John Daly: Surviving the Irish economic slump

What a difference a decade makes: On this exact date 10 years ago, I dropped a friend to Shannon Airport — another statistic in the gathering gloom of Ireland’s great recession.

John Daly: Surviving the Irish economic slump

What a difference a decade makes: On this exact date 10 years ago, I dropped a friend to Shannon Airport — another statistic in the gathering gloom of Ireland’s great recession.

An individual with a canny eye for a good property deal, he had eventually, like many, over-extended himself with debts far our-weighing income.

With neither the responsibility of a wife or children, he had posted back his house keys to the bank the day before and departed these shores to start anew in California.

By early 2010, so-called “jingle mail” had become a sad reality for numerous people reneging on their mortgages, enacted by sending the keys back to their bank. The friend is now settled in Melbourne and only visits Ireland for “marriages, funerals and the odd All Ireland”, as he puts it.

By September 2009, over 26,000 homeowners found themselves in arrears, with those in negative equity standing at 116,000 — a figure set to rise to 196,000 by the end of 2010.

While interest rates were still reasonably low at that point, the average shortfall between house values and mortgage debt hovered around the €40,000 mark.

It was an environment exacerbated with the main banks clamping down on switchers, and other institutions like Bank of Scotland opting to leave the Irish market completely.

Yet, while the reality of recession was unavoidable to even the most financially myopic by 2010, the damaging pieces of this desperate jigsaw had already assembled two years earlier.

In January and February 2008, the US sub-prime mortgage crisis had reached a point where it was impacting across the Atlantic, including the nationalisation of Northern Rock by the UK government.

March saw the prestigious Bear Stearns bank almost go under until it was bailed out US taxpayers to the tune of $30bn (€27bn) - a reality fast coming down the tracks for Ireland.

A week later on the infamous “St Patrick’s Day massacre”, Anglo Irish Bank shares slid 15% and the Irish stock market closed at its lowest level in three years. Significantly, building and construction shares suffered most.

After a summer of upheavals, the spark that led to the global conflagration came in September when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in New York, causing massive turmoil in the global financial system.

The sight of workers taking to the streets with nothing but cardboard boxes became the modern equivalent of the 1929 Crash — an image that flashed around the world, given legs by the 24-7 news cycle.

Then came September 29, a date thereafter destined for inclusion in any Irish economics degree, with the Bank Guarantee — when the Government took the overnight decision to guarantee the banking system, a move that would eventually cost the Irish taxpayer billions.

For those who lived through it, the “greatest recession in modern times” saw the fabric of Irish society changed at its deepest level. The years following the crash saw unemployment reach 15%, matched by property values plummeting over 50% between 2008 and 2013.

One infamous survey by the Irish League of Credit Unions revealed that a quarter of Irish people had less than €20 per week to live on after basic bills were paid — a situation clearly linked to a doubling of calls to St Vincent De Paul.

After the wild excesses of the Tiger years, luxuries took serious hits across the board with new car sales plummeting by over 60%, and alcohol consumption dropping. Cutbacks went to the heart of normal life with a Bord Bia survey showing the average household spend on groceries was down €600, while 80,000 people opted out of their private health insurance between 2008 and 2011.

Everywhere, from corner shop encounters to office coffee breaks, a feverish atmosphere of uncertainty prevailed as tales of terrified depositors taking out their savings. Talk of possible bank failures dominated every conversation.

Huge concern was sparked any time an ATM flashed an out-of-order message.

The public broadcast confessionals — Joe Duffy and Pat Kenny on radio and Vincent Browne on television — abounded with tales of financial hardship and recurring pleas of “who will save us if it all keeps dropping”.

Restaurants closed and pubs closed early from lack of trade. The building and retail trades took major hits. With hundreds of half-finished housing developments, Ireland became the land of the ghost estates in news reports everywhere from CNN to The Wall Street Journal.

A decade ago, Nama entered the Irish lexicon. It was also the year the Government injected by one way or the other the first of the billions into Anglo Irish, Bank of Ireland and AIB.

That September witnessed Black Thursday when the late finance minister Brian Lenihan admitted taxpayers were facing a bill of tens of bilions to save the banking system and outlined a savage austerity programme.

By November, Lenihan headed to Brussels to apply for a €67.5bn bailout for the State. This was the time that a second new word entered the Irish economic lexicon, as the troika lenders of the EU, the IMF, and the ECB came to town.

Sitting as we are on the cusp of 2020, Ireland has plenty of economic dilemmas to deal with — everything from the Brexit fallout to danger signs that the 12.5% corporate tax rate may be challenged.

Serious though these issues may be, they surely pale in comparison to the hellish reality the nation confronted on January 1, 2010.

If the decade just passed had a theme song, it would surely be Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ — a tune every Irish citizen knows by heart.

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