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News : Irish Economy Last Updated: Mar 5, 2013 - 7:01 AM

Irish rage against Europe but status quo endures at home
By Michael Hennigan, editor and founder of Finfacts
Mar 4, 2013 - 4:54 AM

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Enda Kenny, Irish taoiseach, and Frederik Reinfeldt, Swedish prime minister, Dublin, Feb 22, 2013. In th early 1990s, Sweden and Finland gave equal rights to workers in their private and public sectors.

Public outrage came too late to avoid a serious crash and in recent times it appears the rage is now mainly directed at Europe, not at the domestic failures that twice in a generation saw the Irish economy wrecked with huge collateral damage for tens of thousands of people. Meanwhile, the status quo still endures at home.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny gives himself a pat on the back today in The Irish Times, days in advance of the second anniversary of his government coming to power.

The EU-ECB-IMF troika public policy demands have been met and there are tentative signs of a stabilisation in the jobs market. Annual net emigration was 34,400 in the year to last April and the IMF estimates that the unemployment rate would be above 20% rather than close to 14%, absent emigration.

Kenny says employment in foreign-owned exporting firms is at a 10-year high but total full-time employment in the indigenous and foreign owned sectors is at its lowest since 2000 when official unemployment was 75,000 compared with an estimated 295,000 in December 2012.

Almost 80% of jobs in the Irish private sector are in traditional sectors such as distribution, tourism and other non-internationally tradeable services sectors and about 50,000 direct workers or 2.5% of the workforce including the unemployed are responsible for 69% of headline exports. Some 10,000 workers account for most almost three-quarters of services exports (about 40% of annual services exports value relate to the tax strategies of US multinationals).

Wonder then why all the ministerial spin is about the delusional search for eureka moments from research, which takes the lion’s share of public enterprise spending, while the apprenticeship system that works well in the rest of Europe in equipping young people for jobs, is a shambles in Ireland? It remains crafts-based with little female participation.

2013 was the year that Ireland was to attain the status of a recognised ‘world class knowledge economy’ but the failure to achieve it has been a taboo subject in Ireland.

The term 'high quality'  jobs was introduced to the official lexicon when Micheál Martin, currently Fianna Fáil leader, was minister for enterprise. He had a weakness for vacuous superlatives and clichés. He once used 'cutting edge' and 'state of the art' in the same sentence. The current incumbent, Richard Bruton, has carried on the tradition. 

The arrogant notion that knowledge jobs would dominate in the West while places in for example Asia would continue to concentrate on low level manufacturing, is already in the dustbin of history. China will match the R&D spending of the United States in 2022.

Recall economists singing the mantra about ‘moving up the value chain.’? Then why would a modern manufacturing job be a lesser ‘quality’ one than answering a phone in a call centre dubbed a ‘centre of excellence’ to enable an R&D grant credit to be claimed, is puzzling unless there is an element of old school snobbery about it?

Long-term unemployment is back and there is no chance of creating up to 200,000 net sustainable jobs over the coming decade through the reliance on foreign firms and a small indigenous exports sector. Ireland is as reliant on foreign firms today as it was in the late 1980s but today, the level of new investment is low, despite efforts to classify so-called ‘trapped cash’ or retaining earnings as evidence of rising investment.

A laundry-like list of 333 jobs initiatives such as the Government's Action Plan for Jobs 2013 is no substitute for a strategy.

HSBC Bank said in a trade report last month on Ireland: "The USA was the major export market in 2011, followed by the UK, Germany and France, but China is seen overtaking both France and Japan to become the fourth largest market by 2030."

Irish exports are dominated by foreign multinationals, which account for about 94% of Irish exports to China. Nobody can realistically forecast the direction of such supply chains in 2030.

In 2012, merchandise exports to China accounted for 3.15% of the total while total merchandise exports to the BRIC (Brazil, India, Russia, China) countries, were 4.2% of the total.

It's very difficult to break into these markets and the value of exports to India is a decimal point.

So Ireland's fortunes remain tied to the Eurozone, the US and the UK.

Meanwhile, baby steps towards reform of failed systems are the best that can be expected.

I stumbled on this February 28th video at my base in Kuala Lumpur and there is a contrast between the international version of the Irish story and the realty at home as almost no international commentators/ economists look beyond data distorted by the significant multinational presence, including tax strategies. For example, Dell could shut its plant in Limerick and remain Ireland's biggest goods exporter!  

The victims’ cross

The old sense of victimhood has returned, which John Banville, the writer, referred to in 'The New York Times' in November 2010, following the EU-IMF bailout: "There used to be a nice acronym that neatly expressed how the Irish people conceive of themselves: MOPE, that is, Most Oppressed People Ever."

Anecdotal evidence from the number of online comments on 'Irish Times' debt-related articles and similar threads on the Irish Economy blog (www.irisheconomy.ie), which was launched in late 2008 by Philip Lane, a professor of economics, at Trinity College, shows that the level of interest far outweighs issues such as the jobs crisis.

Most media commentary feeds the anger but whether it's advocacy of debt default or quitting the euro, it's a world of no downsides. Proposals involving consequential decisions should not be taken seriously, absent a worst-case scenario. However, commentators need not fear being forensically challenged in the Irish broadcast media in particular. The claim that the September 2008 State bank guarantee was "the cheapest bailout in the world so far," should provide a lesson.

It is also relevant that those with a grip of the public megaphone, who propose consequential decisions without possible negative consequences, are likely among the better positioned to avoid financial loss if the reality is much worse than wished.

