Last August saw a Papal visit to Ireland the first since Pope John Paul the second visited here in 1979, almost forty years ago. This visit had a secondary effect in that it caused us as a nation to look back and consider the changes that have taken place to not only the spirituality of the people but also to the cultural, economic, legal and environmental issues on this Island of ours.
In this feature, journalist Ger Leddin considers ten benchmark changes that have occurred to Ireland and to Irish society over the past forty years.
The Irish economy has literally bounced between extremes during the past four decades. In the immediate years after our joining the EEC in 1973 (along with the UK and Denmark) we were considered the “poor cousins” of Europe.
There followed a brief period of prosperity as EEC founding was used to facilitate infrastructural improvements.
However the eighties saw Ireland suffer from the economic problems brought about by a succession of ill-thought out and irresponsible budgets, unemployment rose to a high of 20% and many workers, especially those in the construction industry repeated a pattern of emigration.
In 1987 a reduction in public spending and an aggressive policy of attracting foreign direct investment saw Ireland’s OECD prosperity rating shift from 21st in 1993 to 4th in 2002.
The 1995 to 2000 period of high economic growth was helped in a large part by a social partnership approach to industrial relations and strong consumer confidence resulted in a period of exceptional growth.
However, these “Celtic Tiger” years were short-lived and overly dependent on an overheated and fragile construction/property sector. The American sub-prime mortgage sector went into meltdown this and a global recession during 2008 saw — an overexposed to the construction industry and overexposed to land speculation — Ireland become the first EU country to officially enter recession in 2008.
A series of bail-outs and a prolonged period of austerity were necessary until in late 2013, Ireland exited an EU/ECB/IMF bailout and the Irish economy again showed signs of recovery.
2. Social values and Mores
The past forty years have seen an extensive change in Irish social thinking, values and what the citizens expect. From the formation of the State in 1922 much of the tasks connected with education welfare and the running of the healthcare system was left in the hands of the Catholic Church and as a consequence, decisions made and policies upheld were influenced by that church’s doctrine.
It wasn’t until 1973 that the fifth amendment to the Irish constitution was enacted which removed the “special position” of the Catholic church from the constitution.
Since 1973 there have been fourteen amendments to the constitution concerning social justice issues such as abortion, adoption, children, same-sex marriage, divorce, the death penalty and the voting rights of both immigrants and migrants.
The population of Ireland is rising. The 2016 census tells us that there are 4,761,865 people living in the republic, a substantial increase on the 1979 recorded census figure of 3,368,217.
The seventies saw a growth in the population of Ireland after a decline during the sixties. During the eighties, this growth rate slowed with the years between 1986 to 1979 showing a net fall as a result of outward migration.
However during the Celtic Tiger years and onwards our population has grown steadily with an almost 70% population increase recorded in 2016 over the figure for 1961.
The younger Irish generation is recognised as being a highly educated and adaptable workforce. This perhaps is an added attraction for foreign direct investment companies considering Ireland as a base for operations.
According to the CSO 2016 census “In total 56.2 per cent of people aged 15 to 39, possessed a third level qualification, in comparison to 18.9 per cent of those aged 65 and over.
The proportion educated to primary level only for those aged 65 plus was 39.7%.” These figures are indicative of the dramatic increase in the numbers of those completing third-level education in Ireland over the last thirty years.
The political landscape in Ireland has also seen an extraordinary change in forty years. In 1976 the Irish government amended Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act to prohibit members of specific organisations from being interviewed on the public airways.
This prohibition included the political party Sinn Féin. The Act was allowed to lapse in 1994 and subsequently, Sinn Féin has become a major political party in Irish politics.
The country has also seen a shift from the alternative domination of the two centre ground parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael sometimes supported by a minority partner Labour Party.
There has been a significant increase in independent Dáil members often holding the balance of power.
The emergence of women involved in national politics has also occurred. The election of Mary Robinson in 1990 as President and with the subsequent election of Mary McAleese to the same position in 1997 coupled with Mary Harney as Tánaiste, Mary Lou McDonald as President of Sinn Féin, Frances Fitzgerald and Joan Burton as Tánaiste along with numerous others have debatably brought women to the fore in government over the last decades.
Ireland has always had a proud history of writers, artists, and musicians but the last forty years has seen Irish culture gain tremendous popularity globally. The 1994 interval act of the European Song Contest featured the performance dance Riverdance and this act and its international acclaim marked a significant change in how we perceived ourselves and how we were perceived culturally throughout the world.
1976 saw the formation of the rock band U2, and the four decades since then have seen Irish acts such as Van Morrison, The Cranberries, The Corrs and The Undertones along with so many others literally conquer the global music scene.
7. Employment and Wages
The eighties saw a massive brain drain from Ireland. Up to the eighties, emigration had been concentrated traditionally on unskilled and semi-skilled workers but this changed radically and significantly with up to 30% of college graduates leaving the country between 1980 and 1990.
Looking at the medical profession as an example; in 1985, 50% of Irish trained nurses were leaving the country, conversely and less than a decade later Ireland had become a prime importer of foreign nursing staff.
The Irish Cabinet has agreed to increase the national minimum wage to €9.80 per hour in 2019 and the average weekly wage earned by workers in Ireland now stands at €734.
These figures show a marked increase over those of 2000 when the average industrial earnings figure stood at €364 and a loaf of bread now costing €1.40 cost half that at 70cents.
The Irish nation since the famine years has always been porous; we took to the transatlantic and cross-channel routes when economic influences dictated.
The recession of the 1980’s in Ireland brought about a sharp decrease in population as emigration again became an economic necessity. Jobs, particularly in the construction industry, were few and far between.
However, the boom of the mid-nineties saw a reversal in this trend with an influx of approximately 29,000 migrating into Ireland.
9. House Prices
The inflation-adjusted figure for the average house price underwent a constant upward increase from €100,000 in 1975 and remained fairly stable through to 1997 then began a dramatic upward climb to a peak of €400,000 in 2008. Of course, after this peak and the beginning of the 2008 recession, the property bubble well and truly burst and the average house price slid to a low of €175,000 in 2011.
It has to be said that prior to Ireland’s entry into the EEC in 1973 our infrastructural development moved along at a snail’s pace. Motorways and bypasses simply didn’t exist.
Towns on the routes between major cities were traffic-choked as commercial trucks struggled to manoeuvre through the narrow streets resulting in huge delays and additional transport costs.
During the eighties and nineties, a strategy of infrastructural improvements in the main funded by the EU Cohesion Policy took place in Ireland. The motorway network, airports, Luas and energy infrastructure were improved to bring Ireland into line with the other member states. Between 2000 and 2006, 555 Km of motorways were built in the Republic along with a major upgrading and expansion of capacity on mainline rail routes.
In addition to EU funding, in 1999 a policy of public-private partnerships was introduced by the government which up to 2013 resulted in over €6 billion of investment in infrastructure and public services in sectors such as transport, health, education and water services.
Ireland is currently ranked on a par with the EU average on the quality of both port and airport infrastructure but still falls below the average for the quality of roads at 17th among the other member states.
As you can see from the above benchmarks Ireland as a nation has evolved socially, physically and has gone through dramatic economic changes over the past forty years. As a small nation, we are very dependent on global economics; Brexit or an enforced shift in our attractive corporate tax laws could be dangerous for the country.
We are a country that has gone through major recessions over the past decades and we are a country currently suffering from a chronic housing shortage. Yes, we can be proud of what has been achieved but still need to be careful and accurately plan where we want to go next.
All in all, Ireland has changed so much. Do you think it’s been for the good? Let us know!