Teachers, nurses angry as financial crisis hits Ireland's middle class

"We had a dream of owning our own home and we kept getting told: Do it now or you'll never get on the ladder."

Ireland protest 88 248 (photo credit: )
Ireland protest 88 248
(photo credit: )
As a veteran nurse, Margaret Horan is used to feeling overworked and underpaid. A steady flow of coughing, moaning and bleeding Dubliners must wait hours to be seen because of staff shortages at her hospital in the working-class heart of the capital. As if that wasn't enough, Horan now can scarcely believe that the government plans to cut her pay by 10 percent or more - a sacrifice to be shared by hundreds of thousands of middle-class families across Ireland's unraveling economy. A government that long profited from a property boom is now raising income taxes and pension charges to combat a sudden, gaping hole in the public finances that means borrowing one euro for every three spent. Its emergency approach is fueling rebellion throughout the bedrock of Irish society - teachers, bus drivers, police officers and nurses - who feel they are being asked to surrender too much in defense of a wealthy, discredited elite. "Our genius government blew the boom," Horan said outside her crowded emergency room on an icy March night. "On their friends in the banks, on property madmen who made the whole country insane with greed. We had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to pull this country out of the muck. All that money wasted. They can find billions for the banks, and we're getting our salaries and budgets slashed. It's a sick, sick joke." Prime Minister Brian Cowen and his finance minister, Brian Lenihan, stress that everyone - not just the bankers who lost billions on Ireland's lust for real estate - must pay their share in a national battle for financial survival. They say Ireland could collect less than €35 billion this year in taxes against €55b. in spending - and so everything, and everyone, has to give. Polls show support for Cowen's nine-month-old government dissolving to a record-low 10%. "It's absolutely essential we restrict the sum of our borrowings. We must show the wider world there's a credible path out of our present difficulties," Lenihan said in an interview. Lenihan has already imposed new taxes on paychecks, ranging from 1% to 3%. And he has begun deducting a further 7.5% on average from the wages of 350,000 state-paid workers, including nurses, teachers and police, to increase their contribution to state-subsidized pensions. He plans to unveil an emergency wave of even bigger tax hikes and spending cuts by the end of this month. Opposition leaders have already dubbed it "the April Fool's Budget." The government is simultaneously raiding the National Pensions Reserve Fund for €7b. to support the country's two biggest banks and has taken over a scandal-stricken third, Anglo Irish, after its directors were discovered hiding their own loans and losses. More than 100,000 workers marched last month on the Parliament to demand that the nation's tax-exile elite - and even its billionaire rock icons, U2 - be forced to pay far more to keep their country from drowning in red ink. Unions representing 700,000 workers in this country of 4 million are balloting members to strike, among them the Irish Nursing Organization. It argues that the government should be seizing the assets of bankers and property developers who helped bring one of Europe's most vibrant economies to its knees, not squeezing life-and-death services. Among those most aggrieved at the government's paycheck cuts are its own civil servants. About 13,000 workers in government offices were first to mount a one-day strike last week, arguing they could lose their homes if their salaries are pruned. Derek Hollingsworth, 37, who works as a low-level manager in the Prime Minister's Office, says his family is running up monthly debts of €200, partly because his wife - due to give birth in a few weeks - was fired from her private-sector secretary's job last September. Hollingsworth is a victim of Ireland's property obsession, during which the cost of housing tripled from 1997 to 2007. He stretched to buy a house that December, as prices peaked, on the western edge of Dublin for €406,000 - with monthly payments of €1,800 due for the next 35 years. He, like tens of thousands of first-time buyers, were reassured by leading economists that prices would rise no matter what. The global credit crisis shattered that presumption, and the value of unsold homes beside Hollingsworth's dropped €60,000 within three months. "Some people say first-time buyers like me were stupid and greedy, that we lied about our own salary figures and incomes to get on the property ladder, and ended up with a house we couldn't afford," Hollingsworth said. "But we were deceived by people who should have known better. The simple reality is we had a dream of owning our own home and we kept getting told: Do it now or you'll never get on the ladder." Unemployment has already doubled within the past year, reaching a 12-year high of 10.4% in the latest figures published Wednesday. Taxpayers are transforming into state-benefit claimants at the rate of almost 1,000 a day; the latest budget figures, published Tuesday, showed welfare costs up 8% over the past year and income tax collections down 7.4%. Alan McQuaid, senior economist at Bloxham Stockbrokers in Dublin, said surging unemployment should "be a wake-up call to public servants, who continue to feel sorry for themselves because of the introduction of a pension levy and pay freeze." "The vast majority of them at least have the security of guaranteed employment," he said. "The way things are going, they will be the only ones left working in the economy." A hot topic of conversation is which country offers the best jobs for emigrants. Out-of-work stockbrokers and computer specialists are taking out their frustrations at a white-collar boxing club. An unbuilt McDonald's has already stopped taking applications for its 50 positions - after receiving 500 resumes. "We have had them from bankers, accountants and architects," said the franchise owner, Kieran McDermott. "I had to do a double take on the CVs [resumes]. It's no joke."