Last year, an attendee at one of the 'Four Angry Men' commercial public events, that was organised by publisher Penguin Ireland, said online: "Unfortunately, each angry man seemed unable and/or unwilling to rise above the blame game and help to chart a future."

Directing their anger at perceived nefarious foreign governments and institutions is also easier than delivering home truths to local audiences.

The facts maybe bitter but it was the Oireachtas that natioanlised Anglo Irish Bank and its customer deposits were valued at five times the senior bond debt. However, there was no campaign to 'burn' depositors.

In Anglo's September 2008 accounts, lending was at €73 billion; customer deposits were at €51 billion; external bank deposits were at €20 billion and senior bond debt at €11 billion. So the bailout primarily benefited depositors.    

No appetite for reform

It would be good if the entire €64 billion price tab for bank support was picked up by other European countries. It is unlikely but we also should not forget past kindness, which in inflation-adjusted terms would likely exceed the bank bailout costs. Ireland has not contributed one net cent to the EU budget in forty years while intangible benefits have also been significant.

The eagerness for debt write-offs is not matched by support for significant reforms at home.

During the last economic debacle, the late UCD constitutional law professor and Fine Gael TD, John M. Kelly, said in 'The Sunday Tribune' in October 1986: "Ireland's political and official rulers have largely behaved like a crew of maintenance engineers, just keeping a lot of old British structures and plant ticking over.."

The development of the parallel modern economy driven by the opening of substantial units of some of America's biggest companies drove the recovery from the late 1980s. 

Today there still appears to be little appetite among the public and politicians for significant reform and apart from change at the Central Bank; the pace has been as glacial as ever.

For example in relation to the almost €2 billion annual public drugs bill, generic drugs accounted for only 5 per cent of the value according to the Department of Health in 2012. Why does it take so long to implement change that would bring big savings?

People have spoken in recent times about leaving debt burdens for grandchildren. However, according to Seamus Coffey, a UCC economist, excluding interest cost and bank support, the total deficit in the six-year period 2008-2013, will put debt of "nearly €60 billion more on us in services and transfers than it is collecting from us in taxes and charges."

He asks: "Why is no one concerned about this 'legacy of debt' for future generations?"

Ireland and Finland

Ireland and Finland, both members of the euro system, ended 2007 with the same level of GDP (gross domestic product). Finland had surplus public funds of €130 billion while Ireland had net debt of €20 billion after offsetting cash balances and the value of the National Pensions Reserve Fund. 

Pre-2008 spending in the developed world is unlikely to return anytime soon and it's fanciful to expect that growth in Ireland will take-off "like a rocket" when the international recovery becomes more sustainable. Unlike in the years from the late 1980s, there is no foreign direct investment boom today to drive a recovery.

Finland won its independence after the collapse of Tsarist Russia in 1917 and then had to pay a devastating cost to retain it, in response to aggression by the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

Its reaction to its economic crisis that followed the collapse of trade in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was very different to what happened in Ireland both a decade before and is happening now.

Finland revolutionised its education system, which today is considered among the world's best and the most equitable. It developed a world-class knowledge economy and the State Civil Service Act of 1994 aimed to provide equal rights for public and private sector employees. The Finnish civil service is a position-based system, meaning that advancement through seniority is not possible.

Sweden also abolished the right for life-long employment for most civil service jobs in the early 1990s.

There is no pay premium over private sector staff in Finland. In Ireland, an ESRI paper that was recently published put the Irish pay premium at 17% on average in 2010 - - while the February 2013 Croke Park public service deal will cut that, throw in guaranteed pension payouts and guarantees of employment, the lot of the typical Irish SME worker (no occupational pension; a high risk of unemployment and basic redundancy on losing a job), looks pretty grim by comparison.

In Ireland last September, a UCD-Trinity College university merger proposal in a leaked draft report triggered a rapid reaction from various interests to kill the chicken in the egg. It was as if a fatwa had been issued by the elite. There would not even be a discussion on it.

Seán Flynn, 'The Irish Times' Education Editor, reported: "Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn and three university presidents last night moved to distance themselves from a controversial report recommending a merger of University College Dublin with Trinity College Dublin, and other radical changes. Mr Quinn said such a merger was 'neither feasible nor desirable,' while key elements of the report 'would not be acceptable to Government.'

"The report, prepared by some of the most distinguished figures in international higher education, has been effectively buried, according to education sources."

Meanwhile in the Irish civil service, protection of Victorian traditions persists.

In Finland, if the partner of the deputy prime minister lost his or her job when a public agency was abolished, there would be no special right to have a position created with the same pay and benefits.

Like any member of the workforce, public or private, where a redundancy occurred, any open position would have to be applied for.

The right to lifetime employment in Ireland dates from 1853 when Sir Charles Trevelyan recommended it in a report he co-authored for the British government.

Trevelyan features in the song, 'The Fields of Athenry,' and he had been responsible during the Famine for closing of food depots in Ireland that had been selling Indian corn. His motivation was to prevent the Irish from becoming "habitually dependent" on the British government.

It's ironic that Trevelyan is the patron of insiders today who protect their own interests but are prepared to have a dual labour market for new entrants where the concept of equal pay for equal work is abandoned.

The status quo

While misgovernance, catastrophic regulatory failures and a significant portion of the electorate that was easily beguiled into believing that the free lunch had been invented, point to a mainly domestic responsibility for the current economic debacle, it's striking that in five years, so little has changed.

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