Wednesday 29 August 2007
When Economics Gets Personal
In 1977 my father quit smoking. He had been a fairly committed smoker since his early twenties, but he was still only 33, and though addicted to the weed, he wasn't totally at its mercy. He was confident he could stop. And he did.
By the standards of the time, 1977 was a pretty good year in Ireland (South of the Border). Economic growth was pretty strong. A substantial construction boom was under way, and my father worked as a lorry driver for Readymix PLC. Things were looking good. That year my father upgraded his car and our family moved house. My sister Sheila arrived to join myself (then 4) and my brother Paul(then 2).
Enter Jack Lynch and George Colley. In July of that fateful year, 1977, Fianna Fail were returned to power with Lynch as Taoiseach. He appointed Colley as minister for Finance. The public finances were already in deficit, yet the new government promised wide ranging tax cuts without any corresponding cut in spending. If anything they exceeded their promise. Car tax cut. Property Rates cut. And so on. Public sector wages grew. In effect Lynch and Colley engaged in a frenzy of economic vandalism. A whole generation would pay the price.
Their reckless management set the public finances in a tail spin. And it was all down hill from there. Sadly successive governments didn't really take the critical steps to recover control until 1987. Garret Fitzgerald and Fine Gael recognised the acute need for fiscal rectitude when they entered power in '82, but their Labour partners effectively blocked efforts to make the deep and necessary cuts to the public sector. Perhaps the most they can be credited with is not making the fiscal situation worse, but the overall economy continued to churn out P45s.
In 1985 my father received one of those P45s. It was a terrible year. By mid-summer my father had found himself with no work and my mother had just given birth to my youngest sister, her fourth child. Tens of thousands were leaving the country, unemployment was in double figures. There was little prospect of my father finding work.
My parents' worries didn't end there, however. I was 12 and all set for secondary school. Perhaps it's hard to believe now, but even the expense of secondary school would be a considerable burden then. New uniforms, books and stationary were not for nothing.
Sorrows, said the bard, come not in single spies but in battalions. My sister Sheila was mentally handicapped from birth and was a huge burden on my parents. She required, and still does, 24 hour supervision. Try that with an infant and two boys in the house. In the end, my parents had to commit her to care. In that summer of 85 she was admitted to an institution for the mentally handicapped. My parents were lucky that there was still a place for her, as in the dire economic circumstances, the disabled were always an easy target for cuts. But her departure from home, though necessary, came close to breaking my parents' hearts.
At the time I was innocently oblivious to the turmoil in that adult world where my parents lived. My only worry was that I was dreading secondary school. I was always a shy boy and no-one from my primary class would be heading to the school that my parents had chosen for me. The only signal I picked up was that my father had taken up smoking again. But I didn't know why. I merely found it curious that after 8 years he'd restart such a horrible habit.