Irish eyes unsmiling as austerity bites

Dublin | May 30, 2012 | Katy Lee for AFP

Ireland is often hailed as a shining example of how to stick to an austerity programme -- but take a stroll through Dublin, and it's soon clear that the tax hikes and spending cuts aren't going down easily.

From a distance, the colourful "Yes" and "No" signs hanging from lampposts ahead of Thursday's referendum on a key EU treaty give an almost festive air to streets where shoppers are distinctly thin on the ground.

On one vast poster covering most of a house, a giant fist marked 'austerity' squeezes blood from the land of Ireland.

The message is stark: a "no" vote in the referendum on the fiscal treaty would be a resounding "no" against the cuts brought in after Ireland's 85-billion-euro ($106 billion) bailout in 2010 by the EU and International Monetary Fund.

"Look around you," said taxi driver Pat McGinley, waving his cigarette at the motionless queue of cabs behind him. "There's nobody spending. Business has gone down by 50 or 60 percent over the last few years."

The 60-year-old burst out laughing to hear that the government expects the economy to grow by 0.7 percent this year.

"We're out of recession, you say? I wish someone would tell the general public," he chuckled.

McGinley is wistful when he looks back at the 1990s, when Ireland's rapid growth earned it the nickname "the Celtic Tiger" before it was forced to seek a bailout when its property bubble burst and its banking sector nearly collapsed.

"We had a lot of very, very good years, but not now," he told AFP. "You have to be hopeful, but there's nothing on the horizon to suggest things are going to change in the immediate future."

Austerity's poster child

Quick to tap into the grim public mood, Irish critics of the fiscal pact have labelled it an "austerity treaty" as it ultimately gives the EU the power to fine countries that sign up if they fail to balance their budgets.

But the debt-laden government stresses that ratifying the treaty guarantees access to the European Stability Mechanism, the permanent EU bailout fund which comes into force in July and which it may well need to access.

With the near-collapse of their economy fresh in voters' memories, the government's warning has struck a chord; four opinion polls at the weekend suggested that around 60 percent of voters will back the pact.

"I don't think the treaty's perfect by any means, but there's too much uncertainty to vote 'no'," Ross Woodcock, a banking sector worker, told AFP as he ate lunch in Dublin's Saint Stephen's Green park.

His wife Niamh chipped in: "A lot of us have been looking at Greece and saying they're deluding themselves if they don't think they have to make cuts like us. Where do they think the money's going to come from?"

If Ireland is Europe's poster child, Greece is its problem child: its own EU-IMF bailout deal is in limbo after inconclusive elections saw strong gains for a radical leftist party that has threatened to tear up the plan.

Ireland, in contrast, received a glowing report last month from EU and IMF officials, who praised it for meeting its bailout targets for 2011 "with a healthy margin".

The closest Ireland has come to Greece-style mass rejection of austerity was last month's rare revolt over a household tax, which half the population declined to pay.

The mood is more resigned than revolutionary -- which, Dubliners say with a shrug, is down to their political culture.

"We're angry about it, we just don't protest," said civil servant Anthony Donoghue, nursing a pint in a bar in central Dublin. "We're too laid-back."

"That's the mentality of Ireland," agreed Mark Coleman, a charity fundraiser who lost his job in construction when the property bubble burst.

"You don't see anybody protesting, because they're too lazy."