Ireland after austerity: Boom to bust to brunch... is this the rise of the Celtic Phoenix?

In the midst of recession, Ireland was at pains to stress 'we are not Greece'. Now, as growth figures hit new highs, Siobhan Norton visits Dublin to see if being the Troika's poster child has paid off (after eight austerity budgets)

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The Independent Online

In a café on Grafton Street, Dublin’s high-end shopping thoroughfare, two 12-year-old girls are discussing boys over €5 (£3.50) kale and celery juices. “Ugh, he’s so annoying,” one says, rolling her eyes, before her attention is quickly diverted. “Ooh, did I show you the New Balances I want to get?”

Trainer-obsessed pre-teens are no new phenomenon, but these mini Mean Girls are part of a wave of change that appears to be washing over Ireland’s capital. People finally have some money – and they’re eager to spend it.

Three years ago, the mood was very different. Beaten down by austerity measures, people were reluctant to shell out on any socialising, let alone of the green juice variety. But now it appears that cafe culture is firmly back. Around the corner, in  Clement and Pekoe, the bearded and the beautiful are holding techy start-up meetings, accessorised with MacBook Airs and a selection of paleo (grain-free, gluten-free) cakes. Pubs are heaving, and not just in stag-party-saturated Temple Bar. City-centre eateries are packed to the gills with young, hip urbanites enjoying hangover-busting brunch cocktails with their Lobster Benedict. There is a palpable buzz about the city.

In 2011, Finance Minister Michael Noonan joked that he was considering having  T-shirts printed with the government’s favourite mantra of the time: “Ireland is not Greece”. “We won’t give them away, we’ll sell them,” he added. Unlike the Greeks, Ireland has been the poster child of the recession – dutifully taking on the austerity measures and gratefully accepting pats on the head from their stern overlords, the IMF/European Commission/ECB troika.

 

Eight austerity budgets later, it appears to have paid off. Recent Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures indicate that Ireland is on track to be the fastest growing country in the EU in 2015. Standard & Poor’s expects property prices to rise by 9 per cent this year. Angela Merkel has hailed the turnaround as “a tremendous success story”. IMF chief Christine Lagarde has dubbed the Irish populace “heroes”.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is gleeful, visibly buoyant with relief, urging Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to follow Ireland’s example. The Celtic Tiger may be dead and gone, but Kenny’s predicted “Celtic Phoenix” seems to have finally risen.

“There’s a bit of money about now,” says Aidan Coughlan, editor of online magazine Lovin’ Dublin. “But it isn’t just down to money, it’s a shift in attitude. When the recession hit, people had to come up with more creative ways to make things happen, rather than just throw money at it. Now that there’s a bit of capital, these pop-ups and start-ups have begun to expand, to lay down roots. The spark was there – now petrol is being thrown on it.”

Temple Garner opened San Lorenzo’s, where he is head chef as well as owner, in 2011, at the nadir of the recession, but he insists bravery didn’t come into it. “Sometimes in life you don’t have a choice,” he said. “I had nothing after the crash – I lost everything. I needed to do something.

“No banks were lending – I didn’t get a penny from them – but some friends lent me money, and I got a lot of credit from some builders and electricians I knew. I had €200 in the bank. I was completely dependent on the first weekend’s takings to pay the wages. And the banks even made that difficult for me. They have spent seven years holding this country to ransom.”

Gamble or not, the venture paid off, and now banks are falling over themselves to offer Garner credit (which he has so far declined). “We had 270 people in for brunch on Sunday. The momentum is wonderful, and we’re constantly striving to keep it that way.”

In Ashbourne, County Meath, in Dublin’s commuter belt, Annie is having a somewhat different experience. Annie is an unemployed mother of two – she was made redundant during the recession. Her husband works, but they struggle to meet the payments on their house, which has fallen into negative equity. Meals out are a rarity now  – and brunch is certainly out of the question.

Ashbourne Annie isn’t real – she is the creation of Labour media gurus, the ultimate floating voter on which to focus the party’s manifesto. Her plight may not seem that dire compared to, say, the Greek pensioners recently forced to jostle at bank branches for a daily cash stipend, but it is a common tale across Ireland.

“I get where they were coming from,” says Aoife McLoughlin. She is having tea with her mother Evelyn and two young sons in Ashbourne town centre. “But they shouldn’t have tagged it to one place – there are Ashbourne Annies all over the country.”

“We don’t like ‘Ashbourne Annie’,” adds Evelyn. “It’s a bit patronising.”

Ashbourne has mercifully few ghost estates – the unoccupied, unfinished developments that litter the countryside and are a stark reminder of the pre-crash building frenzy. There were 992 by the end of 2014, down two-thirds on 2010 figures, with some completed and some demolished. In County Meath, there are just 19, but in the town centre, the number of retail units lying vacant is conspicuous.

“We did see some investment in the town with the Celtic Tiger, but they got it all wrong,” says Aoife. “They threw up loads of small apartments, when people moving out here wanted a house and garden.”

“I don’t know who they thought would move in,” adds Evelyn.

The Ireland success story belies the reality of austerity for many in the country who are still feeling the effects of public spending cuts and tax increases to the tune of 15 per cent of GDP. And not everyone is happy with the way Mr Kenny and the Fine Gael-Labour coalition have dealt with the country’s financial masters in Europe.

“Only those who ate brunch before will be eating it now,” says Lillian Meade, a payroll supervisor and mother of three. “We have been hit in every direction: our salaries, our taxes, our health, cuts to essential services and price increases. Our children have been battered with cuts to education, services and health. I wish we had a government with a pair of balls large enough to take on the powers of Europe. Greece tried to fight back; if the countries that were swimming in austerity fought with them, it would have benefited Europe.”

Austerity and stagnation often go hand in hand, and Ireland’s remarkable growth figures are not quite what they seem. The GDP figures quoted by the CSO include profits earned by the (largely tax-avoiding) US multinationals that have their headquarters here. GNP, which might be a more accurate indication of real Irish income, actually fell by 0.8 per cent in the first quarter of this year. The controversial Universal Social Charge, an austerity tax introduced in 2011, is still in place, although there is talk of phasing it out. The introduction of water charges had people taking to the streets in protest.

Statistics are, of course, tricky, and never more so than when a country is trying to tell the world it’s on the mend. Unemployment is falling, but figures are skewed by people who have emigrated in the past five years. An estimated one in seven young people left the country during the recession. CSO figures released this year showed that, in 2013, 30 per cent of the country (1.4 million people) were living in poverty, not far behind Greece’s 37 per cent.

Dubliner Ailish Lally thinks the focus on Ireland’s growth is ignoring its real problems. “I hate that all the talk focuses on the economy. I don’t want to live in an economy; I want to live in a society. One that doesn’t speak in soundbites and one that cares that there are 500 people on A&E trolleys right now or that children are going to bed hungry.

“In general, in Dublin at least, there seems to be a more positive vibe, and there are more jobs advertised but the wages and conditions are diabolical and temporary. Again, having people in jobs is all that matters; not the quality of those jobs. But, sure, we’re the best boys and girls in the austerity class!”

Lovin’ Dublin’s Coughlan, meanwhile, is more optimistic. “Dublin is in a bit of a bubble when it comes to the recovery, but this is always going to be the place where growth happens first. More positivity and spending here will eventually benefit the whole country.

“Ireland is like a kid who has spent the last five years playing tennis with a broken stick and some twine. Now that it’s been given a top-notch racket, it can really excel – it learned the hard way.”

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