Looking on the bright side for a change



Mock exams are a great way of testing pupils’ performance and a reminder to them to pull up their socks before the real thing. Suppose we were to put our politicians through a mock test what would the results be? Judging by the current headlines from the Tubs of Money Row at RTE and the trio of crisis over housing, health and cost of living you might think the class of ’23 were heading for a fail mark.

Consider the big picture, though, and a different picture emerges. Turn back the clock briefly to 1973, the year we joined the Common Market.

Then there were just under three million of us. Our GDP per capita was only two thirds of the EU average and over half our exports, (mainly food, drink and tobacco) went to the UK and there was still high net outward migration.

Now, there are five million of us now, economically we have never had it so good, far from being the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ as we were dubbed in the 1980s, we are now the envy of the EU. Employment is at a new high with more than 2.5 million at work while unemployment is at a new low, with skill shortages in areas like medicine and engineering — and there’s that €65b. surplus to be spent.

Not bad when you consider that we weathered the 2008-2012 financial crash and Covid and have emerged with an economically healthy heart pumping away to keep the country going with an optimistic growth rate of 5.5% predicted for next year. (The ESRI have just come up with a pessimistic figure of 1% due to a slowing in the pharma sector but let’s say its somewhere in between the two figures).

People want to come here to work and 70,000 of them have done so (that’s more than the Unionist community in the North) with 30,000 from the EU and 40,000 from  countries outside it. Yes, young people are migrating and leave for countries like Australia but that’s what the young do anyway and more Irish people are returning than leaving: around 29,000 of them came back in the year ended April 2022. Three quarters of those  in the private sector are employed by Irish firms. Exports are at a new high at €208Bn, the EU is our biggest customer (41%) followed by the US (30%), while trade with the Brits has shrunk (9%), with medical, pharmaceutical and IT our top exports.

What about individual areas? When it comes to cost of living (COL) aren’t we Dear Old Ireland with prices 46% above the EC average? There are some explanations, like the cost of being on an island, the high cost of energy which should come down once more power from offshore wind turbines comes on stream. Government tax on fags and booze has a distorting effect on COL; alcohol tax here is the highest in Europe while half the EU member states don’t tax wine.

You really notice how things cost less when you holiday abroad don’t you?  But, with a tax take of €3.19 on a €9 bottle of wine and a basic rate of pay in say, Portugal is €5.40 compared with €11.40 here, we are never going to enjoy a €4 bottle of wine here. But, cheer up, inflation is forecast to come down significantly next year.

Everyone, including Sinn Fein, admits that the housing problem isn’t going to be cured overnight. There is some progress, with 30,000 dwellings bring built last year, a 45% increase, but homelessness at more than 1200 is at a new high. On the health front only 46% of the target for new beds has been met but 1,100 extra beds have just been announced.

Summing up: high marks for the economy and employment, trying but could a lot better in other areas.

Going forward what do we hope for? Better services rather than tax cuts according to a recent survey especially for health and public transport, (will someone tell Eamonn Ryan that only 3% travel by bike, most of us live too far away to pedal to work.)

We want a united Ireland but later, when we can just take over the North without having to change or pay much.  Surveys on political preference suggest we want change. But do we really want to threaten our economic good fortune?

Maybe, we should be careful what we wish for.

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