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September 2, 2014

Who will rescue us now?

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Dr Mick Molloy wonders about the future of the unemployed, now that emigration is a less viable option and there seems to be no new industries ready to invest in Ireland


It is a very unsettling time in Irish life at present – decent weather and bad economics. How many wish the positions were reversed? Has the Sun really made us feel any better as a nation, as the finances are washed away? Adults, I am sure, would prefer such a reversal but probably not children, unless they have been unlucky enough to have a parent lose their job in recent months.
What will Christmas be like this year, with fewer employed as a whole and the social welfare bonus payments due to be scrapped?
The dole queues are growing and are now a feature of the national news again, something that has not happened for over 15 years. The length of some of the queues is astonishing. Watching the reports on the RTE website, I am reminded of growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, when the news nightly described stories of businesses folding and major layoffs among what were previously considered to be local ‘blue chip’ companies.
Big impact
I can remember a headline in the local paper indicating that unemployment in the area had hit 22 per cent. The town was small, so the impact of this was significant. I remember how one of the local companies that sponsored our sporting
league had gone into liquidation and we wondered – as nine-year-olds might – if we would be allowed to play matches anymore. Such innocence and focus. What now for those among the 15 per cent nationally who are unemployed in 2009? From where will the rescue package come? In the 1980s, we had significant foreign investment by technology companies and in the financial services sector.
We also had the famous ‘belt tightening’ exercise…which was observed by some more than others.
These factors combined to eventually take people from the dole queues and increased employment in the economy significantly. The added revenues boosted taxation and allowed servicing of the national debt to become easier. All boats rose at this time, though some rose higher and faster than others.
There is no question that our standard of living, on the whole, is immeasurably higher than it was. Indeed, we became a model economy for a short period of time. But the technology and financial groups are already here and are unlikely to expand to any significant degree. What other industry can we expect to come and rescue us in this next decade? We have not developed any indigenous industry in over 20 years. We need to rapidly develop some ideas.
We have natural resources but no large oil, coal or gas reserves. We have wind and wave resources that many would envy. Solar power is probably not the way forward for us, but we could utilise the other renewable resources to a much higher degree. We should be investing in innovation in these areas, considering the wind and wave potential at our disposal.
Were we able to reduce our reliance on foreign fuel sources, we could slow the growth in our debt considerably. I am unsure how much direct employment this would bring or how acceptable are large wind farms, but is it conceivable that we could become net exporters of energy produced in such fashion.
Renewable resources
Some have argued that renewable resources are unreliable. Tell that to the seagoing men and women of the west coast, who rarely see a day that energy could not be produced from waves.
What hope is there for the college graduate of the late noughties or early 2010s? (I am not quite sure how we will refer to the next decade in shortened terms). Emigration is not an option, as it once was, and countries that would have been welcoming two decades ago are now struggling themselves.
Thus, they are unlikely to accommodate economic migrants from Ireland, no matter how well-educated they are.
No area of the economy is likely to escape budgetary constraints. This is particularly true and unfortunate for healthcare at this time. We were entering an era of rapid progression, where preventive medicine was becoming important, where medical insurance companies and the Government alike were seeing the value of investing in preventive measures. I believe we may now see a roll back on many initiatives and squeezing of others.
The first signs came with An Bord Snip Nua’s recent report. An increase in the monthly fee for the individual/family drug subsidisation scheme will make people think twice. Do they really need that preventive inhaler? They will consider if they can just ‘make do’ with the one that makes them feel better instantly, which is much cheaper anyway.
The introduction of a €5 prescription charge has some logic, but I wonder if it will lead to people hoarding medications and getting three- and four-month supplies at a time – which may go to waste if their medications are changed, or if they unfortunately pass on in the intervening period.
Will these measures produce real savings? Or will they result in smaller spends on drug budgets but larger spends on inpatient care, as a rescue remedy for poor management of chronic medical conditions?