Writer and Author

Tag: Economy

Extracting the Michael

I’ve had a lot of fairly random jobs over the years. I’ve done the bar work, the secretarial, worked on market stalls and, of course, have plied my trade as a freelance journalist. Most of these jobs were the kind you do for the money, rather than in any hope of a lasting, fulfilling career. In my younger days I firmly subscribed to the philosophy that a job was something to pay the rent but it would never take the place of what I saw as a vocation – the pursuit of art. This pursuit, I told myself should be kept pure, unsullied by pecuniary concerns (I must have been pretty insufferable in my teens and twenties).

Back then – this would have been in the days before tiger economies, back when most people probably thought that prosecco was some kind of weird fungus – my friends and I would joke about the wage slaves we saw droning away around us. We were living la belle vie bohemiene. To take a job that would tie you to an office for the next forty years was anathema. When someone started talking about sitting the civil service exam we would shake our heads sadly. It could only ever be selling out.

One by one we grew up. The guys cut their hair, the girls started to wear high heels and skirt suits. A few did sit that exam. Some were accepted. The rest of us discovered that a vocation really needs to earn its way in the real world. We made compromises, discovered that coffee could be served many different ways and that prosecco was cheap enough to celebrate life’s smaller victories. Those of us who never sat those exams grumbled about not getting time off when we needed it, the cost of work clothes and pensions, how being on your feet all day was ruinously hard on shoes. At one stage or another we lost jobs suddenly, without warning, or had to hold down two or three different gigs to see all the bills paid. We lamented toothless or nonexistent unions. Looked on mortgages as an impossible dream.

Back in my temping days I worked in both the public and the private sector. I’ve seen how it works in banks and stockbrokers and I’ve seen how it works in government committees, semi states and hospitals. It was very illuminating. It was common knowledge that if you wanted the cushy life you held out for a public sector job. It was worth it for the holidays and the allowances alone. As the years went by I stopped looking at those who’d sat the exams as sell outs but as cute hoors who’d jumped onto the gravy train before the door was slammed.

Over the past week or so there’s been a lot of talk about public service allowances. When Brendan Howlin, the minister with responsibility for public service reform, announced that he had been unable to make the necessary cuts in these allowances people started looking at exactly what was being talked about. If you’re interested the full list is here. I’ve worked in private companies that have won awards for how they treat their staff but none of them offered to buy me lingerie. There might have been massages laid on on a Friday (at €5 for 15 minutes) but you didn’t get paid any extra for answering the phone. In fact, reception gigs were ones I used to pass on since the hourly rate was usually less than I’d earn standing in for a PA. I’ve spent days binding, photocopying and filing and no one upped my wages – it was what I was being paid for in the first place.

Whenever there’s a discussion about the Croke Park agreement or public sector pay, someone will wave the flag of the poor put-upon gardai, or teachers or nurses. This means there’s never a proper discussion about the culture of entitlement that exists across the board in the public service. I had the dubious fortune of starting to work in a hospital while the private clerical staff were on a go-slow over some problem with benchmarking. It was hard to tell they were on a go slow though because there were so many of us temps covering lengthy holidays that things were stuck at a pretty slow pace anyway. But every coffee break  there would be talk of unions and hard line tactics if the government didn’t play ball. I pointed out one day that the pay we were on was above anything I’d got working at a similar level in the corporate world. I got looked at with blank incomprehension and was told to shut up.

I get that the workplace benefits in a lot of these public sector jobs are the result of lengthy wrangling from the unions and those victories were keenly felt and seen as totally justifiable but that’s the view from inside the bubble. The cold hard fact is that those of us in the private sector might dream of those kind of workplace perks but we’d be laughed out of it if we suggested anything similar to bosses. The sad fact is that private sector workers, where the jobs are less certain and the wages are lower, do not even have the protection of strong unions to fight their corner. The unions are strong in the public sector. Hence the wonderful hard-won allowances.

I’m simplifying things a little. There are hard, badly paid public sector jobs and there are very comfortable, well paid private sector ones but there’s a reason why we used to be told to get a public service job if we could. It’s a job for life with damned good perks and that’s what it’s always been about. The workplace might be scruffier and the computers might be older but for time off, work life balance, a job for life that’ll make getting a mortgage a hell of a lot easier than any freelance proposition, the gravy train is still chugging on. I’ll concede that some of those contentious allowances date from a time long before benchmarking when every penny needed to be fought for just as hard as we are familiar with in the private sector but those dark days have come again and it’s time to be realistic.

