11 January 2008

Them and us

Another very cold day in Ireland led me to my local fuel merchant to order some more peat for the weekend. I still had some left in the house, but the current temperatures - combined with forecast of more cold weather - made me to stock up, just to be on the safe side. As my house is very old, it does not have the modern conveniences of proper insulation. So the only way to keep it warm is to have a fire burning in the fireplace all day. And that, of course, uses up my supplies of peat and fire wood. Yesterday I received a delivery of the latter, which is supplied to by a dear farmer from the county each week. So all I needed was more peat.
No problem with that, since it is - besides wood - Ireland's only naturally occurring type of fuel and still available in large quantities. But I was surprised to learn that the price for a bail of peat logs had gone up once again. This time last year I paid 3.20 Euros for a bail, in Autumn the price rose to 3.60, and now it has reached a full 4 Euros! Though I am not happy with it, I have no choice but to pay it, as the alternative would be sitting cold and unhappy in an unheated house.

The massive increase of fuel prices is only one element of a general trend here. Being already a quite expensive country for many years, with everything - from basic food to the cost of housing and transport - between 50% and 100% higher priced than on the European continent, it is not always easy to make ends meet in Ireland. But now we also have the highest rate of inflation in the EU and the cost of living is rising in all areas with amazing speed.
A pound of butter, until recently available in all major supermarkets for 1.42 Euros, is now 1.76, and the price for a particular type of simple tea cake has risen in one leap from 2.49 to 2.99. As many things get more expensive over time almost everywhere, an increase of prices is not such a great surprise in general. But what is shocking for many people in Ireland - myself included - is the frequency and in particular the rate of increase, which is often well above the inflation rate and thus drives it higher and higher all the time.

Sadly there is no equivalent increase in most people's income, so the costs for simply living and surviving becomes more and more problematic, especially for those in the lower income bracket. People working in the private sector, and especially the self-employed and owners of small and medium-size businesses, have not seen much increase of earnings in recent times, while costs of running a business have increased as well as the costs of living.

The only group of people in Ireland whose income has steadily (and often quite significantly) risen over the years and will continue to do so are our politicians, civil servants and employees of public bodies and institutions. They all benefit from a system known as Benchmarking, which gives them an automatic wage increase based on the national average. The system, probably not unique to Ireland, but also not very common elsewhere, was introduced as a result of a special good will agreement between the government and the public service unions, ending a long period of frequent and often devastating strikes that hampered Ireland's economy for decades.
I still remember with some horror a series of strike actions in the early 1990s, where within a few months the bank clerks went on strike twice and the post office employees once. For some weeks there was not only no mail, but it was almost impossible to conduct any normal financial transactions. It did a lot of damage to many businesses, and once again the smaller enterprises were suffering the most.

Such impediments have disappeared from Irish life since Benchmarking was introduced, and in general everyone was happy with it. But during the period commonly referred to as the "Celtic Tiger", which brought a massive and unexpected economic boom to Ireland for about ten years, the beneficiaries of Benchmarking received a massive increase of earnings that created - perhaps without intention - a new class system in Ireland. While everyone working in the many areas of the private sector had to negotiate increases of wages and benefits (either personally or through their trade unions), those included in the Benchmarking system received theirs without having even to ask for it.
Thus Ireland is now a country of them (who are benchmarked) and us (the majority of people).
The most scandalous part of it is a vastly unproportionate pay-increase for leading politicians, who basically award it to themselves (even though now there is officially a commission, set up by the government, that makes "suitable recommendations" for the increase in politicians' pay).

Based on this commission's report our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern has just raised his own salary by a staggering 38,000 Euros per annum, which is more than most Irish people earn in a year. It makes Mr. Ahern the highest paid leader in the world, even though Ireland is a quite small and unsignificant country with a population of only four million. Cabinet ministers got an increase of 25,000 Euros (which is still more than the annual income of most workers) and in line with that lower ranking officials were also rewarded handsomely in proportion.

All this happens at a moment in time when it is obvious that the great economic boom is over. In a global situation of insecurity (mainly created by the USA, but effecting every country on the planet) and massively rising prices for oil, steel, minerals and even food Ireland is no longer as competitive as it once was. So the government is telling everyone to expect a slow-down or even recession, with necessary reductions of personal income and lifestyle. However, at the same time our leaders exclude themselves from such predicted hardship and make sure that they are safe, sound and extremely well remunerated (which also includes enormous provisions for the pension plans of politicians).
Meanwhile even the once so secure civil servants and public employees are beginning to feel a bit of a pinch, as the recently announced Benchmarking figures show little or no increase of pay for the majority of them. Only the top grades will still receive their by now usual top-ups.

The mood among many people in Ireland is therefore quite gloomy right now, and the very cold weather does not help either. But the question is if our people will eventually do anything about the unfair system of them and us. In most other countries I know there would already by some social action, with demonstrations and signals of unrest. But not so in Ireland. Irish people love to grumble and complain, but when it comes to action they remain lazy and complacent. This is the main reason for the scandalous way ordinary Irish people are treated by our government for years. Now, with the Green Party being in government as a junior coalition partner, we also see an increase in bureaucracy and restrictive regulations, pretending to improve the environment. In reality they change very little, except that they make our lives ever more complicated, regulated and expensive.

As long as Irish people cannot be bothered to stand up for their own interests, this unfortunate situation will continue, perhaps until we are once again a poor and neglected country from which all those with the interest of finding a good job have to emigrate (as it was the norm for more than two centuries). Even though all signs and signals are pointing already in this direction, I am somehow still in hope that one day a great awakening will come and our people will act to rectify the appalling conditions. What we need is one nation of Irish people, working together for the common good, instead of the unfair class system we inherited from the British and augmented with the greed of our politicians and civil servants. It need not to involve another Post Office, a simple series of public demonstrations against the government would be more than enough.

Widely disappointed and disillusioned, but still carrying a small ember of hope, I remain

The Emerald Islander

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