Tuesday 21 October 2014

Get economy back on track, stupid, say country girls

A muted recovery has snatched the dreams from the commuting masses, writes John Drennan

Published 23/03/2014 | 02:30

PAT SHORTT breakfast roll man
MAKING A HASH OF IT: Pat Shortt's breakfast roll man, a Celtic Tiger type that swaggered through the Spars and pubs

One of the most famous indices of prosperity during the Celtic Tiger era was our friend breakfast roll man who swaggered through the Spars, the DIY centres and pubs of the land.

Breakfast roll man will never be back for, much to the delight of our elite, his hash was well and truly sorted by the recession.

However, there was another signifier of the prosperity of the times which we shall call 'the country girl commuters'.

This phenomenon became ever more apparent as the boom became boomier until suddenly in 2006 the trains were crowded with 'country girl commuters'.

Intriguingly, these twenty-something daubs of brightness on the grim commuter trains, heading into retail and office jobs, were mostly the partners and fiancees of breakfast roll man.

For a time it was almost pleasant to be on the trains as, like a living Maeve Binchy novel, 'the country girls' would flock together talking about their dreams of a house, their breakfast roll men fiances, holidays, nuptials and a life that would not be dissimilar to the heroine in the latest chick lit novel.

The candy floss nature of their hopes meant that by 2007, unlike our generally hostile relationship with commuters, we began to feel concerned about the 'country girls'.

The 'country girls' with their make-up, new smart phones, new shoes nestled in handbags waiting to be donned on the way to the office, take-away lattes and books scattered across the tables, were participants in, and employees of, the booming domestic economy.

They were the ones who drove a grumbling, hungover breakfast roll man into the retail outlets on a Sunday to buy the new Italian tiles and the IKEA-style furniture for those new €400,000 homes in Portarlington that were designed on the principles of the Pyramids, no less.

Increasingly, though, you could only wonder how the candy floss would survive a recession most people would have seen coming if they weren't so busy burying their heads in the sand.

We got our answer in 2008 when, like the canaries in the coalmine, the girls vanished from the commuter train.

In the dead years of 2008 to 2012 sometimes amid the empty trains which only filled up when, after doubling the price of rail tickets, CIE halved the number of carriages, we would wonder whatever did happen all the 'country girls' and hope, rather doubtfully, that it all ended well.

Rather like the Government, we forgot about the 'country girl commuters' until the first songbirds of recovery began to twitter nervously.

Suddenly it struck us that if the economic green shoots we were hearing about existed, one of the first tangible signs of real recovery, as distinct from the invisible recovery the Coalition was crowing about, would consist of the return of the 'country girl commuters'.

The good news, in one regard, is that, amid the beginnings of a bit of a bustle all over the place, a slightly more wizened set of 'country girl commuters' slowly began to return last year.

Something, however, was not quite right for while the trickle turned into a modest flow, until once again trains were full, despite all of the crowing from the rooftops of government buildings about promissory notes and Troika exits, the living economy appeared to be fundamentally unchanged.

So had our economic theory been proven wrong or was something else at play?

Slowly one feature of the return began to unveil itself for while the 'country girl commuters' might have returned to work all the brightness and sparkle was gone.

They still gathered together but the girls now slumped or slept at stony tables that contained none of the delicacies or books or stilettos or new clothes or even newspapers or anything really except for ancient smart phones and sparse, packed lunches.

It took a while but eventually we began to see why the mood on the trains was not reflecting the fireworks and celebrations from government buildings.

In the early Nineties, after our previous flirtation with bankruptcy, Ireland experienced the phenomenon of the jobless recovery where economic growth failed to have any impact on unemployment.

In our case today we are experiencing what might be called the economic curiosity of the cashless recovery.

There may be weak growth of a sort even if nobody is at all sure about the growth and whether it even exists in reality as distinct from merely being markings on a ledger.

Unemployment is also falling because of more factors than the flight of the young and the talented, for jobs of a sort are being created.

However, those who have returned to work are so burdened with debt, be it the mortgages on those €400,000 homes in Portarlington, or personal debt, they have no disposable income.

This, of course, is before we even get to the scenario of poorer wages or the raft of new taxes being imposed courtesy of the Government's fiscal three-card trick where instead of the straight route of taxing work, the Coalition inserts its hand into our pockets via a raft of stealth taxes.

This phenomenon of the cashless recovery has created a dangerous rift between the public languages of governance and the private world of the citizen.

The official discourse consists of a series of Foreign Affairs-style triumphs where Nama is selling property to beat the band, the Troika has exited and Ireland has regained its reputation with our gentle masters to such an extent that Enda won't ever have his hair ruffled by the likes of Mr Sarkozy again.

The problem our Grumpy Old Men face, alas, is that while they are all too aware of macro-economic issues the real matter obsessing the voters is 'the domestic economy, stupid'.

And in particular the issue concerning our 'country girl commuters' and their male equivalents is that they now find themselves living to work rather than working to live.

The longer hours and the lack of laughter or dreams which is such a dominant trait in our new improved state might gladden those such as John Bruton or Mr Kenny who have always dreamed of creating a mannerly pacified Ireland, excised of rebellious traits.

However, given that we are still theoretically a democracy, the unhappiness of the citizenry does pose the Government with real political problems.

Of course, the Coalition talks a lot about its concern for the coping classes.

But, while some recognition exists that the 'country girl commuters' and the coping classes need the fiscal equivalent of a blood transfusion, the virtue of tax cuts is observed more in theory than in practice.

The failure to deal with the woes of our 'country girl commuters' is all the more surprising given that one of the factors that has sunk a variety of FG/Labour Coalitions is they get so busy improving the people they forget you need the support of the citizens for re-election.

Now, astonishingly despite all the night terrors they experience over the defenestration of the Rainbow Coalition in 1997, the current Coalition is flirting with the same error.

The truth of the matter is that our country girl commuters do not want so much from life. All they and breakfast roll man want is a bit of luxury sweetness and light.

But, though they are generally pleasant, our country girls can become dangerously resentful when the men in charge think they are prepared to settle for less than they think they are worth.

Increasingly, this Government resembles the first Bush administration, which despite a series of foreign affairs triumphs, was politically gazumped by Bill Clinton over his 'economy, stupid' ticket.

Unless the Coalition manufactures some trickle-down factor that gets the 'country girl commuters' smiling, the Coalition may find out too late its position is far more perilous than it thinks.

Sunday Independent

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