Tuesday 27 September 2016

Shane Coleman: The grass looks a bit greener at home - but returning emigrants won't get much from their political leaders

Published 25/08/2016 | 02:30

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Do other nations engage in the level of navel gazing and introspection we seem to relish here? The news that, for the first time since the economic crash, more people are coming to live here than are leaving has prompted a characteristic round of soul searching - and, from some quarters, withering assessments of: 'Why would anybody want to live here?'

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There will always be a percentage of Irish people for whom this country is one, some, or all of the following: irredeemably corrupt, uncouth, crime-ridden, worthless, expensive, close-minded, wet and over-taxed. Even if the reality is that every country - including the US, the UK, France and even Australia and Germany - has its problems and negatives, the grass will always be greener somewhere else for them.

But you can still believe (as I do) that we are hugely fortunate to live in a wealthy, benign liberal democracy - a privilege, by the way, enjoyed by only 9pc of the world's population - and still argue about the pressing need for policies to make life even better.

The Government has spoken of its desire to bring back emigrants now the economy is performing strongly. However, while the lure of home and family will always be strong for many, there are undoubtedly issues that act as a disincentive.

And there must be serious doubt as to whether or not the political will is there to really address those issues - and not just because of the Government's minority position in the Dáil (although it certainly doesn't help).

The housing crisis is probably top of the list when it comes to negatives. Every politician believes 'something should be done about it' but how many of them will really follow that up with meaningful action? Look at the number of politicians, from all parties and none, who have objected to a relatively modest housing and apartment development in Stillorgan, Dublin, right beside a quality bus corridor and other important infrastructure. Shane Ross certainly wasn't the only one, although the fact he is a minister in a Cabinet that has pledged to increase housing supply makes his intervention more depressing.

Consider also what Dublin City Councillors voted to do last May - against the advice of the council's chief executive - in limiting the height of apartments in the inner city and suburban areas. Dublin is a low-rise city and that needs to be respected, but the restrictions introduced are illogical and reactionary.

They tie the hands of planners; risk making apartment developments unviable; and fail to appreciate the need to have proper densities in Dublin that will allow for the kind of services - particularly public transport - that the city currently lacks.

No doubt the politicians in both these examples will argue they have bone fide reasons for taking the position they have. But it's hard not to get a whiff of nimbyism from it all and a playing to the gallery of voters already in situ in these areas.

Rural TDs, meanwhile, constantly demand better regional transport services but, in the next breath, they will also bang the table for the right to build one-off housing - ignoring the absolute contradiction between those two positions.

No government, regardless of the size of its majority, has been able or willing to address those issues.

Tax is another clear disincentive for those considering returning home. Not because Ireland is a high tax country - it isn't particularly, overall - but because you start paying the top rate of tax at just €34,000. This means a worker earning €75,000 - a very good salary but certainly not wealthy - pays €800 more in tax every year than in supposedly high-tax Sweden and a staggering €6,000 more than in the UK. And that's not going to change any time soon - certainly not in next month's budget.

The priority for political parties across the board is to target any tax cuts on low earners; that's despite the fact that Ireland already is among the most favourable tax regimes in the OECD for those on relatively low wages. Politicians seem hell-bent on repeating the disastrous mistake of the Celtic Tiger, when up to half of all workers were outside the tax net.

You may believe it's desirable to have a high percentage of workers paying no tax. But if you have that, then middle and higher earners are going to have to pick up the tab - and that will be a barrier for returning emigrants potentially looking to secure even moderately well-paid jobs. However, there's little acknowledgement of that fact currently - in government or in opposition.

The quality of healthcare may also be an issue for some emigrants pondering a move home, particularly those living in continental Europe.

The problems of, and potential solutions for, the Irish health service are many and complex. But it's clear that only radical - and, in certain quarters, deeply unpopular - reforms will really change things.

Again, with some exceptions, such as the much-resisted cancer centres of excellence, these reforms didn't happen when governments had big majorities. So they're certainly not going to be introduced given the numbers in the current Dáil and with both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil keeping one eye fixed on the next election.

Ireland, despite the knockers, has many attractions for returning emigrants, not least of which is the strength of the economy. But if those thinking of returning are looking to the political parties in the 32nd Dáil to address some of the big infrastructural challenges that might make life even better here, they'd be wise to factor that out of their considerations.

Irish Independent

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