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Irish Struggle Under Weight Of Austerity Measures


We've heard a lot about the role of Greece in eurozone crisis. Greece is the bad kid in the small class of bankrupt nations that have gotten bailouts from the European Union and International Monetary Fund. There's a good kid in that class, too. The EU and IMF say they're pleased with Ireland.

But as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the Irish are not pleased with them.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Let's turn back the clock a few years. Life back then was good to Breda Clancy. She'd just moved into her new house on the edge of a pretty market town called Athy.

BREDA CLANCY: A big garden. We have kitchen, lovely kitchen, back kitchen. We have a living room in there. This is our sitting room. We have a study there, which I've turned into a bedroom, so I have six bedrooms really at the moment.

REEVES: Back then, Clancy's house was valued at roughly $650,000. It seemed a good investment. Property values were soaring. Those were the boom years when Ireland was the Celtic tiger, when people went a little crazy.

CLANCY: They were building houses for sport. I mean, I don't who they thought were going to buy them or live in them.

REEVES: That's now a distant memory. Clancy works as a nurse in a government-funded home for the elderly. Thanks to Ireland's austerity program, her rate of pay has been cut by a third. Her pension's also shrunk. So has the value of her home by more than half.

Her house stands out because the others on her block are unoccupied, except when the local vandals drop by. Clancy's stoical about all this, though she admits, it's painful.

CLANCY: Oh, I feel hurt, I suppose, but what can we do? I'm sure it will get better, but how much better it'll get, it'll never be back to the boom again. Never. And I feel, for my children, there won't be a whole lot.

REEVES: One of those children, a daughter, is about to head off to Australia, joining the thousands of Irish emigrating every month in search of work. Unemployment in Ireland's above 14 percent. Clancy and her husband, a bar owner, have two other kids to put through college. From now on, she says, there'll be no more holidays.

Ireland's beginning its second year of austerity. There have been tax rises, wage freezes, layoffs and more besides. This is being supervised by the so-called Troika, the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These are the bodies that bailed out Ireland after the property bubble burst and its banks collapsed.

The other day, the Troika dropped by for a routine check on Ireland's progress and, at a press conference, delivered a glowing report.

ISTVAN SZEKELY: And I have to say that, so far, the Irish economy's performance is really impressive. The gross coming from net export is very large. The contribution is very large. I'm not suggesting that we don't have yet major challenges. That was my opening statement. But we also have results here.

REEVES: That's Istvan Szekely of the European Commission. The Troika says it's pleased that Ireland's meeting its targets in cutting its once yawning deficit. Many Irish take no pleasure in receiving this pat on the back, as journalist Vincent Browne made clear at the same press conference.

VINCENT BROWNE: Just a minute now. This isn't good enough. This isn't good enough. You people are intervening in this society, causing huge damage by requiring us to make payments, not for the benefit of anybody in Ireland, but for the benefit of European financial institutions. Now, could you explain why the Irish people are inflicted with this burden?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, I think I have addressed the question.

BROWNE: You have nothing to say? There's no answer. Is that right?

REEVES: The burden Browne's talking about is one particular debt. When Ireland's now defunct Anglo Irish Bank hit the rocks, the government nationalized it and poured in money from its central bank. Paying back that money is now costing the Irish government about $4 billion a year.

NESSA NI CHASAIDE: We want 100 percent right down on this desk.

REEVES: Nessa Ni Chasaide is part of a new campaign by a coalition of social justice groups to press Ireland's government to suspend repayments.

CHASAIDE: The annual debt is what is keeping Ireland from entering into any possibility of economic recovery. It's a huge percentage of our overall debt.

REEVES: The campaign estimates it'll cost the Irish taxpayer more than $60 billion to settle that debt over the next few decades. It's not part of the bailout agreement. Yet the Troika's worried, if Ireland doesn't pay this money, this will have a domino effect, threatening Europe's banking system.

In Ireland's capital, Dublin, a hut erected by the Occupy Ireland movement is festooned with posters berating financiers and politicians and the Anglo Irish Bank.

Activist Steve Bennett says paying the Anglo debt is ridiculous. He predicts Irish taxpayers will eventually reject it.

STEVE BENNETT: We could pay it back as a people and take it for quite a while. But eventually, we will have to rise up. Eventually, we're going to have to stop it.

REEVES: Stopping it, says Bennett, means a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.



This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.