We need real debate about employment

Amid the vicious gnashing and snarling that has taken over the political agenda in Ireland over recent weeks and months I don’t hear too many voices standing up for those who have already or are currently contemplating emigration.

Instead, a fever pitch crescendo of anger and bitterness has gripped the political landscape and with it a key element of the Irish economy has gone from being the critical factor to being an after thought —employment.

After the global financial crisis in 2008 an existential threat hung over Ireland. The spectre of total economic collapse was very real, employment fell sharply, pay was stalled or cut and fear about our economic future was rightly widespread. The cost of borrowing money shot over 10% as our national finances became the butt of many a not so funny joke.

It took Herculean efforts by everyone left working in Ireland to change this narrative. Sharp tax increases and reduced salaries were part of the price, but so too was a resurgence in emigration, the multi-generational plague that has repeatedly robbed Ireland of young people.

In January 2012 unemployment hit 15% in Ireland. Alongside that, in the year to April 2012 no fewer than 87,100 emigrated from the country (34,400 net of immigrants), many driven by the lack of job opportunity at home and the risk of dire economic prospects ahead. It was a miserable time and I don’t remember too many mass marches protesting about it.

That may be because so many people were focused on helping themselves and their employers to stay in business. The fear that you were next for the chop and/or the emigration flight provided crystal clarity about what actually mattered —staying at work and doing your bit to stabilise the country.

There was almost a nationalistic spirit to the approach taken at ground level.

It may have helped that the troika was effectively in charge so the oxygen that fuels wild political fighting was removed while we all just got on with it.

That was two years ago. Now, it seems we have moved somewhere alien to me.

I no longer see articles about the dreadful emigration flows that are a stain on our national character. I no longer hear strong voices saying why 11% unemployment, albeit a huge improvement from 2012, is not good enough.

Instead, we have descended into a stand-off between Irish men and women having borderline violent engagements about water charges.

Mass placards and protests would make sense to me if they were about the 87,100 people we shipped abroad in 2012. That year, on a per capita basis, Ireland exported more of our people than any other country in Europe. In the year to April 2013 another 89,000 left.

I would have understood if noisy protests at ministerial meetings happened around that too.

But no, it is water charges that have tipped the system over the edge and triggered a potential political crisis at home.

I often try and imagine an emigrant looking in on Ireland to see what the system is doing to give him or her a shot at returning home with a family.

The key inputs to such a move would be; (1) a sense of stability around the economy with an associated persistent flow of job opportunities; (2) housing that can be rented or bought at levels that are reasonable next to average incomes; (3) schooling and healthcare that is accessible and priced at rates that are in line with or better than those in the UK, US or Australia.

These are the factors that would matter if abroad. Vibrant political debate designed to deliver these outcomes would impress me too and encourage the purchase of a return ticket.

Instead, I’m watching a badly produced soap opera where the actors on both sides of the divide are struggling to present coherence to hard-pressed emigrants.

Then again, maybe those emigrants are an inconvenient side show to political expediency.

Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal


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