Ireland 2009. How to describe it? The Year of Reality?  The Year the Party ended? It wasn’t the best of times; but was it the worst of times? Two surveys, before and after the New Year, found that most people were enjoying their lives as much as ever, despite the recession. Moreover, as proof that there is life apart from economics, media interest in December and after also switched focus away from its obsession with the country’s economic difficulties, though the alternate headlines hardly made for light reading.
The most persistent non economic story of the year, that of clerical abuse of children, surfaced again in December with the publication of a second highly damaging report, this time on clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin. The first, in May, had focussed chiefly on the so-called “industrial schools” of the previous half century, including Artane and Letterfrack, administered by a number of religious orders. It described a regime of systemic abuse, physical and sexual, inflicted on the inmates, mainly children from poor and underprivileged backgrounds. The report’s conclusions were clear and damning with regard to both the religious orders involved (the Christian Brothers in particular) and to the Irish Department of Education and pointed firmly to a cover-up by the religious concerned.

The December (Murphy) report addressed allegations (a “representative sample”) of sexual abuse of over 300 children by 46 priests in the Dublin archdiocese over 30 years to 2004 i.e. at clergy in the front line attached to parishes. It found most of the allegations to be well founded, noted that some of the priests concerned were dead, and that 11 had been convicted by the Courts. Disturbingly, it found that, at least until the mid-1990s, the Archdiocese’s preoccupation had been to maintain secrecy and to have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. Four former archbishops were criticised as well as auxiliary bishops during the period (four of five of whom have resigned, prompted by public opinion and pressure from the current Archbishop, Diarmuid Martin).  In its wake, conscious of the damage, real and potential, Cardinal Brady and Archbishop Martin met with the Pope. There is little doubt that, despite the fact that only a small percentage of priests were involved, the report has dealt another body blow to the flagging authority of the Irish Church.

Some relief was afforded to the beleaguered Hierarchy as a severe spell of weather more in keeping with the American Mid-West than an Irish winter hit the country over Christmas and the New Year, driving everything else off the front pages. The worst weather in almost fifty years, following on heavy flooding in November, may or may not be down to climate change, but it served as a timely reminder of the type of winter we would face if anything were to deflect the Gulf Stream. Unsurprisingly the authorities were unprepared for an extended freeze and public opinion, charged with a sense of entitlement, was highly critical as supplies for road clearing became exhausted. Yet, overall, the public mood remained upbeat, reflecting what many commentators are pointing to as indications that the worst economically may be over.

Whether we are actually at the end of the beginning, there are some positive signs.  2009 was certainly a year in which for many a different reality dawned. The huge rise in unemployment over the last two years saw tens of thousands of families lose one income, a smaller number lose two. For a generation which had become accustomed to prosperity and  rising living standards,  on an unprecedented scale, and had planned ahead on that basis, the shock was psychological as much as economic.  The job market simply dried up. Recovery or not, nobody doubts that difficult years lie ahead. The jobs lost over the past 18 months will take much longer to replace, and will not be in construction!

However, as the dust has begun to clear, some perspective becomes possible. Yes the number of unemployed increased dramatically – by 8% of the workforce in two years. But for most people 2009 was a year for treading water. Life continued pretty much as before; taxes were increased, reversing a trend. There was less money around and prudence and caution emerged where spending it was concerned. There was apprehension, certainly, as jobs disappeared and as the country’s finances went into freefall. There was particular concern regarding job prospects for the young, who as a group were hardest hit.  There was hysteria in the media and among politicians. But it is now becoming apparent that the recession was concentrated, hitting some sectors very hard, some hardly or not at all. Building and related activities suffered severely. There was a shakeout as some multinationals restructured in the context of the international downturn, and another as some featherbedded companies went to the wall. The retail sector took a hit, particularly in sales of luxury consumer items, such as automobiles. But other sectors (pharmaceuticals, high-tech) continued as before. Overall our exports in 2009 appeared to buck the worldwide trend (decline) by holding up.

There are tentative signs (flattening of unemployment, stabilisation of tax revenue) that economically the worst may be over.  If this proves the case, a contributing factor will be the infusion of confidence brought about by the December budget. For once an act of policy ticked most of the right boxes. Most of the sacred cows went down like ninepins (sorry about that!) as the government followed through on its promises to cut government spending. Wages in the public sector were slashed, benefits were cut and inroads were made in the huge budget deficit. There were no new taxes apart from a hike in fuel taxes dubbed a “carbon tax”. There were some perceived injustices among the welfare cuts, where there was insufficient tweaking, but these can probably be rectified at a later stage. Overall however the budget was greeted with relief (just as it had been awaited with trepidation) and as a sign that the government was serious about setting the country to right. It’s only a first step; to adapt a recent Flanna Fail election slogan “some done, much to be done”.

The economic and social challenges facing the government in 2010 are reasonably clear. Unemployment is unlikely to decline and this will generate a situation where an unprecedented number of people will shortly be without work for 12 months or more. Training and retraining will become priorities and a debate has already started on this. The issue of negative equity as a consequence of the collapse in property prices will feature more and more as the numbers of unemployed unable to pay their mortgages increases. In a society which sets such store on house ownership, and where repossession and eviction generates high emotion, this issue promises to be the hot political potato of the year. There is no easy solution.

Finally, I must record, sadly, towards the end of the year, the passing of two icons of Irish music, Liam Clancy and Ciaran MacMathuna. No letter from the Motherland could or should fail to salute their enormous contribution to Irish culture everywhere.


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