Yet again, we’re forced to leave

Here's an image to stop you in your tracks. The number of people who will emigrate from Ireland in 2010 and 2011 will add up to 120,000. And as the business editor of the Irish Independent pointed out last week, that is the figure given by the last census for the population of Cork City.


Think about it. Imagine chopping off Cork and letting it drift into the Irish Sea and then around the corner of the Kerry coast into the Atlantic. Before you know it, Cork would be bumping up against Manhattan.

Well, of course, that's not going to happen. But in another way the effect might be the same, because where is the first place a lot of the 120,000 who will emigrate from here in the two year period will think of heading for? New York, New York, that's where.

The dire prediction about emigration from Ireland this year and next year came last week from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), the think tank backed by the Irish state, a highly respected independent research organization staffed by our leading economists and social scientists.

According to the ESRI, this year will be the worst with 70,000 expected to leave, followed by a further 50,000 in 2011. And the prediction is that unlike last year, when most emigrants from Ireland were non-Irish returning home, most of those leaving this year and next year will be Irish.

As the construction industry here collapsed over the past two years, a lot of foreign workers -- Polish plumbers, Serbian electricians, Lithuanian carpenters, and so on -- headed home to build new houses for their families with all the money they had made in boom-time Ireland. Or they went somewhere else where the collapse in construction had not been so sudden and so severe (which was just about anywhere else).

Of course not all the foreign workers here have gone back. In fact many of them have decided to stay, even though there is no work for them, which is another problem for us.

As the ESRI report last week pointed out, in the two years 2008 and 2009, the number of non-nationals working in Ireland fell by 87,500, but the number of them still in Ireland fell by only 60,200. The gap can be explained by the fact that welfare payments to those out of work here are three or four times higher than they are in the better parts of Eastern Europe (and in one or two places there is no welfare) -- so why go home?

At the height of the boom there were between 300,000 and 400,000 non-national workers in Ireland out of a total workforce of two million. It's hard to get exact figures, but the indications are that the majority of them are still here, despite our jobless rate of over 13%, and this is increasing the welfare burden at a time when the Irish state has to borrow billions every year to pay its bills.

No one seems to know what to do about this. In fact it's not even discussed because we're all supposed to be part of one big European Union happy family now, with workers from any member country having the right to work in any other.

Which is fine in theory. But somehow the harmonization across Europe has not extended to welfare payment levels. A whole village in rural Latvia can live on what one out of work family gets in welfare in Ireland.

The ESRI expects the number out of work here to remain at around 13% despite increased emigration because of the growth in the labor force due to our continuing high level of school and college leavers.

In my own view, the unemployment level here may even come down over the next year or two but it won't be due to extra jobs. It will be due to even higher emigration than the ESRI is predicting.

I'm basing this on conversations with young people who are finishing college soon. Very few of the ones I talked to intend to stay here, and for that reason I think the ESRI figure for emigration next year is too low.

In addition to that, we know from experience that apart from the ones who go straight away, there are others who delay after finishing school or college and put off making the decision to go. They hang around hoping something will turn up, maybe making job applications for a year or more, before finally biting the bullet and buying their ticket out of here.

The ESRI is predicting a small level of economic growth here next year, mainly dependent on a slight recovery in our export markets. But looking abroad this seems far from certain.

And anyway, any feeling of recovery from recession here is likely to be snuffed out by the impact of the €3 billion package of spending cuts and tax rises which is coming in the December budget and which will further depress spending here.

We can't dodge these cuts -- the next step in an ongoing four-year plan to get our budget deficit down to acceptable levels and stop Ireland going bankrupt.

So it's a tough prospect, no matter how you look at it. There's not going to be much joy in Ireland for the next few years, and today's young people here have already got the message loud and clear.

If they had any remaining doubt about how bad things are, last week's other main headline will have convinced them. This was the one which said that the €440 billion guarantee given by the Irish state to the banks here was not the only option and may not have been the best option. The massive guarantee is so big that it has the potential to sink the Irish state, if it is ever called in.

Exactly what happened in the months leading up to the end of September 2008 when the government made the decision to give this absolute guarantee to the Irish banks has not been revealed before.

But last week the government bowed to pressure and released the documents through the Public Accounts Committee. These documents show for the first time what was going on when the Irish government made its decision to absolutely guarantee all the debts and deposits of the entire Irish banking system.

To give you some idea of the scale of what was done, let's compare it with what happened in the U.S. The Irish government guarantee to the banks adds up to €440 billion. The U.S. government set aside $700 billion (or €560 billion) to buy assets from U.S. banks that were in difficulty.

In Ireland, alongside the absolute guarantee to the banks, the government set up the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) to buy the toxic property loans from them. Estimates on the cost of this run upwards from €40 billion, and on top of that the government is putting €30 billion and rising into recapitalizing the banks.

As the Irish economist Morgan Kelly has pointed out, that is 10 times per head of population the amount the U.S. spent to rescue itself from its banking crisis.

Or to put it the other way, if the U.S. government had done what the Irish government did, it would have had to underwrite $7,000 billion instead of $700 billion for its bank rescue. That would have been some debate in Congress!

But you get idea. What the Irish government has done in terms of Nama and the absolute guarantee on all deposits in the Irish banks as well as all the debts of the Irish banks is so far off the scale that it is almost unimaginable.

If it goes wrong we are finished as an independent country. Even if it goes right it means that this generation and the next will be paying heavily to meet the cost.

If that is not depressing enough, what last week's headlines put into question is whether the Irish government made the right decision on this. In the run-up to the decision, the government hired the U.S. banking consultants Merrill Lynch to advise them. Last week we learned what that advice was.

Merrill Lynch advised that an absolute guarantee to all the Irish banks would enable failed banks to continue when they should be let collapse. They said it could also affect our national credit rating since it would raise issues about our credibility. Everyone would know that if the guarantee was ever called in we would not be able to meet it.

Our triple A rating is now gone as a result and we are paying inflated interest rates for our enormous borrowings. Our budget deficit will be doubled this year as billions are poured into the banks (in fact if you count the money being put into the banks our deficit will be around 20%, which is some kind of global record).

Mind you, this mess was not all the government's fault because we also learned last week that our own experts, like the financial regulator and the Central Bank chief, were insisting that none of our banks faced a funding crisis. It was a temporary liquidity crisis, that's all, the Regulator told the government.

And he was still saying that just days before the bosses of the main Irish banks arrived in Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen’s office on that fateful night in September 2008 to warn that unless they got the guarantee the whole Irish banking system could collapse.

That may go down in Irish history as the most expensive mistake anyone ever made. We will be paying for it for years in higher taxes, lower state services and a long-term depressed economy that will see the return of mass emigration like we have seen in the worst decades since we got our independence. Cork is only the beginning.

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