Year of recession - 1986: Fast-forwarding our way back into the past?

1986 is not a year most Irish people would like to relive. But the ESRI says we are on our way there, writes Caroline O’Doherty.

SOME years evoke nostalgia — others, nightmares. So when the clairvoyants over at the ESRI say we’re about to relive 1986, you have to hope they have happy memories of that time.

Unfortunately, they’re in the minority if they do, because unless you were an anti-divorce campaigner celebrating the defeat of the first referendum or a Glenroe fan celebrating Biddy and Miley’s TV nuptials (probably one and the same person), 1986 was not a year to be breaking open the champagne.

Not that there was any champagne in Ireland. At least not outside of the chiller cabinet in Charles Haughey’s yacht, which he famously ran aground on rocks off Mizen Head that year, a hell of an achievement for an opposition party leader (owning a yacht, not running it aground, that is). The rest of the country was making do with Club orange and the occasional torment of Blue Nun.

For those too young or too cured by therapy to remember, a few buzz words should elucidate the point. Donnelly Visa. Self Aid. Combat Poverty Agency. All were inventions of 1986. As they say, need is the mother of invention and Ireland’s needs back then were great.

In the six years since Haughey went on the box to announce we were living beyond our means and had to tighten our belts, our means had diminished further and our waistlines had come to resemble the corseted courtiers of medieval Florence.

Unemployment in 1986 was running at 17% and would have been far higher if it wasn’t for the convenient safety valve of emigration which kept 30,000 jobseekers away from the dole queues and out of official jobless figures that year.

In response to a question put to him in the Dáil, then Minister for Industry and Commerce (or Idleness and Closures as was considered more appropriate), Michael Noonan said he didn’t have available to him the full number of factory closures for the first six months of the year but he did know that 442 companies had been put into receivership or liquidation over that one short period.

On any given day that year, about 1,000 workers were on strike — mostly, ironically, in a bid to save their jobs. But there was no saving jobs like those at the Sugar Factory in Tuam or the Arigna Mines in Roscommon — a death knell was sounding for mining and manufacturing work and there would be no resurrection.

Bono and Bob Geldof decided to do something about it and organised Self Aid, a 14-hour live concert and telethon with the slogan “Make it Work” and a plan to raise funds to assist job creation projects.

Nobody quite knew whether to be delighted with the cracking line-up of Irish talent who took the stage in the RDS that day (before Boyzone and Westlife we produced bands which actually played their own guitars), or depressed that the event was inspired by Geldof’s Live Aid extravaganza, thus linking Ireland with that other land of no hope, Ethiopia.

It was a nice idea but by the end of the year, Saint Bob had his thunder stolen by another saviour, one Brian Donnelly, US Congressman for the state of Massachusetts. Donnelly campaigned to get the US to issue a special scheme of green cards for would-be Irish immigrants and the American Embassy in Dublin that Christmas recorded a 25% increase in the numbers applying for the visa bearing his name.

Really they were just formalising what was already happening. Some 43,000 “holiday” visas had been issued by the embassy the previous year and the vast majority enjoyed their “vacation” so much, they didn’t come home.

Day in, day out, Gay Byrne was hearing and relaying the stories of those who were leaving or had left and with his mantra that the whole country was “banjaxed”, he encouraged anyone who hadn’t already dragged their cases out of the attic to get packing.

JUST how banjaxed we were is evident from statistics on the national debt which was about 125% of our national wealth. Like a homeowner with a negative equity situation, as a nation we were working to pay off mounting interest on a debt for which we no longer had anything to show.

The Fine Gael/Labour coalition was in its final year and failing to make a dent in the problem, attacking health and education budgets like media students filming a slasher movie for an end of year project.

So desperate were they to raise a few bob that they not only brought into law that all dog owners must buy a licence for their pet, but they also introduced the deposit interest retention tax, otherwise known — and treated like — DIRT.

Designed to glean a few extra punt from conscientious savers and to encourage them to spend rather than squirrel away whatever spare change they had, it instead prompted the phenomenon known as the bogus non-residential account and all the furore that would follow when the ruse was discovered over a decade later.

Just as depressing was the new law that set up the Combat Poverty Agency. The new body was to help raise awareness about (as if anyone needed any) and promote solutions to (as if anyone had any) the problems of poverty.

But besides the unemployment, emigration, penury and complete lack of prospects, Ireland in 1986 wasn’t all bad. The home was happier — so the statistics will have us believe — which was presumably why marriage breakdown was a mere 3% (compared to over 13% now) and we shot down the divorce referendum by a majority of almost two to one.

And those who weren’t trying to rescue the sodden remains of their belongings after the devastating floods of Hurricane Charlie, or who weren’t locking themselves in the airing cupboard to escape the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, were busy enjoying the escapism of the year’s biggest film, Top Gun, or dancing to Wham in venues known as discos.

Football fans were meanwhile heralding the arrival of a comically accented former coal miner as Republic of Ireland manager. Jack Charlton promised to take Irish soccer to places it had never dreamed of going and as his reign was to prove, some dreams do come true.

In the meantime, however, 1986 gave way to 1987 and an early election saw the return of Fianna Fáil and the arrival of a new Finance Minister, Ray “Mac the Knife” MacSharry, who would deliver an even more bloody budget than his predecessors which was described as akin to skinning a skeleton.

It all came right in the end but there was a lot of hardship and heartache to endure in the interim.

If the ESRI is right and we are fast-forwarding to the past, we’ll want to get back to the future as quickly as possible.


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