We still view the world here in Ireland through the tinted lenses of the long dead tiger. Too many people still think that having to get their fizz from Lidl rather than Fallon & Byrnes is the bottom line. The standard of living is still pretty good. If you’re old, enough think back to the 80s or even the early 90s. It was all a lot more seat of the pants. There’s a hell of a lot further we could fall if the going gets tough enough. Many people have already found that out. It simply isn’t fair if one section of society is enjoying a security that no one else can hope for. It’s even worse that they take it so much for granted that they deny it’s the case at all. It’s going to have to change and when it does it won’t be an attack on the poor beleaguered public servants, it’ll be yet another of these horrible cuts we’ve seen so many of. It’ll be a sad thing that future generations won’t have the chance of an exam that can give a lifetime of security even if the job might not be the most fascinating. It’ll be one of those things that get consigned to history and mourned. One of the casualties of this modern messed up world. But denying there needs to be a change, and hanging on for grim death is taking the rest of us for idiots and it’s going to have to stop.

Welcome to the Asylum

I’m going to step away from my normal subject matter for once today.  You’d have to have been living in a hole on the dark side of an utterly deserted island to have missed the fact that Ireland is, not to put too fine a point on it, financially up the creek.

Photo by Michael Stamp

It’s hard to avoid the news that the IMF have hit town and are not even going to lay a wreath on the grave of the Celtic Tiger.  We’ve had the boom times and are now facing the bust.

I don’t write about the economy.  The only stories I cover tend to be the ones that are sparked by the money running out.  Even though both my books are about millionaires, when you’re writing about murder, even a farcical quasi attempt at one, money is never anything more than set dressing.  Death is the same whether it takes place in leafy suburbia or in a squat. It’s egalitarian that way.

But it’s hard to ignore what’s going on in Ireland at the moment.  Ireland’s party is over and the hangover has hit.  We’re left with a shambles of a government and a lot of lessons still to be learnt.  Ireland is the teenager with Europe, caught running up the phone bill and about to be denied car privileges for the foreseeable future.  The recession we’re in the middle of has hit the world but it’s knocked us for six.  Suddenly we discover that when the money was there the bills weren’t paid and the debt collectors are knocking on the door.

But what brought us to this point after so many years of prosperity? Why were the health and education systems left to fall into disrepair while the population bought holiday homes in far flung places and patio heaters bristled in every back yard?  When I think about the situation this beautiful country has got itself into my heart bleeds.  The situation we’ve found ourselves in has a feeling of inevitability and that’s not just because the party went on too long and we all succumbed to a national orgy of excess.  The problems have been there for almost as long as the republic.

Right from the start the writing was perhaps on the wall.  A health service funded by an illegal gambling operation for example.  The Irish Hospital Sweepstakes were famous for a flutter across the world and Ireland ended up with an enviable network of hospitals across the country.  Now those hospitals are closing or scaled down one by one.  The Sweepstakes themselves ended up in a sad little scandal as it was discovered that even when the cause was a noble one corruption wasn’t far behind.

I remember listening to an episode of the old BBC radio comedy show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.  The show starred John Cleese and The Goodies, Bill Oddie, Graham Garden and Tim Brooke Taylor. In an episode from the 60s which involved a skit about a trip to Ireland they made a crack about finding the Irish Government sitting in a woodland glade with brown paper bags full of money.  Now before all my Irish readers jump on me for referencing an Irish joke by a British show I’ll point out that it’s the subject matter of the joke I’m interested in here. The brown paper envelopes in the 60s…so reminiscent of the one businessman Ben Dunne handed former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, eliciting the now immortal response “Thanks a million big fella” back in 1991.

Then there’s the offshore gas deposits that would provide enough money to give Ireland a very nice little nest egg indeed.  But they were sold off to Shell by Minister Ray Burke (who’s since been jailed for corruption in other, unrelated, matters) in the late 1980s.

A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the government (who for most of the independence of the State have comprised of Fianna Fail, with or without a minor coalition partner) have plundered the country for every cent they could get while investing as little as possible of the country’s money into the services that make a functioning economy.  The observer could very well have a mental image of a robbery interrupted.  As the lights come on in a bare wood panelled room the black clad robbers are stuffing as much loot into their pockets as they can before the cops arrive.  There’s a filing cabinet overflowing with rifled papers, some of which are smouldering in the empty grate.  When the cops do arrive our robbers fall back on tried and tested denials.  “It wasn’t me Gov, no one saw me do it.  You can’t prove nothing.”

Of course I’m not the casual observer.  I live here and work here.  It’s hard to build a fantasy scenario when you’re afraid of how much the looming budget is going to dig into your pay packet.  Something really fundamental’s going to have to change here if things are going to get better and stay better.  Ireland is a wonderful country, and don’t let anyone tell you different.  But it’s been run into the ground by a load of people who shouldn’t have been let near a business let alone a whole country. For a republic that was born out of so much idealism it’s heartbreaking to see it brought so low.  Greed and ineptitude has won out and now all that’s left is to pick up the shattered pieces.  Let’s hope something better rises out of the wreckage and Ireland can learn from past mistakes.

© 2020 Abigail Rieley

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