Irish austerity plan triggers exodus of young workers

The trend affirms growing fears that Ireland's €15 billion austerity package might do more harm than good as it struggles in the grip of its worst recession.

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DUBLIN // When Anne-Marie King embarked on her nursing degree four years ago, the Irish economy was in overdrive, and she was confident of finding a job in her own country when she graduated.

But the intervening years saw the spectacular implosion of the much lauded "Celtic tiger" economy, plunging the nation into grinding recession and causing a sharp rise in unemployment: one in seven workers is without a job.

Ireland is in the grips of the worst financial crisis in its history, ranked alongside Spain, Portugal and Greece as one of the EU's most indebted nations.

There are growing fears that a euro €15 billion (Dh76bn) austerity package aimed at getting the country's huge budget deficit under control by 2014 may instead choke economic recovery and force the country to resort to a Greek-style, EU bailout in the coming months.

The economic stagnation is forcing a new generation of young workers, such as Ms King, 22, to reluctantly move overseas in numbers not seen since the recession-fuelled exoduses of the 1980s and 1950s.

"We don't expect the Irish labour market to improve before 2012, so that old pattern of outward migration from Ireland will re-establish itself," said Alan Barrett from the Economic and Social Research Institute (Esri), a state-funded think tank.

The Esri now predicts that the number of people leaving Ireland this year and next will reach 100,000, out of a population of 4.5 million.

Ms King, who graduated a fortnight ago from Dundalk Institute of Technology, has mixed feelings about the prospect of moving to West Sussex in southern England to take up her first job this month.

"I'm nervous about going but I'm excited at the same time. I'm also very disgruntled at the fact that I didn't get to work here to get more experience," she said from her home in the town of Ardee in County Louth.

"When I went into nursing we were told that there were so many jobs for us and I was thinking that's brilliant, it's a stable career. But now I'm feeling my degree is worth nothing here. I can't even get agency work."

The Irish Nurse and Midwives Organisation estimates that the public services recruitment ban put in place to reduce state spending means that 90 per cent of this year's 1,600 nursing graduates will be forced to leave Ireland to find jobs, despite nursing shortages which have led to ward closures.

"We are going back to the future in what we are doing, repeating the mistakes of the past when we allowed our nurses to emigrate and then we had acute shortages which led to 12,000 nurses being recruited from places like the Philippines and India in the past decade," said Liam Doran, the trade union's general secretary.

The alarming deficit in Ireland's public finances was triggered by the calamitous collapse of a decade-long property boom and a related banking meltdown which have saddled the Irish taxpayer with a bank rescue bill of at least €45bn - the equivalent of €10,000 per citizen.

Average house prices have dropped by 36 per cent from the price peak in 2006 and the Esri has predicted that almost a third of all mortgages will be in negative equity - where the value of the outstanding mortgage is greater than the value of the property - by the end of this year.

One economist, Morgan Kelly, from University College of Dublin's School of Economics, has warned that the next act of Ireland's crisis will be a wave of mortgage defaults by hundreds of thousands of families.

One legacy of the unchecked building frenzy is a countryside blighted with half-built commercial developments as well as almost 3,000 "ghost" housing estates - developments containing uncompleted and unoccupied units, often with unfinished roads and public services.

Anita Byrne, 37, her husband Rob, 43, and their two children are residents of one such "ghost estate" - Castlemoyne, a development of luxury brick-clad homes in the sprawling residential suburbs of north county Dublin.

The family paid €795,000 for their dream home in the upmarket scheme in 2007. Today similar houses in the Castlemoyne are being offered for sale for about €550,000 although, in the absence of buyers, this figure is meaningless.

"All of those houses are not lived in," said Mrs Byrne, gesturing to the row of semi-detached properties in front of hers, with their cobble-lock driveways and tastefully landscaped gardens. Of the 17 houses in the Byrne's cul-de-sac, only seven are occupied.

"It is a gorgeous estate and we have lovely neighbours, but I do feel angry about the situation. We were all caught up in the bubble and we went with it. The government obviously knew there was something happening but it didn't say anything and the banks threw money at us."

While economists and politicians repeatedly warn that "anger is not a policy", the popular backlash is intensifying, although the scale of public protests has fallen far short of the strikes and mass demonstrations recently witnessed in Portugal and Greece. This month a local politician splattered the unpopular health minister, Mary Harney, with blood-red paint.

This anger briefly turned to bitter hilarity last week after the finance minister, Brian Lenihan, outlined €6bn in public spending cuts and tax hikes in next month's budget - twice the amount first suggested.

In a gaffe widely compared to Marie Antoinette's apocryphal "let-them-eat-cake" moment, the government minister Brendan Smyth announced that citizens could savour 53 tonnes of free Irish cheese this month, thanks to EU funding.

Cheesy puns abounded on blogs and the airwaves, with one online commentator suggesting: "I suppose if your economy is toast you might as well have cheese on it."