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We are cleaning up our act

At a ceremony in Dublin today, organised by Irish Business Against Litter (IBAL), the "cleanest town in Ireland" will be announced.

Not so many years ago, the phrase would have provoked cynical mockery. Now the concept is rightly taken as commonplace.

IBAL's annual report, published today, reveals that the generation-long struggle against litter continues to make progress. Almost three-quarters of all our towns are free of litter, and only two major urban areas -- the Dublin north inner city, and Knocknaheeny in Cork -- are considered black spots.

Another indication of the progress we have made is that out of 53 towns and cities surveyed by An Taisce, 38 were deemed "clean to European norms".

As recently as a decade ago, only two reached this standard.

Tourists from Britain, continental Europe and other parts of the world made constant complaints.

The perception -- all too accurate -- of Irish streets as dirty greatly harmed our tourist trade.

Credit for the vast improvement must go to organisations like IBAL and the pioneering, evergreen Tidy Towns campaign. But local authorities have pitched in with enthusiasm and deserve a pat on the back.

The results this year are all the more praiseworthy for having been achieved at a time of such enormous difficulties. Sadly, these difficulties have produced a new blight to replace litter in our towns and cities. When the economy recovers, we will need a new campaign to bring empty, shuttered shops -- too many of them -- back to life.