated from austerity.
The disconnect between media coverage and the reality may have reached new heights. As it becomes increasingly difficult to hide the fact that austerity has not worked, are the media making a last-ditch effort to ‘educate’ the public?
Julien Mercille is lecturer at University College Dublin, Ireland. He specializes in U.S. foreign policy and geopolitics. He can be reached at jmercille[at]gmail[dot]com.