Judging by the discussions I hear on radio and read in the new programme for partnership government, you’d swear that out beyond the M50 lies an irradiated wasteland, some kind of cross between Mad Max and Trainspotting where life is nasty, brutish and short. The common refrain is that the recovery hasn’t made its way beyond the Pale.
The facts just don’t bear this impression out. Yes, there is a disparity between the capital and the rest of the country, but this disparity is just not pronounced enough to justify the kind of rhetoric we’re reading and hearing about. The Irish Independent’s Dan O’Brien has been making this point repeatedly. The reason it’s an important point to make is that much of the programme for partnership government includes specific provisions to bring life to the rural wasteland. Read the programme and study its language. Throughout we read that rural Ireland needs to be ‘revitalised’, that ‘no town, village, or parish will be left behind’, that no small school will be closed to protect the ‘sustainability and viability of rural communities’, that we need policies for ‘rural regeneration’.
I live in rural Ireland. It’s not perfect but it hardly needs regeneration or revitalisation, and in fact language like this tends to paint successful local rural initiatives as failures rather than the necessary, ground-up programmes they are.
The best way to think about the recovery in jobs is to split the nation into its EU-designated NUTS-3 regions of Border, Midlands, West, Dublin, Mid-West, South-East, and South-West, and look at the numbers of people employed in these regions as compared to the top of the boom, which was the first quarter of 2008. Every region experienced a slump after that, and every region began recovering at the end of 2011. Today, the Border has 89 per cent of its 2008 employment levels, Midlands has 93 per cent, West has 86 per cent, Dublin has 96 per cent, Mid-West has 88 per cent, South-East has 91 per cent, South-West has 92 per cent.
There is a recovery in employment, it is real, it is happening across the state. This is an incontrovertible fact. There are disparities, of course. Dublin has recovered fastest, the border the slowest. The population has grown since 2008, and so the potential labour force is a bit bigger. Emigration has changed the age distribution of rural communities much more than urban communities.
To understand the evolution of the regional disparity, think about the employment recovery as a horse race. The start is the employment peak in the first quarter of 2008, with the finish line being the first quarter of 2016. Dublin is the winner. Today’s employment differences between Dublin and the rest of the regions are not that great. Moving backwards from the winning horse, today the difference between Dublin and the Border is 6 per cent, the Midlands is 2.3 per cent, West is 10 per cent, Mid-West is 7 per cent, South-East is 5 per cent, South-West is 4 per cent.
Another interesting fact is that some other regions like the Mid-West and the West were growing relatively faster than Dublin before the crisis hit. It’s a bit like two cars crashing at the same time, but one is going faster than the other — the passengers will feel it more. So when the crash came, it hit harder than it did in Dublin, and the recovery was slower. It may well be this general sense in some regions that things were going very, very well, then fell apart quickly, only to recover more slowly, that people are sensing. Regional unemployment rates are different, too. In Dublin the unemployment rate last quarter was 6.9 per cent. In the Mid West it was 8.6 per cent, in the South East it was 12.5 per cent. Remember that the South East had a 20 per cent unemployment rate at the end of 2011, so things are getting better everywhere, just not at the same rate. There’s a 6 per cent difference between the South East and Dublin, but only a 0.8 per cent difference between Dublin and the South West in terms of unemployment rates.
Asset prices are rising across the country. Interest rates are relatively low. Anyone with an income has a bit more of it to dispose of, thanks to the various tax cuts and benefit increases in the last budget.
This does not mean everything is rosy in the garden. It just means the facts do not square with the rhetoric. Policy can’t be based on language like this, but rather on the facts as they present themselves. Things are getting better, just not at the same rate.