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Study reveals the Celtic Tiger's ugly underbelly

LIAM COLLINS THE other side of the Celtic Tiger is stress, alcohol and drug abuse, ill health, rising levels of suicide and a marked decline in Ireland's "community spirit".

That's the conclusion of a study into the flip side of the country's surging economy by Dr Elizabeth Cullen, a co-author of a new study called Growth: The Celtic Cancer.

It is in marked contrast to the Economic Intelligence Unit which last week put Ireland on top of the world for "quality of life" in its international survey for 2005.

She and other contributors to a new review compare Ireland's rapid economic growth to a "cancer" which is rapidly wrecking the fabric and health of Irish society.

"We have mistaken standards of living with quality of life, and there is no doubt the quality of life in Ireland has deteriorated," said Dr Cullen, a medical doctor with an interest in public health.

People now equate quality of life with wealth - which is a major mistake.

"Of course there are fewer people living in absolute poverty, but the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Income inequality rivals alcoholism and smoking in having a profound effect on people's lives," she said.

She acknowledges that Ireland has grown by over 9 per cent per annum in the last three years, that unemployment dropped from 16 per cent to 4 per cent and that,because of foreign trade and the concentration of US multinationals, we have become the world's most globalised country.

"Unfortunately, the quality of life, like happiness and contentment, cannot be measured directly and it is very difficult to measure trends in the quality of life over time.

"Many recent surveys clearly show that during Ireland's high-growth years, a deterioration took place in many of the factors that make up the quality of life," Dr Cullen said.

A survey by the Mental Health Association in 2001 found that 73 per cent of people found life more stressful than five years previously.

People are working longer hours to the neglect of their families. More people suffer from depression: women in Dublin were more susceptible to depressive disorders than those in similar cities in other countries.

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In rural areas, more than 35,000 farmers left the land in the high-growth years, leaving many behind in "relative poverty", while others are deeply worried about their way of life on the land.

The result of all this is that many people who have become stressed-out by the country's obsession with growth have turned to drink and drugs.

A Government report says: "Against the backdrop of the fastest growing economy in Europe, Ireland has had the highest increase in alcohol consumption among EU countries."

In the 10 years to 1999, drink sales spiralled by 41 per cent and are still rising. By contrast, most other EUcountries have experienced only modest increases in drinking.

"Besides using alcohol and drugs, stressed anxious people also comfort themselves by eating. This may be a contributory factor in the rise in obesity," Dr Cullen says.

In the review Growth: The Celtic Cancer, she quotes the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, saying: "That is why Ireland today is becoming a better, fairer and more prosperous nation."

But according to Dr Cullen, the Taoiseach and his advisors have come to the wrong conclusion about Ireland's amazing economic success.

"The system Mr Ahern's Government runs is depleting our true wealth - our health, our society and our environment. It must be changed. The object of our economy should be to maximize our health and quality of life.

"It must not be run just to generate wealth and maximize consumption purely to avert the onset of unemployment and recession."

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