Sunday 8 December 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'Things don't seem so bad once the sun comes out'

Sunny weather always lifts the spirits. And a new report into the quality of life in Ireland should have the same effect

THE CLASS OF 2019: Leaving Cert students Sean Cusack, Cornelia Banari, Timmy Akande, Caila Essay Tapo, Nicole Matthews and Christopher Jackson Suia pictured at Hansfield Educate Together in Dublin 15. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
THE CLASS OF 2019: Leaving Cert students Sean Cusack, Cornelia Banari, Timmy Akande, Caila Essay Tapo, Nicole Matthews and Christopher Jackson Suia pictured at Hansfield Educate Together in Dublin 15. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Living in Ireland has its frustrations and downsides. One of these can be the weather, something that is brought home after a few days of all-too-infrequent heat and sun. Many other negatives get a lot of attention in the media - both mainstream and social - with a 'crisis' here and a 'catastrophe' there dominating discussion, week after week. A certain narcissism in the Irish character can lead more than a few people to believe that first world problems only occur here.

As it happens, a bunch of foreigners based in Ireland published a report recently on the quality of life across Europe. The only part of the EU's Brussels-centred bureaucracy based in Ireland is Eurofound - a little-known outfit that studies how Europeans live, work and play.

Eurofound's findings, which showed that the quality of life here was among the highest in Europe in some respects, didn't vie with striking healthcare workers to top news bulletins for the usual reason that good news is no news. Occasionally stepping back to try to see the wood for the trees is important. Consideration of what is going right as well as what is going wrong is important in a number of respects, not least in calming the sense of anger and outrage that has become the spirit of the age.

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As a measure of whether Ireland is a good place to live, there can hardly be a better one than looking at whether people want to live here or not. After all, if the place was as grim and frustrating as is often claimed, people would be departing in droves, as is happening in many parts of the continent - even though Europe is one of the best places in the world to live.

In spite of housing shortages, sky-high rents, the weather and other ills besides, people are flocking to Ireland in increasing numbers. Last year, 90,000 came to live here, the fourth highest number on record. And the numbers are still trending upwards.

At the same time, the numbers leaving Ireland continue to fall, even as lobby groups in the teaching and healthcare professions continue to talk up instances of their members fleeing to Antipodean nirvanas and other lands of milk and honey. The numbers emigrating are down by a third over the past half decade.

Net immigration - the difference between arrivers and departees - has been a big contributor to Ireland's extraordinary re-population over recent decades. Whereas the population of the EU as a whole increased by a meagre 8pc in the quarter century to 2016, every county in Ireland has seen increases of more than double that at least over the same period.

That looks set to continue. Last week the population forecasters at the Central Statistics Office gave their latest assessment of how Ireland's regions would fare demographically in the future.

Because forecasting population change is tricky, the CSO folk give themselves plenty of leeway. Instead of making one prediction for each of the country's eight regions*, they give six. In each of the six scenarios they use different assumptions about have many children will be born and how many people will move in and out of each region.

Over the next decade they expect the population to grow in every region of the country in even the lowest-end forecasts in their six scenarios for each region. At a time when many European regions and even entire countries are recording demographic declines, Ireland stands out even more. All of this would not be happening if Ireland were a basket case or a Somali-style 'failed state'.

One of the reasons Ireland has attracted so many people and has seen its population grow is not only because the economy is growing strongly and generating opportunities, but also because it is not a hostile environment for newcomers. Ireland's most recent rate of net immigration is twice that of the UK's and in the pre-crash period, it was many multiples of our nearest neighbour's. Despite this, few people are bothered by the influx, unlike in Britain where immigration has often been a hot political issue.

The relaxed attitude is reflected in how non-natives integrate. Ireland is unusual in that its adult immigrants are more likely to be working than its adult natives. This points to a relatively meritocratic society.

The astonishing social mobility of recent decades supports that. A recent study by the Revenue Commissioners showed that almost four out of five people who were the lowest 10pc earners in 2005 had moved off the bottom rung a decade later. There was a lot of churn among the highest 10th of earners too - almost three out of five of those on the top rung in 2005 had slipped down by 2014.

That picture of considerable social mobility tallies with the census figures over recent decades. The biggest growth by socio-economic group has been among the white collar classes. The number of people categorised as professionals, managers and employers (along with their dependants) has doubled in size over two decades, and stood at just under 1.75m people at the time of the last census in 2016.

As the top end has expanded, the bottom has shrunk. In the mid-1990s, around one 10th of the population lived in households headed by those in the 'lowest' socio-economic groupings (the unskilled and agricultural labourers). Last year, their absolute number had halved to 175,000. As a share of the total population, just 3pc of people were unskilled, labouring on someone else's land or dependent on people who were in one of those categories.

More than anything else, it is education that powers the social escalator. Here again, there is plenty to gripe about. Irish universities have slipped down global league tables and political inertia has meant a report on putting the sector on a sustainable funding footing continues to gather dust three years after its publication.

And yet Ireland has become the best-educated country in Europe. According to Eurostat, half of Irish adults aged 25-64 have a third-level qualification. That is higher than any other EU country. It is still rising.

Whatever problems exist, there is a lot more that is going right in Irish education than is going wrong. Part of the reason for our high levels of educational attainment has less to do with the existing system and more to do with deep culture. Irish society puts considerable emphasis on education.

While there are aspects of our wider cultural outlook that not everyone would be proud of, there are many others that are unambiguously good.

The Eurofound study looked at traits that glue societies together, such as civic engagement and interpersonal trust. It found that Ireland has similarly high levels of societal glue as other small, northern European countries.

As we bask in summer weather, it may be a good opportunity to appreciate the upsides of life than the many undoubted downsides.

* The eight regions are defined as the Border, Dublin, Mid-East, Midlands, Mid-West, South-East, South-West and the West

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